It is a fraught and dangerous time to be a Belarusian activist or dissident abroad, where the scrambling of a MiG-29 to ground a Ryanair plane, die abortive “kidnapping” of an Olympic sprinter and a possible “murder disguised as suicide” in Ukraine have been met darkly by the growing community of Belarusian exiles.
“Considering the events in Kyiv, I want to tell people that I have no suicidal tendencies,” wrote Andrej Stryzhak, a Belarusian activist currently in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in a post on Facebook last week. “We have heightened our security measures and no matter what situation develops, we will continue our work.”
The murky circumstances surrounding the death of Vitaly Shishov, an opposition activist in Kyiv found hanging from a tree in a city park last week, are an example of why Stryzhak said he moved his operations to Lithuania last year and has made plans with his colleagues to continue their work “even if something happens to me”.
“On the one hand, it is black humour but it’s also a warning that if something happens to one of us, if one of us dies, then it’s because something was done to him,” said Stryzhak in an interview from Vilnius. Colleagues have posted similar messages, hy het gesê: “That is the reality we live in now.”
Stryzhak is a target because his organisations, BY_help and Bysol, have been some of the most effective fundraising groups for providing aid to the Belarusian opposition. By Stryzhak’s count, the two organisations have raised about $7.8m (£5.6m) for a variety of causes, such as paying off protesters’ fines, funding opposition unions or supporting the families of political prisoners, distributing the funds via cryptocurrency or other means so the government cannot intercept it.
Equally important is that the organisation has saved dozens of people by helping them flee the country, an exfiltration process that Stryzhak will only describe in broad terms, which include options such as the “easy way” or the “hard way”.
“At a certain point, you make a decision to remain in the country and become a hostage or you get out,” he said of those being sought by the police. In July alone, hy het gesê, Bysol helped about 50 people leave the country.
Its work is politically embarrassing for the government. When Arseniy Zdanevich, the husband of sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, escaped Belarus last week he thanked Bysol for helping him get across the border. And Belarus’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has proved he will lash out when angry.
“Lukashenko has become a problem for the whole European continent,” said Stryzhak, also pointing towards Belarus’s directing of Iraqi refugees to Lithuania’s border to create an EU migrant crisis. “My position is that we can’t close our eyes to this any longer: this is no longer a problem just inside of the country.”
Lukashenko’s dramatic and dangerous campaign to silence his critics abroad has refocused international attention on the situation in Belarus. Whether diverting a Ryanair plane to arrest opposition activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich in May, attempting to bundle Tsimanouskaya onto a plane to Minsk, or extraditing several high-profile opponents from Moscow, the message to the opposition is clear: you are not safe anywhere.Who is behind Shishov’s death remains unclear. Many are sceptical it was suicide, but the police investigation is continuing and other theories range from a Belarusian KGB operation to motives involving reported ties to far-right figures.
Yet Belarusian state television regularly demonises opposition members as traitors and posts images of them next to nooses, saying they deserve to be hanged, while a pro-Lukashenko site wrote after Shishov’s death that he had “enjoyed the pleasures of forced asphyxiation”.
“The regime is trying to scare people who are active outside of Belarus,”Gesê Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader in exile, from her offices in Vilnius. “It’s an attempt to scare everyone. To scare us, to beat us down, and to be honest it has an effect on a lot of people. Why deny that? But Belarusians understand you cannot scare people for ever. ”
In recent months she has met the US president, Joe Biden, en Boris Johnson, calling for stronger sanctions on Lukashenko and more support for the opposition.She has also, sy het gese, been assigned a security detail by the Lithuanian government and had developed safety rules for her staff. “I understand that I am clearly one of the targets of this regime," sy het gese. Being in an EU country is no guarantee of safety, she added.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Belarusian protests, the opposition has never looked so besieged. But Lukashenko’s dramatic gestures, Tsikhanouskaya claims, are a way of masking his fear. “He does this to strengthen himself," sy het gese. “But he can’t return himself the image of a strong leader like before.”
