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19 October, 2011  ▪  Inna Zavhorodnya,  Zhanna Bezpiatchuk

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Alexander Lukashenka’s political repressions are driving more Belarusians to Ukraine

Belarusians who are forced to leave their country and end up coming to Ukraine seeking a better life can be divided into three groups. The first one includes political emigrants who are fleeing repression, prison and government crackdowns on freedom of expression. The second consists of priests and pastors of Catholic, Greek Catholic and Protestant churches. The third group is made up of businessmen who are fed up with the lack of economic freedom, particularly arbitrary tax laws, and the increasingly politicized nature of business – disloyal entrepreneurs become the targets of random checks and unjustified lawsuits. There are also Belarusian actors who become security guards in Ukraine. Some of the new arrivals make excellent careers in our corporate sector. They are perfectly content with Ukrainian salaries, which clearly undermines numerous myths about the happy country Belarus presented itself to be until recently.

However, many of these Belarusians move on to the West where refugees have better chances of obtaining assistance. The majority of those who stay here plan to go back to Belarus some day rather than emigrate for good.

WHITE, RED, WHITE

Ihar Koktysh, a member of the opposition and a noted activist in the informal youth movement in Belarus, had to cross the Ukraine-Poland border at night in 2011 without any documents. He did so in order to get to Poland where official aid and a university scholarship were awaiting him. This was also a symbolic borderline between Ukraine’s and Poland’s attitude to Belarusian political emigrants and those seeking refugee status. In Ukraine, they are left to sort out their problems on their own and may, due to a lack of protection, become victims of arbitrary actions on the part of some heavy-handed policeman or official. In Poland, they will receive real support, which is an element of the country’s foreign policy (see more on this in The Ukrainian Week, Is. 35, 2011). Finally, this is a dividing line between a country that is not guided by any ideas and another one which pursues a goal-driven foreign policy.

The Ukrainian part of Koktysh’s story is alarming and sad. In 2007, the Balaklava District Court in Ukraine ordered him arrested and extradited to Belarus, but the European Court of Human Rights reversed the ruling. However, Koktysh was unable to extend the expiry period of his passport in Ukraine. The police detained him in November 2010 in Zhytomyr, where he lived with his wife. Without presenting any charges, they released him three days later. Today, we can only be happy for him, because he is in a country where his rights as a political refugee are protected.

Vyacheslav Sivchuk, leader of the Razam (Together) solidarity movement, came to Ukraine after the events of December 19, fleeing a possible arrest. His is the classical story of a Belarusian political emigrant who ends up in Ukraine. Sivchuk has to endure harsh everyday conditions and rely only on his abilities and the sporadic support of some political parties. He set up an NGO, Belarusian Center, in Lviv within eight months at his own expense.

Razam organized about a dozen public events since Sivchuk’s arrival here. On August 25, its supporters celebrated the 20th anniversary of Belarusian statehood near the Taras Shevchenko monument in Kyiv. On this day in 1991, the Supreme Council of Belarus granted the Declaration of State Sovereignty the status of a constitutional law. Unfolded at the rally was a huge white-red-white Belarusian banner which was the official flag in Belarus in 1918-19 and 1991-95. Belarusians who came to the rally were very surprised at how easily an event like this can be organized in Ukraine – one must merely submit an application one day in advance. (That is, if we are not talking about rallies organized by the Ukrainian opposition. – Ed.). In Belarus, the application must be submitted several months ahead of time.

Yuras Karetnikav, an activist in the “Right Alliance” NGO which was stripped of its registration in Belarus a year ago, was forced to move to Ukraine, again, after December 19, 2010. Just 21, he has been in Belarusian prisons three times: once in the KGB prison in Minsk and twice in ordinary jails. “After the crackdown on the December 19 rally, the flow of political migrants from Belarus to Ukraine was very strong – several hundred people crossed the border. More people went to your country than to other neighboring states,” Karetnikav says. “Initially, we had to learn to survive in new conditions, rally together and solve problems.” Belarusians who have lived in Ukraine for a long time are kind-hearted people — they posted messages on social networks saying they were ready to help political refugees. NGOs were also among the first to come to the rescue. In time, some managed to find jobs. “Now it is much easier to find a job in Ukraine than in Belarus. Similar mentalities and languages play a key role,” Karetnikav explains.

