2006, 2010, 2020: How elections forced Belarusians to leave

Fifteen years ago, right after the presidential election, thousands of protesters came to Kastrychnitskaya Square. A tent camp, which lasted for 4 days, appeared in the centre of Minsk to protest against the official results of the vote and the announcement of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s victory. It was brutally dispersed by police, the authorities accused the opposition of preparing for a “violent action with explosions and arson”, and promised to consider the actions of the protesters as “terrorism” punishable with a sentence of up to 25 years.

This event became a starting point for a sad tradition of political emigration after the “Squares”. Belsat.eu has interviewed the participants of the action, who were forced to leave the country because of their political views.

“We must remember that we are lions, and the blood of Kalinouski flows in our veins”

Alena Kapach, a participant of the 2006 Square, was a student of the first Kalinouski program in Poland.

Alena Kapach. Photo: JS / belsat.eu

I remember well when the first tent appeared on the Square… Unfortunately, in 2006 there was almost no chance for change. Too few people then understood the situation and were not afraid to go out. I was in my first year at the Faculty of Economics in 2004, when I discovered the Zubr movement. I handed out leaflets and newspapers, went to rallies. So the Square was a matter of honor for me.

After the dispersal of the action I was expelled from the university very quickly after a conversation with the KGB officers. Formally, I was called to the Department of Metro Protection after being detained in the metro for posting stickers. The conversation was indeed in the office of the chief of the metro security, but instead of the metro staff there were two people from the KGB. I was interrogated for three hours. They wanted to get information about the guy who was on the wanted list. Obviously, I refused to give information.

“This is a Polish-Russian dictionary that my then boyfriend gave me before leaving. Unfortunately, he is in prison now, as are hundreds of political prisoners in Belarus,” Alena says. Photo: JS / belsat.eu

After the expulsion, I thought I would never get higher education in Belarus. Everyone who was expelled after the Square was “blacklisted”. Subconsciously, I didn’t really want to join the Kalinouski program like probably half of my classmates. It was forced emigration, not our desire. But we had no choice. In Poland, the majority of us had severe depression. I found myself in the Jagiellonian University along with a good friend of mine. All we did in our free time was crying, listening to Belarusian music or packing bags to return home. I didn’t really want to break away from the Belarusian reality and start integrating into Polish society. It was difficult for us. Difficult studies, unfamiliar language. But I am glad that I was made to understand that education and knowledge will be useful when changes take place in Belarus.

After the Square in 2010, I was disappointed in Belarus and Belarusians. I thought: only a minority expresses its opinion… The people probably like to live like that, they want such a president. But faith returned unexpectedly, in the summer of 2020. For me, the fact that Belarusians have defeated their fear is a victory. On August 9, 2020, a new nation was born and I lost sleep. My parents and I were on self-isolation in the village, but I managed to install a VPN and followed the events. I know how hard it was to go to the street when there was no confidence that a neighbor would go out too.

I sleep very badly, constantly thinking about those who were maimed, who were killed. My friend from Kraków, Artsyom Sauchuk, came to Belarus for a few days in August. He wrote to me that he should take a day off on Monday, August 10, because it can be “hot”. He did not know that the ‘day off’ would last for several years … Recently he was sentenced to 4 years in prison for participating in riots. He is a successful and talented young man… And he is not alone. The only thing that political prisoners can do now is to hold on decently while we fight for them. Belarusians are cute kittens who take off their shoes to get on the bench, but we are also lions, and the blood of Kalinouski, who fought for freedom all his life, flows in our veins.

Photo: JS / belsat.eu

Does Belarus stand a chance? Of course! The question is when. I recently enrolled in the program called “New staff for a new Belarus.” Prior to that, I worked in a corporation for 10 years, received a good salary … But without hesitation I resigned to became a student once again. After the changes in Belarus, a very difficult time will come. And if I can help by just cleaning the street – I will do it.”

“Do people really think that a madman has any principles left?”

Pavel Marynich is the head of the Zubr and Malanka media platform. He left Belarus after the events of the Square 2010.

In the 2010 election, I was a member of Andrey Sannikau‘s election headquarters. At some point after the events on Independence Square it became clear that we had several hours left — the arrest looked imminent. I had to emigrate. Friends took me to the Russian-Latvian border and in Sebezh I crossed the border on foot. It was winter and severe frost. So I asked the truck driver to take me with him to Riga. I celebrated Christmas there, and for the new year 2011 I was already in Vilnius.

