A prison of the mind: Lukashenka’s pursuit of exiled Belarusians

The EU should invest more to support Belarus’s community of émigrés – through whom a different future for the country is possible

Exiled leader of the opposition in Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (center left), meets with members of the local Belarusian diaspora outside the Adam Mickiewicz monument during her short visit to Krakow. On Sunday, October 02, 2022, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto)
Exiled leader of the opposition in Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya meets with members of the local Belarusian diaspora, October 02, 2022, in Krakow, Poland
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Artur Widak

Just three years ago, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya lived a measured life in one of the sleepier parts of Minsk. But the 2020 Belarusian uprising against the dictatorship brought her to the political fore in an incredible way: she won the presidential election, was forced into emigration, and became the main voice of the Belarusian people. The de facto Belarusian authorities are now trying her in absentia for “treason, preparation of mass riots, seizing buildings, obstructing the work of the Central Election Commission, conspiring to seize state power, leading an extremist formation, inciting social hatred and discord”. In 2021, the Belarusian KGB even labelled her a terrorist – and this is far from a complete list of ‘distinctions’ attributed to her by Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s associates.

However, the example of Belarus’s democratic leader is not the only one. Political emigration from Belarus continues and adds to the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians already in exile. The authorities have opened more than 11,000 criminal cases against their political opponents. These data are far from complete, since those who were lucky enough to escape the country in time are usually not included in the government-compiled statistics, so as not to spoil what the authorities claim to be the “high level of crime detection.”

Dictatorships want to control and subjugate everything. Initially, the Lukashenka regime succeeded in subduing the situation inside the country through the use of repression – more than 30,000 people have spent time in prison on political grounds; 1,436 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars. Now, the authorities have turned their attention to political emigrants.

The reasons for this are clear. While any manifestation of dissent within the country receives severe punishment, political emigration preserves at least some form of Belarus civil society. All opposition politicians who did not go to prison ended up abroad. All editorial offices and independent media teams now work in exile, with large audiences following their reporting. Human rights organisations and humanitarian and educational initiatives have set up in Poland and Lithuania. Those Belarusian businesses that supported democratic demands were liquidated and had to relocate. Many Belarusian celebrities and opinion leaders critical of the regime became refugees, including Nobel laureate Sviatlana Aleksievich, star opera singer Marharyta Liauchuk, and Olympic medallists and world champions from various sports. Many of the thousands of refugees had to flee twice, because initially they moved from Belarus to Ukraine and stayed there until 24 February 2022.

These organisations and communities of people continue to fight for democracy in Belarus, to defend the choice made by Belarusians in 2020, and to support Ukraine. They are a huge irritant for Lukashenka, because the very fact of their presence, as well as the readiness of Western countries to recognise their right to represent Belarus in the international arena, is deeply harmful to the interests of his regime. Their activity means that Belarusians receive accurate information about the war in Ukraine and the role of the Belarusian government in the conflict, about the state of the economy, and about the anti-war sentiments of Belarusian society. These organisations help the victims of repression, record military and other crimes, and show the world that Belarus and Belarusians are not to be conflated with Lukashenka. Such activity prevents the authorities from regaining their lost international positions, exposes their criminal activities, and remains a constant existential threat to them – all because these hundreds of thousands of people are beyond their direct reach and control.

To neutralise them, the regime has restored the practice of trials in absentia. It is trying to solve several problems at once. The first is to force exiles to cease their activities. To achieve this, the security services use various methods. For example, they take hostage relatives of Belarusian volunteers fighting for Ukraine. Some of them are forced to renounce their relatives on camera, their apartments are trashed, or they are imprisoned and tortured. One recent example is the story of an administrator of a Telegram channel that reported on the movement of military equipment on the Belarusian railways. His 15-year-old brother was arrested, and neither lawyers nor parents were allowed to see him. A little later he was forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital. To secure the child’s release, the KGB’s main demand was the removal of the channel and the end of the activities of his brother in exile. Alongside this, the special services use other blackmail schemes. They seize flats, houses, cars, bank accounts, and other property – anything they can get their hands on. The property of many political émigrés has been seized and cannot be sold, rented, or donated. After trials in absentia, it is officially confiscated by the state.

The second problem the authorities want to solve is the budget deficit. One money-making scheme sees the Belarusian special services target IT and banking professionals, who are generally high-earning and possess valuable skills. Those who previously donated to the civil initiatives, such as helping the victims of repression (since 2020 Belarusians have donated millions of euros for these purposes), are told they must “compensate for the damage done to the state” by paying large sums to avoid problems for themselves and their families. At the same time, these people are asked to publicly repent and go back to Belarus. Naively, some may accept and end up in jail, as happened to at least 52 people who, for various reasons, decided to return to Belarus in 2022.

The next step planned by the regime against émigrés is the deprivation of citizenship. The Belarusian government has already established a bureaucratic basis for this and will use the threat to remove passports as an instrument of pressure. Fear of the risk of deportation to Belarus or wider consequences will lead some to halt their activities. Those who do not will face the unenviable fate of becoming stateless and experience a life with no opportunity to work, rent a house, or get a place in a kindergarten for their kids.

The yearly funds allocated by the European Union for Belarus are smaller than the cost of a single Airbus

Lukashenka has turned Belarus into a regime camp, where Nobel Prize winners, human rights activists, journalists, priests, poets, scientists, athletes, trade unionists, pregnant women, minors, cancer patients, and many, many others are imprisoned for political reasons. Now he is trying to build a prison of the mind for those who escaped him but who continue the struggle from abroad.

In many ways, the hope for change in Belarus depends on how effective other European countries will be in resisting these attempts to intimidate, demotivate, and marginalise the democratic community in exile. The yearly funds allocated by the European Union for Belarus are smaller than the cost of a single Airbus. If the EU’s goal is to bring change to Belarus, this is not nearly sufficient. Belarusian civil society, which has been growing for decades in Belarus, is now cut off from its usual business models and can survive only with external funds. Financial support, as well as action on issues such as providing citizenship to newly stateless persons, will be essential to keeping Belarusian civil society alive. Legal and financial challenges that arise from the actions of the regime will also require constant attention and swift responses. The Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly has recently appointed a special rapporteur to prepare a report on “Addressing the specific challenges faced by the Belarusians in exile.” The EU should consider setting up something similar. Democracy will not come to Belarus from abroad – but nor will it return without sufficient support for Belarusians in exile.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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