domenica, Aprile 18

Belarus: while Europe stands by, the diaspora is active "We do not finance the protests, but we work to defend ideas and we want Belarus to be a free country". Interview with the 'Belarusians in Italy' group

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«We are deeply concerned about the continuing intolerable repression and intimidation of the civilian population with inexplicable and often arbitrary arrests or kidnappings for political reasons and we call for the immediate release of Maria Kolesnikova, Andrei Yahoran and Irina Sukhiy

This is the reaction yesterday of the EU High Representative for International Affairs Josep Borrell to the umpteenth act of violence by the Belarusian political authorities and the police after the abduction of the three activists and leaders of the Belarusian opposition yesterday in Minsk .

Yet, apart from the voice of the most prominent politician in the panorama of international relations of the European Union, the reactions of the EU have been weak to what is becoming in Belarus an indiscriminate repression not only of dissidents but also of people who found themselves passing by on the street that were loaded into the vans of the special units , the OMON, beaten and then thrown into cells for no obvious reason.

Those who are released often have to be hospitalized, sometimes with poor prognoses. Many are not released and their fate is feared. Many disappear and it is not known if and when they will be found. Many are youngand had hoped for a change of government with the August elections that should have ended Alexander Lukashenko‘s 26 uninterrupted years of ‘reign’.

If in Belarus the protest marches, especially of young people, continue, the repressions also continue in the silence of the European political world, perhaps because they are still ‘on vacation’ or perhaps because they expect developments in the internal situation. Moscow too is silent but in many European countries and the rest of the world the diaspora of Belarusians who seek from afar to offer support to those who protest at home is very active.

Support consists above all of petitions, public demonstrations and appeals to politicians from around the world to intervene and make the Belarusian authorities understand the need to listen to the voices of citizens who seek clarity on the validity of the elections that resulted in the renewal of confidence in a government in office for 26 years.

In fact, I should have said ‘appeared to result’ given that the outcome of the elections was obtained with acts of violence. In many cases  election observers who were supposed to play their role in absolute ‘independence’, were prevented from accessing the polling stations. This was not possible, and hence the protests in the country which were attended by thousands of people, especially the young in August and early September.

In this situation of violation of rights, the voice of the Belarusian diaspora is making itself heard in an increasingly clear and strong way with the creation of networks of Belarusians who meet on social media (Facebook in particular) to coordinate the initiatives to be undertaken and organize requests to the politicians of the country where they live to protest and to intervene with the Minsk authorities to listen to the voice of their citizens.

Protest groups abroad are formed spontaneously but to access them checks are carried out by the organizers before authorizing access. Only those who pass certain security checks are welcomed to contribute to the organization of an efficient network that  can pressure politicians and gather the support of other countries for the cause of the establishing democracy in Belarus.

In Italy, the group ‘Belarusian Association Italy was born on June 22nd 2020 as a sign of solidarity with compatriots who are struggling to ask for a new era for their country.

It has organized demonstrations every week to support the protest marches of young Belarusians and made contact with other communities of ‘expatriates’ worldwide who are asking for the same thing.

This network is strengthening day by day and asking the governments of each country to support the demands of young people protesting in Belarus so that the people’s vote is respected. The network organizes international initiatives, such as the ‘Exit-poll’ at the embassies of various countries around the world.

Individuals such as Artiom Ledovsky, a Belarusian transplanted to Australia, and Mikhail Rubin, a Belarusian living in Germany, coordinators of the Exitpoll project abroad), are taking action to support these efforts while a very active young blogger 22-year-old Belarusian Stsiapan Sviatlou, who lives in Poland, created ‘Nexta Live an information channel from there to provide news on the progress of the various protest marches that take place continually in the days following the elections, especially on Sundays employing the Telegram system (paradoxically created by two Russian electronic engineers) that uses encrypted messages and managed to ‘lead’ the protest marches without being physically present.

The credit for having created this structure for Belarusians in Italy goes to Ekaterina Ziuziuk, a young and enthusiastic entrepreneur who loves her country but also the country where she lives. ‘Belarusian Association in Italy’ publishes a newsletter of recent events in Belarus, from the stop decided by the Belarusian authorities to the return home of the vicar general of the diocese of Minsk and Mogilev, Mgr. Yuri Kasabutski, blocked at the border and not permitted to return to Belarus , to the expulsion from Belarus of foreign journalists there to describe the events of these days.

Recruiting  members to the association is done via Facebook without a precise structure but with a check on people before authorizing access but still not being fully able to exclude the possibility of infiltrators. However they go on, driven by the desire to turn the page on the history of their country. In Italy, the Belarusian diaspora is organizing well, there are 800 members of the  Facebook group which supports the movement of peaceful protests in Belarus.

