The challenges of a renewed Belarusian identity to counter Lukashenka6 min read
Since Belarus’ fraudulent elections in August 2020 and the subsequent large-scale protests, many Belarusians have fled their home country as the Lukashenka regime continues to crack down on dissent. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have relocated, primarily to neighbouring countries such as Lithuania and Poland. This Belarusian community in exile has attempted to continue its efforts in promoting democracy and safeguarding the repressed Belarusian language and culture. European support for the exiled community is needed as they find themselves caught between European security concerns and Lukashenka’s vengefulness.
The opportunity for a democratic Belarusian alternative
Three years after the fateful elections of August 2020, Lukashenka effectively attained total control over Belarusian society through the destruction of civil society and independent media, mass arrests, and surveillance. In doing so, he gained free reign in dictating Belarusian identity. Due to his dependence on Moscow and his perception of an independent Belarusian identity as a threat to his rule, this has meant continuous oppression of the Belarusian culture, language, and identity, an increase in political persecution, and a gradual surrender of Belarusian sovereignty to the Kremlin. The large Belarusian exiled community, consisting of hundreds of thousands of exiles, now mostly finds itself in democratic Poland and Lithuania and has the opportunity to challenge Lukashenka’s path of national development. European countries must engage with the exiled Belarusians to enable the development and safeguarding of the Belarusian culture and language to ensure the continued existence of a democracy-oriented demographic among Belarusians. A democratic Belarusian alternative can deny Lukashenka a monopoly on shaping Belarusian identity, challenge his legitimacy, and guarantee the continued existence of an independent, sovereign Belarus as the country faces usurpation by Russia.
While exile provides the Belarusian community the opportunity to develop their culture, language, and identity without Lukashenka’s interference, political circumstances have complicated matters throughout 2023. Important host countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, have been forced into an increasingly vigilant stance that casts uncertainty over the legal status and future of Belarusians. Lukashenka has engaged in escalatory politics, from helicopter incursions into Polish territory to an orchestrated migrant crisis. The continuing presence of Wagner mercenaries and the subsequent fear of cross-border subversive activities also do not sit well with neighbouring Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. As a consequence, Poland has been building a wall on the border with Belarus, Lithuania has floated the idea of a total border closure and has already closed two border crossings, and Latvia has gone so far as to consider mining the border zone.
The (justified) anxiety from Belarus’ neighbouring states is creating tangible consequences for Belarusians abroad. A total border closure would, of course, complicate escapes from Belarus. The Lithuanian president, citing security concerns, has proposed limiting the rights of Belarusians in the country. Many Belarusian work permits have been rescinded in Lithuania since this summer, seemingly connected with prior military service in the Belarusian army. Meanwhile, it has been difficult to obtain European visas for Belarusians from the get-go. Belarusians are subject to essentially the same treatment (or worse) as citizens of the Russian Federation due to Belarus’ involvement in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and Russia’s widespread influence in the country. For example, activists have claimed that Germany maintains a stricter policy for issuing humanitarian visas for Belarusians than for Russians. To make matters worse, applying for a visa from within Belarus is risky business as it might turn the applicant into a target for the regime.
In September, Lukashenka banned the issuance of passports and handling of most consular services abroad. Seemingly a revenge measure against those in exile, the ban forces Belarusians back home in order to acquire travel documents, potentially exposing them to arrest and persecution. Former presidential contender and leader of the government-in-exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has warned Belarusians not to risk their safety by going back to Belarus. The ban follows the presentation of a ‘New Belarus’ passport by Tsikhanouskaya’s government-in-exile, which would serve as an alternative to official Belarusian passports. The new passport was presented after longstanding and deliberately-created difficulties in obtaining passports at embassies and consulates. Lukashenka’s recent ban is then merely the finalisation of an already ongoing process.
The need for adequate support
In order to enable the Belarusian exile community to challenge Lukashenka, European countries (and preferably the West as a whole) should step up their efforts to support Belarusians abroad. Firstly, they should continue to engage with the government-in-exile. Continuous engagement will legitimise the democracy-oriented exiled government and indicate that it, alongside the opposition movement as a whole, is being taken seriously as representatives of Belarus. While only Lithuania has recognized Tsikhanouskaya as the winner of the 2020 elections, the West has done well in legitimising the work of the exiled government. A common refusal to accept the election results and the various meetings between Western leaders and Tsikhanouskaya have contributed strongly to this. Moreover, Tsikhanouskaya became the first Belarusian politician to participate in a NATO summit.
Additionally, the European Union should recognize the ‘New Belarus’ passport. While Poland and Lithuania issue their own travel documents for Belarusians, an EU-recognised passport issued by the exiled government will provide Belarusians abroad with EU-wide security, mitigate the potential effects of statelessness, eliminate the need to travel back to Belarus, and, once again, legitimise Belarus’ democratic opposition. According to a representative of the exiled government, negotiations for EU recognition are ongoing. Recognition of the ‘exile passport’ can also be tied to measures mitigating the difficulties in obtaining visas.
Amid the crackdown on non-state sponsored activity, over a thousand Belarusian NGOs have been liquidated by the Lukashenka regime. Many of those affected by the crackdown have sought refuge abroad. They could potentially play a role in facilitating cultural and linguistic development, if enabled to do so. Exiled NGOs struggle financially. Funding for these NGOs is scarce and highly competitive, forcing NGO employees into the commercial sector, limiting their operational capacity and wasting expertise. For example, Belarusians should ideally not have to rely on crowdfunding to publish Belarusian-language literature in order to support their language. The issue could be (partially) resolved by moving NGOs from Belarus up the priority ladder as NGOs from other countries are often given higher priority. Awareness of the distinction between Belarusian NGOs and their oppressors can also make funding opportunities more abundant. Lastly, the simple solution of increased grants or a separate fund for Belarusian NGOs, underscoring the vital importance of their work for Belarusian survival, can improve their dire situation.
The EU should take adequate measures to support the exiled community. Proper Western support will enable the development of political and cultural alternatives to the dystopia that Minsk has to offer. It denies Lukashenka the possibility to single-handedly do away with ‘Belarusianness’. Not only does it offer an alternative democratic path of development delegitimising Lukashenka’s regime, it also allows Belarusians abroad to find their own identity amidst a turbulent political environment. During a time of future political change, a ‘readily available’ alternative interpretation of the nation and its political development could provide an open door to democratisation and national freedom. Ceding the right to national development to Lukashenka’s government may close that door for good.