Pavel Marynich. Photo: Andrei Antonau for belsat.eu

Why Vilnius? The choice was quick and rational. During my student years I often visited it, the city is familiar and nice, I have friends here. And it is very convenient to live in a compact city — you can get everywhere without a car. That’s why I got used to the Vilnius format pretty quickly. Nostalgia? I don’t feel it. Formally, I just can’t enter the territory of a certain country. But today few people in the world can move freely. So my limitations don’t look dramatic.

On paper, “10 years” doesn’t look very impressive, but in the format of human life it’s a significant chunk of time. I came to Vilnius as a young man, and my formation ended here. At first I thought that my whole history of emigration would last about six months. It’s a feeling that I wood soon go home was with me for about three more years. Only in 2015 it became clear that the return home will not happen soon. Hope appeared last year. By and large, I have a direct influence on the changes in our country through the Zubr platform. We had a task to show people in real time how their votes are stolen, how they are deprived of the right to choose. I didn’t have much hope that our work would contribute to such strong change, but it worked! People began to defend their choice, their votes. I really didn’t expect such an effect. And I still do not lose hope.

“You know, keeping something that reminds me of my homeland or loved ones every day is not exactly my style. But I have one thing. It is a wristwatch. My father gave it to me for my birthday. I can’t use it as a chronometer or accessory. It has a more important and responsible function — it is a memory,” Pavel says. Photo: Andrey Antonau for belsat.eu

Freedom is not free. All 26 years of Lukashenka’s rule blood has been shed in Belarus. Before that it was a relatively small trickle. The regime has been killing and is still killing people. I do not see any peaceful solution in this situation. If people want to have a future, they have to fight for it. And as to what is happening in the country now, the prison terms … Do people really think that the man who became mad from being in power has any principles left? I repeat: freedom has its price. But if Belarusians are ready to endure anarchy for another 26 years, it is their choice. I am sure that the streets will give birth to heroes, new leaders.

I see Belarus in a family of European countries and a member of the NATO bloc. We have a big job ahead of us to prevent the situation in which my country has found itself in the center of Europe. I will do everything to help build a free and democratic Belarus.


Photo: Andrey Antonau for belsat.eu

“The repressive machine will get to me too”

Mikhas Khasinevich is a BSMU activist and one of the administrators of the BSMU Rupar telegram channel. He has been in exile for four months.

I have been “in the loop” for a long time. Around 2015 I became interested in news, even participated in two campaigns related to politics. After an active August and before the start of the academic year, it became clear that something needed to be done at the university as well. So my friends and I created a Telegram channel, which quickly gained 5.5 thousand subscribers. On October 26, 2020, a protest took place at the university. I was expelled after two days, and two days later I left. Now I know for sure that this was the right choice. It was really dangerous to stay in Belarus: the university administration said that the police had asked for a video of me with a megaphone. I was almost certain that they [the police – the author] were aware that I was among the organizers of the protest movement. Around the same time, guys from another university were arrested. I understood that the repressive machine will get to me as too. If it was the usual expulsion, you could later get reinstated, change universities. But prison is no fun. So I decided to leave.

Mikhas Khasinevich. Photo: Anastasiya Ulasava for belsat.eu

At first I lived with friends in Warsaw, then moved to Düsseldorf. My cousin lives there. Now I am in Kyiv. Although there are many of people like me, and I like that Ukrainians are close to us culturally and linguistically, I do not want to live in another cultural space.

I went to the Maidan several times, where Belarusians gather on Sundays. I realized that protest actions outside Belarus do not work so effectively compared to activist work. So I continue to work even from abroad. I can’t speak for everyone, but many young people have an understanding that the current changes came about through the work of community activists long before the events of August 2020.

I cannot return to Belarus before the regime of Lukashenka falls. I’m not sure I won’t go to Lviv. In addition to questions about activism, the army is waiting for me — I’m not a student. And draft evasion can make you a criminal. So, even if I am “forgiven” for participating in the protests, there will still be issues with the army.

“Among the symbolic things I have is my WRW flag from the protests in Minsk, a cup and three books, including the Bible. I am not a religious person, the book was given to me by an acquaintance and I cherish it. It is interesting to read it now,” Mikhas says. Photo: Anastasiya Ulasava for belsat.eu

Thus, I am preparing documents for a temporary residence permit. Legally, the procedure was not simplified, but, thank God, it is Ukraine. It seems that it is easy to get documents here. I recently heard such a metaphor from an acquaintance. I really liked it: in Belarus there is a bad order, in Russia there is a bad mess, and in Ukraine there is a good mess.

Andrey Antonau, Alik Sardaran, Anastasiya Ulasava, JS, belsat.eu