Journalists who lost the right to carry out their professional activities in Belarus can also be viewed as political migrants. “I was removed from broadcast programs after the Choice talk show I did on December 19, 2010,” Siarhei Dorofeev, a Belarusian TV personality who is now working at Channel 5 in Ukraine, shared with The Ukrainian Week. “The program was about the presidential elections. Someone above did not like it. They moved me to a different office at the channel. But after a while I was asked to write a letter of resignation. Even on the night of December 20, I grasped that I would not be able to realize myself in Belarus anymore.”

RELIGIOUS REFUGEES

In 2000, the Lukashenka regime started putting pressure on Catholic and Protestant churches. A church community could lose a rental contract for a building it occupied “just like that.” Pastors were slandered as American spies who undermined Belarusian independence.

In October 2008, Veniamin Brukh, a Ukrainian citizen and pastor in the Church of Jesus Christ in Minsk, was deported from Belarus without any explanation. His wife, who is a Belarusian citizen, and children cannot travel to Belarus, either. “Protestant and Catholic denominations support freedom of thinking and personality and say that everyone has to analyze the Bible on their own,” the pastor says. “Now Lukashenka has no need for such people. Moreover, the Protestants have always spoken in public in support of justice and truth, which often went against the president’s actions.” In Ukraine, a religious community can function without state registration. This in itself is a sharp contrast to the conditions in which churches found themselves in Belarus – this much freedom of religion is unacceptable there.

BUSINESS AS CRIME

A film produced by Belarusian documentarian Volha Nikalaichuk is shown in the Cinema House in Kyiv, and Ihar Tyshkevich stays on for an informal exchange with the director and viewers. He joins in a discussion of Belarusian problems, introducing himself as “simply a Belarusian living in Kyiv.” In fact, he is seeking refugee status. But Ukraine is not willing to grant it yet, because it fails to see evidence of political persecution in his case. After challenging this decision in court he can legally stay in our country beyond the regular three months within a six-month period available to foreigners who have no visa.

In Belarus, Tyshkevish was initially engaged in public activity and then went into business. When construction began on a chemical plant near Minsk, he helped the locals to counteract it by providing advice and money. As a result, he lost his business and a criminal case was opened against him on charges of illegal entrepreneurial activity. Prior to 2010, the Lukashenka regime charged opposition activists primarily with economic wrongdoing. For three years now Belarus has sent requests to Kyiv demanding Tyshkevich’s extradition.

He was once detained by an UBOZ special task unit but was quickly released. As a programmer he has the advantage of working for his employer no matter where his home is. Other refugees, whose cases take years to solve, find it almost impossible to find legal employment in Ukraine because of having to re-register every month. “The Czech Republic provides refugees with a fairly large social package and an apartment. Thus, most of those who have gone there are not returning to Belarus, regardless of how much they love their native country. Meanwhile, I decided I would go back given the slightest change for the better,” Tyshkevich says. His old mother is not fit for long-distance travel, so Ukraine is the closest country in this sense. Meanwhile, his son has started school.

REFUGEES IN UKRAINE'S REALITY

Our country is doing nothing to help Belarusian migrants – they find it more difficult than other foreigners to obtain refugee status. What gives hope is that both government officials and law enforcement agencies are aware of the nature of political migration from Belarus and refuse to grant Minsk’s requests for extradition.

In the higher echelons of the Ukrainian government, there is no-one ready to embrace the obvious idea: a democratized Belarus would help to again put on the EU agenda the issue of another wave of expansion that would incorporate post-Soviet states and would redefine the geopolitical map of the region. Then Russia would not be able to alternatively press Belarus and Ukraine, depending on where it sees authoritarian leadership much like its own. If we had this idea fixed in our minds, we would certainly find tools to efficiently support democratic transformations in Belarus.


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