Intussen, the danger for rank-and-file dissidents remains real and visceral. In Kyiv, activists have reported they felt like they were being followed. Bellingcat, the investigative journalism organisation, says it is looking into information that the Belarusian diaspora has been infiltrated by the Russian security services. And in Russia, the government has helped to round up some dissidents sought by Belarus and extradited several despite the likelihood they will face torture at home.
“My lawyer told me that I was very lucky that they didn’t just kidnap me immediately,” said Nikolai Davidchik, who was arrested in Russia for administering an opposition social media channel (he had not physically attended the protests) and was nearly extradited to Belarus earlier this year.
Others have been less fortunate. Alexander Feduta, a former spokesman to Lukashenko, and lawyer Youras Ziankovich, a US citizen, were seized by members of the Russian FSB and Belarusian KGB in Moscow in April and secretly driven across the border into Belarus. They were charged with plotting a coup against Lukashenko.
And Alexei Kudin, a mixed martial arts fighter charged with assaulting a police officer during a protest in Belarus last year, was held in Russia for more than six months before he was quietly spirited across the border in mid-July. The process more resembled a kidnapping than an extradition.
“It definitely looks like a planned campaign against Belarusian activists,” said Dina Musina of the civic assistance committee, an NGO that aids refugees and migrants. There are believed to be hundreds of Belarusians who escaped to Russia after the protests to avoid arrest. But most quickly move on to Ukraine and then other countries in Europe because of the likelihood of arrest and extradition from Russia. The NGO has identified seven cases of Belarusian activists formally detained in Russia facing “politically motivated charges” in Belarus such as rioting or resisting arrest.
Davidchik was told it was a “one-in-a-million” chance when Russia’s prosecutor general refused to hand him over to Belarus, saying he may have been saved by the fact that his family are Russian citizens.
“I was mentally preparing myself for being in a Belarusian prison for a long time," hy het gesê.
But he was let go. After his sudden release, he slipped out of Russia for Ukraine, and has since moved on to Poland, where he continues his online activism. But his Telegram chat, Lida for Life, has been declared extremist in Belarus, and he says he expects the same for a YouTube channel soon.
“If you touch [Lukashenko] personally, he’s really emotional and unstable, he can put the order out and do anything possible to get his hands on you,” said Davidchik.
The threat to some activists is playing out against the backdrop of a small-scale refugee crisis from Belarus, as Lukashenko’s crackdown systematically rips through society. Polina Brodik, coordinator of Kyiv’s Free Belarus Center, says that at least 800 people have approached the charitable organisation in the past year for legal aid, psychological aid, help finding housing, food banks or for its educational programmes.
Some families arrive with children in need of urgent psychological care as a result of trauma. Others come with physical scars from their treatment at the hands of the government. “The most affecting stories are when young people, teenagers, come and recount stories of torture," sy het gese, a slight tremor in her voice. “Some of the torture is quite serious. And we’ve had cases where people come with physical trauma and needed long-term rehabilitation.”
The recent events have sent a chill through the refugee community in Kyiv, where Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has ordered extra security for Belarusian exiles in the wake of Shishov’s death. But there is a lack of trust in the police, who have cooperated with Belarusian authorities in the past and fumbled an investigation into the 2016 car-bombing death of Belarusian-born journalist Pavel Sheremet. “That forces people again to think about how safe it is to be here," sy het gese. “And I won’t be surprised if many Belarusians decide to leave.”
In Vilnius, Stryzhak said he had studied the long campaigns of resistance in South America: Argentina, Brazil and Chile – “Everywhere where there’s been problems with dictators.” Activists will face dangers no matter where they are, hy het bygevoeg.
“It is impossible to feel totally safe even here in the European Union, because we can see how the repressive machine wants to destroy threats," hy het gesê. “It’s a problem. It’s a danger. But it’s not a reason for us to stop working.”