Belarus’s political capital abroad: The role of activists fighting for democracy from Lithuania
Picture by the author.
Since protests over the disputed national elections erupted in Belarus last August, many Belarusian political activists have fled to Lithuania, joining an already well-established Belarusian political scene in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. They contribute to what I call ‘political capital abroad’ – political power and resources in an external country accumulated through the organisation of a politically active group, international recognition, and goodwill – and could potentially play a central role in a future democratic Belarus, and in future Belarusian-Lithuanian relations.
On 9 August 2020, elections were held in Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko, known as the ‘Europe’s last dictator’, claimed it as a big win with 80% of the votes. The election is widely believed to have been rigged, and no external independent observers were invited to monitor it. Elections in Belarus have not been considered free and fair by the international community since 1994, when Lukashenko took office as President. Lukashenko labels himself a strong nationalist and maintains elements from the Soviet era, such as state control over manufacturing and the media, and the powerful secret police, still called the KGB.
The results of the election led to huge protests across the country, and thousands have been demonstrating in cities all over Belarus more or less every day since. Violent clashes with riot police, people detained for protesting, and brutal beatings in detention have been commonplace under the regime of Lukashenko. As 2020 turned into 2021, Lukashenko has continued to hold power in Belarus with an iron grip, despite the massive opposition and international backlash he has faced since August. Shortly after the disputed election, the main opposition candidate and alleged ‘true’ winner of the elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to flee to Lithuania, along with other prominent opposition members.
Neighbouring Lithuania has been a key destination for Belarusians fleeing political persecution and working for change in their country for many years. In 2006, the Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House, an umbrella organisation housing nine Belarusian NGOs working on issues related to human rights and freedom of the press, was established in Vilnius due to the impossibility of registering the organisation in Belarus. Since its establishment, they have worked to improve the human rights situation in Belarus and protect journalistic freedom. The European Humanities University (EHU), a Belarusian university, has also operated in exile in Vilnius since 2005.
In August 2020, Lithuania simplified the visa and asylum procedures for Belarusians facing political persecution, allowing them to apply for visas through a new humanitarian exception, the so-called ‘humanitarian corridor’. Between 21 September and 1 December 2020, Lithuania issued 1,354 of these visas to Belarusians fleeing their country. According to one Belarusian in Vilnius, ‘international institutions do not operate in our country, so our political life is in exile’. Activists who have fled to Lithuania find the freedom to continue their work without fear of imminent persecution by the authorities, which they faced in Belarus. Activists may find other opportunities too; for example, many Lithuanian universities offer persecuted Belarusian students a free education. In addition to the opportunities living in Lithuania directly provides them, the activists are able to learn from each other, and create networks among themselves, which would not have been possible in Belarus. This ability to organise, meet, and communicate with others can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of activities related to democratisation, as well as work on other political and social issues in Belarus.
The events in Belarus have also impacted the political life in Lithuania. After the protest began in August, Lithuania emerged as a vocal supporter of leadership change in Minsk and protection of human rights in the region, raising the country’s international political profile substantially. For example, Tikhanovskaya has made Vilnius her base of operations, and her presence has brought several state leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, to the Lithuanian capital. Lithuania’s stance on Belarus may have been partially influenced by the presence of a large number of activists, opposition members, and, of course, the opposition leader, Tikhanovskaya. Additionally, it is also in Lithuania’s interest to have a reliable and stable partner in Belarus, which they do not have with Lukashenko.
The Belarusian activists and politicians in Lithuania can be considered ‘political capital abroad’. The Belarusians in Lithuania are free to take a stand against Lukashenko’s regime, building recognition and support for their cause on an international stage, which lends credibility and legitimacy to their efforts. It is uncertain when, or if, there will be a regime change in Belarus. If there is, I argue that this Belarusian ‘political capital abroad’ will create a pool of well-organised, highly educated, pro-democratic youth with no ties to Lukashenko’s regime, who can one day become the leaders of a free and open Belarus. Thus, Tikhanovskaya (or another potential leader) will have a group ready to take leadership in the future. In addition, the networks that activists and opposition members are able to connect with and the recognition they gain while in Lithuania could build the foundation for international support and cooperation in the future. In the scenario of a free and democratic Belarus, the country and its leaders will most likely have more positive and closer relations with Lithuania than ever before, shifting the dynamics of the foreign relations in the region substantially.
Henrik Steen Kristiansen
Henrik Steen Kristiansen is a second-year Political Science MSc student at the University of Copenhagen and is writing his master’s thesis on the topic of the Polish minority in Lithuania. He currently is an intern at the Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Vilnius, Lithuania. Henrik has a special interest and academic focus on the Baltic region, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. He can be contacted on his LinkedIn.