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Belarusian exiles fear Lukashenko’s reach

Published: in European News by .

Thousands of Belarusians are making a home for themselves in the EU, but they still live in fear,.

VILNIUS — The kidnapping of Roman Protasevich is sending a shudder through Belarusian exiles.

The sight of the 26-year-old dissident journalist being led away by Belarusian police after they forced a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk — followed by an obviously shattered man declaring his support for the regime of Alexander Lukashenko — underlines that fleeing Belarus isn’t always enough to escape its clutches.

Ruslan Kulevich, a 29-year-old Belarusian journalist staying in the eastern Polish city of Białystok, says the Ryanair incident proves that Belarusian security services “will stop at nothing” in their pursuit of political opponents.

“We have understood that they can even ground a plane to catch you, and they will find you in Poland too,” he said.

Thousands of Belarusians have fled their country in the wake of a fierce crackdown against a wave of protests that followed August’s presidential election, widely considered to be fraudulent. Most have come to Poland and Lithuania, where they join thousands of regular migrants taking advantage of easy work visas and higher salaries.

However, Belarus isn’t making it easy to leave. Saying it is trying to clamp down on the coronavirus, the government only permits people traveling for work or study or with long-term residency abroad to leave by land once every six months. Those rules don’t apply to air travel, but EU countries have blocked flights by Belavia, the Belarusian state airline, in retaliation for the grounding of the Ryanair flight, making it almost impossible for Belarusians to leave their country by air.

Sergei Zikratski, a 42-year-old lawyer, arrived in Lithuania with his wife and two daughters in early May. He had defended independent Belarusian journalists in court and was stripped of his lawyer’s license.

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He joined the team of exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as a representative for legal affairs.

Zikratski said Vilnius provides him and his family with peace of mind, in contrast to Minsk.

“We made the decision to leave in order not to shudder at every knock on the door,” Zikratski said. “[In Belarus] now it is a commonplace that anyone can be snatched from the street, accused of alleged participation in a rally, and sentenced to 15 days in prison. Criminal cases literally scraped together from nothing are not rare.”

Lithuania’s interior ministry said it has issued more than 17,000 national visas to Belarusian citizens during the past nine months, around 4,000 of them on humanitarian grounds to people who face persecution.

Poland last year issued 32,000 permits for Belarusians, and the total is expected to double this year. There is an ongoing effort to hire IT specialists as well.

The visas allow Belarusians to work in many cases; they are also allowed to travel to other Schengen countries for up to 90 days within any 180-day period but not to work there. 

However, living on such visas is often a challenge, especially in Lithuania. Under normal circumstances, such visa holders are unable to open a bank account, obtain a local driving license or even get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Getting such services means obtaining a residency permit, which involves a lot of bureaucratic hurdles. 

Zikratski, who is in Lithuania on a national visa, says he is “very worried” about his family’s future status.

“I have two children who should be attending a kindergarten. They should have access to medical services. With a visa, these are not so easy,” Zikratski said. “That’s why I’m interested in a status that provides more opportunities.”

The lawyer added that most Belarusians who have fled to Lithuania in recent months “have not been classical refugees, who have no means of surviving and who are going to hang on the neck of the state.”

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Brain drain

“Very often, they are educated people, who want to work,” he said, adding that providing a secure status for them would give them an opportunity “to implement their talents” and would benefit Lithuania’s economy.

Only a handful have tried to apply for political asylum in either Poland or Lithuania. Protasevich did apply in Poland, but did not get asylum, prompting him to move to Lithuania.

As of June 1, only 158 Belarusians had filed such requests in Lithuania since the start of the crisis last August. Poland last year granted 205 asylum requests to Belarusians out of 405 cases.

The reluctance to apply for asylum is due to people losing the right to work while they wait for a decision; they also have to hand over their passports while waiting.

Vytis Jurkonis, project director at Freedom House in Vilnius, believes that another important factor is a hope that the exile will be short-lived. “In most of the cases people are not giving up and they are determined to go back. They consider their relocation to be a forced but temporary move.”

And even if they are granted asylum status, that’s not much protection against a Belarusian government that’s made it clear it is willing to trample on international norms.

“In my opinion, one’s legal status does not in itself offer protection,” Jurkonis said. “If Protasevich had had asylum in Lithuania, his situation would not have been very different at this moment, unfortunately.”

Instead, exiles are taking their own measures to stay safe.

Kulevich fled with his wife to Latvia, from where they crossed over to Poland.

“After the Protasevich incident, Belarusian journalists in Poland have started to discuss issues of their safety … We have begun to avoid publicly declaring information on where we live, sharing geolocation coordinates, and so on. We are trying to hold our cards close, as many bloggers have also become accustomed to doing,” he said. 

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“No one knows who they will come for next.” 

Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/belarusian-exiles-fear-alexander-lukashenko-reach-belarus-tikhanovskaya-protests-ryanair-kidnapping-minsk-protasevich-dissident-blogger/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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