Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
The Transnational Tentacles of the Belarusian State
Written by: Katsiaryna Lozka
New Passport? Return Home and get Arrested
From September 7, 2023, Belarusian embassies and consulates abroad are no longer permitted to issue documents to their own citizens. The seemingly bureaucratic decision has far-reaching consequences: To renew their passports, thousands of Belarusians living abroad are expected to physically return to Belarus – a journey fraught with danger as many risk arrest upon arrival. In late September 2023, instances of persons returning to Belarus as their passports were nearing expiration and then being detained were already reported.
Applying Pressure on Relatives
In August 2023, Artsiom Liabedzka, the son of Belarusian opposition figure Anatol Liabedzka, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. Previously, he had already been detained twice for 15 days during the spring of 2023 with a complete absence of any evidence of criminal activities, Artsiom’s case serves as one of many examples of the regime’s strategy to intimidate and punish Belarusian exiles by exerting pressure on their relatives residing within the country.
Belarusian exiles and their relatives find themselves under relentless scrutiny and pressure. In 2021, police officers conducted a search of the apartment belonging to the parents of Yauheniya Parashchanka, a Belarusian activist and the press secretary of the Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House. In 2023, Vital’ Zhuk, a former protestor now residing in Italy, faced similar harassment as his parents’ and parents-in-law’s apartments were subjected to unwarranted searches, and he was even threatened with the loss of his citizenship.
“The Housing Problem”
In recent years, there have been many incidents of raids on the residences of Belarusian activists and their family members. In many of those cases, armed police deliberately destroyed furniture, damaged doors, and ruined floors or belongings. These conditions under which Belarusian activists now find their former homes and the images they produce are by no means kept from the public eye, but often appear on state TV in a program called “The Housing Problem”. Such actions are thus not isolated occurrences but rather emblematic of a disturbing pattern that plagues Belarusian in exile and their families living in the country.
The Confiscation of Property
Another punitive measure consistently employed against dissidents living abroad is the confiscation of their property, systematically depriving individuals of their homes, businesses, and assets. This practice is not only wielded as a means of punishment but also as a deterrent for those who dare considering joining the opposition. In 2022, Siarhei Kandratsieu, the deputy head of the Supreme Court of Belarus, openly declared on state television that opposition figures must pay, hinting at the use of property confiscation as a punitive tool. In January 2023, a new law was enacted in Belarus that permits the confiscation of property as a response to “unfriendly actions,” a formulation that can be used to target political opponents.
The Cases of Herasimenia and the Tsikhanouskayas
In 2022, the Belarusian regime seized the apartment, car, refrigerator, mobile phones, and funds from the bank accounts of Belarusian sportswoman Aliaksandra Herasimenia. In 2020, she had openly expressed her support for the widespread protests against Lukashenka and was compelled to flee the country, yet she continued to be a prominent voice of opposition.
Another notable example of this strategy occurred in 2023 when the regime succeeded – after three unsuccessful attempts – in auctioning off an apartment in Minsk belonging to Siarhei and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is a Belarusian opposition leader who was the main opponent to Lukashenka in the 2020 presidential elections, while Siarhei Tsikhanouski, her husband, is a blogger and activist.
Impact on Employment
Another intimidation tactic are dismissals. Since the onset of the widespread protests in 2020, individuals from a diverse range of professions, including doctors, factory workers, and teachers, have experienced terminations or discontinuations of their employment contracts that they reported to be for political reasons. These actions of property confiscation and dismissals exemplify a pattern where the government aims to quell dissent and impose financial and personal burdens on those challenging its authoritarian rule.
Challenges in Host Countries
In the wake of the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022, citizens of Belarusian living abroad have not only faced increasing pressure from the regime at home, but also new challenges in the host countries they found refuge in. These challenges range from residency rejections to university admission bans, signaling a notable shift in Western policies towards Belarusians.
The Case of Ala Tsvirko
One case that serves as an illustration of that point occurred in 2023 when the Swedish Migration Service denied asylum to a Belarusian activist Ala Tsvirko, who had participated in the 2020 strikes. The Swedish authorities justified their decision by claiming that the activist’s actions were not considered political, and instead, they offered the activist “a free ticket to Russia”. This case is not an isolated one; in Sweden, out of 141 asylum applications submitted by Belarusians in 2022, only three were approved.
No Access to Belarusian Bank Accounts in Ukraine
Belarusians who sought refuge in Ukraine following the events of 2020 have likewise encountered various difficulties. They have faced rejections for bank accounts and residency in Ukraine due to the country’s involvement in the war, and have also experienced rejections from EU countries. One instance was a Belarusian IT specialist who faced multiple rejections from Polish authorities after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, despite providing evidence of participation in protests and the potential danger he faces if forced to return to Belarus.
Between a Rock And a Hard Place
In light of the increasing repressive measures in Belarus, opposition leaders have urged Belarusians living abroad not to return home, as they risk detainment upon arrival. A new website, pashpart.org, has been established to provide guidance on what steps to take if one’s Belarusian passport is nearing expiration or if individuals encounter related issues. It is a laudable initiative, but may be a drop in the ocean for Belarusians now not only facing repression at home but also intimidation tactics from their regime abroad and challenges in host nations.