Prison, censorship and exile: repression grows in Belarus since the beginning of the war in Ukraine

Unprecedented human rights violations and repression have been carried out by the Belarusian authorities since the start of ally Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Censorship and pressure against opponents, which were already strong in the Russian neighboring country, have gained strength since February. The Belarusian regime carries out house searches, arbitrary arrests, politically motivated criminal prosecutions, dismissals and psychological pressure.

The re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, widely contested in 2020, provoked historic protests, brutally repressed. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Belarus, Anaïs Marin, today, in a period of war in Eastern Europe, Lukashenko does not only want to repress, but to take revenge on opponents.

Since May, the Opposition leader-in-exile’s office, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, is considered a criminal organization and is constantly accused of having planned a terrorist act, a crime punishable by the death penalty in the country.

In a report presented in New York York in late October, Marin described the pressure on thousands of Belarusian citizens who have been pushed into exile. According to the text, “Alexander Lukashenko uses all means to silence critical voices or force them out of the country.”

The regime has been engaged in a massive and systematic purge of civil society. , especially journalists, lawyers, teachers, artists and human rights defenders. More than 600 NGOs have been liquidated since 2020. According to the document presented in the United States, civil society members who remained in the country now have only three options: be loyal to the government, remain inactive or operate clandestinely.

Belarusians on the move

Before the war, around 200 one thousand Belarusians lived in Ukraine, one of the main destinations for opponents and victims of repression. As few had a permanent residence permit in the neighboring country, they could not benefit from temporary protection within the European Union after the Russian invasion.

Belarusian citizens also suffered visa restrictions or bans as part of the sanctions against Belarus, which made its territory available to Russia to invade Ukraine.

Part of the citizens opposed to the Lukashenko regime also took temporary refuge in Georgia, where they can live for a year without documents.

Those who had no way out, on returning to their country of origin, suffered even more repression, along with fellow countrymen who, in one way or another, are opposed to the support that the country gives to the Russian invasion.

The war in Ukraine encouraged two new waves of emigration in Belarus. The first took place after the invasion, in 24 February, and the other in September, after Vladimir Putin’s announcement about the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of reservists in Russia.

“Young Belarusians said to themselves: the next step will be the mobilization in Belarus, so we have to leave”, explained Anaïs Marin to Le Monde.

Um divided country

The invasion of Ukraine also made the internal differences between the dictator and the opposition more evident in the country that borders the two warring countries. While Russia initiated the invasion of Ukraine from Belarus, and continues to have Lukashenko’s support, the opposition leader, exiled in Lithuania, started to organize a position in favor of Ukraine.

Em 17 in October, former diplomat Valery Kavaleuski, adviser to Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, was sent on a mission to Kiev to establish contacts with the authorities.

“We want a relationship that allows us to have a joint approach on Belarus and how we can win the war in Ukraine,” Kavaleuski said during the visit.

‘The Ukrainians know that they will necessarily have to deal with the regime. of Lukashenko to win this war. It is crucial that Belarus becomes democratic and ceases to pose a threat”, he added.

The opening of official relations between the Belarusian opposition in exile and Kiev, however, can be considered a “provocation”. in the eyes of the Belarusian leader.

Until now, the country’s army has not participated in the fighting on Ukrainian territory, but the concern of its direct involvement in the conflict and the opening of a new front to the north via Belarus has increased even further since Lukashenko announced in October the creation of a joint military group with Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, accused Moscow of wanting to “draw Belarus into war” and called on the G7 for an international observation mission at the border.

Eager to avoid further international sanctions, Alexander Lukashenko himself is reluctant to send troops. But his room for maneuver is narrower than ever before Vladimir Putin. There are rumors that there was a large Russian investment in the neighboring country, which would sustain the dictator’s permanence after accusations of fraud in the elections two years ago.

In turn, the Belarusian population does not seem willing to see his army to become directly involved in the Ukrainian conflict. According to a study published in August by the British think tank Chatham House, 70% of Belarusians are against it.

Belarusians have been fighting in Ukraine since the beginning. of the war, but within the Ukrainian armed forces, against the Russians. These opponents of the Lukashenko regime formed two regiments, with over a thousand soldiers. Belarusian resistance groups also organized dozens of acts of sabotage to slow the advance of Russian troops.

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