It was the ‘Belarusian Association in Italy’ that organized an online meeting-interview with L’Indro to introduce members of Belarusian ‘expat’ associations in other EU countries: Larysa from Spain, Ekaterina from Portugal, Ilya who has lived in The Hague for 8 years, Olga who from Brussels takes action to sensitize the authorities of the European institutions and MEPs, Lana who from Moscow tries to give a voice to the more than 60,000 Belarusians living in Russia, Mikhail who has lived in Austria for 8 years while Alexei is a refugee in Switzerland where he lives teaching children to play chess in the country’s schools.

Lana (Russia) explains that the link with Europe is strong in Belarus. ‘We are in Europe’, she says. But for Belarusians the link with Russia is also strong.

In Moscow, her association of Belarusians tried to organize a march in support of fellow citizens demonstrating in Minsk but it lasted only 20 minutes.

She insists Belarus would never agree to lose its sovereignty to Russiaand explains how everyone is taking action to contribute to the common cause with the support of some foundations such as ‘By_Help’ to help Belarusian political prisoners and victims of police violence, and ‘By_Sol’ to give help to workers who strike, to those who lose their jobs because of their political stance or anti-regime political activity. In both cases, there is financial aid from the diaspora (Ukraine, the United Kingdom and other countries).

They managed to raise a considerable sum to help those who have suffered from detention and abuse. The organizations are run by volunteers who offer work without remuneration “becauseshe explains – money does not favour ideas” . The contribution of the diaspora to the amount collected is substantial. But not even onecent of this money is used to finance the Belarusian diaspora. All the money is destined for victims in Belarus of the dictatorial regime. “We work for our future, for ourselves,” she explains. We do not finance the protestsshe clarifies – but we work to defend ideas and we want Belarus to be a free country. The events of recent days in Belarus – she concludes – will serve to unite our country in an important way: the people of Belarus have never been so united as now and this is a very valid element for us“.For Belarusians, Russia is a first point of contact and they try to assist those who take refuge here by also helping them with the granting of visas and contacts with diplomatic structures.

The Netherlands, explains Ilya who lives there, is very active on legal issues. “I am therefore busy with foreign affairs. I organized protest events for the people of Belarus in The Hague. I am in contact with Dutch legal experts to try to find legal ways out for our fellow citizens and to motivate diplomatic representatives to our cause by explaining the reality of the situation. Now I think people understand Belarus  and what issues are at stake in the country. In the Netherlands we try to sensitize some authoritative people in the Foreign Ministry and one of the lawyers who support us does only this ”.

Mikhail lives in Austria, a country that is a big investor in Belarus with major economic interests. The season of protests for Belarus also started there in June with a series of events in which it was decided to launch special ‘sanctions’ against Belarus and Belarusians. In Austria there are many wealthy Belarusian citizens, children of politicians, sympathizers of the Minsk regime. “We – explained Mikhail – tried to apply an” inclusive “policy and a few years ago we tried to create a movement to bind the diaspora on cultural aspects but it was only since June that the diaspora in Austria managed to bind together and take action on common goals “. And he explained his approach : “We have created press contacts, contacts with local politicians and we prepare posters and flyers. The structure seems to work and one of our members who is in charge of communication was invited to speak on the main Austrian TV channel. When we show videos shot recently in Belarus people here are convinced that there is a problem in the country that needs to be solved. So one of our goals is to publicize the situation in the country with video, to inform people, both Austrians and Belarusians, to exploit all the possibilities to cooperate with the Austrian government to put pressure on the Belarusians residents here who in turn can take action to communicate with the Minsk government ”.

From Portugal Ekaterina explains what the Belarusian diaspora is doing in that country. Our first step she sayswas to dialogue with the Russian diplomatic authorities present in Portugal, convinced that without the support of Kremlin funding Lukashenko will not be able to survive“. There are about 500 Belarusians in Portugal who are  seeking also the support of other communities, especially for the defence of human rights and to “wake up the Portuguese community to the problems that we in Belarus and other countries are experiencing”. Few know, few are informed, she comments, and for this reason we are now going to organize awareness events.

Olga from Belgium talks about the intense communication activity that the Belarusians organized to put pressure on the Belgian authorities but above all on the European institutions and especially on some members of the European Parliament to bring the situation of Belarus a European country on the European continent, to the attention of all of Europe. We want our voice to be heard in the European Parliament but also in that of Belgium which is the country in which we live. We want more to be known about our country. We asked the Belgian Parliament for advice on how to progress the defence of human rights also at the legal level. We can provide all the elements they need to help us ”, she concludes.

Alexey lives in Switzerland where he went to escape the danger of arrest that he feared might come at any moment. In Switzerland he has refugee status and as such has the opportunity to work as a teacher of chess in schools. “I’m not a chess champion” he explains “but I’m a mathematician and I have a passion for the game of chess and this place allows me to be in contact with young people”. Didn’t he feel safe? “No, there were three ‘fabricated’ convictions on me and because the authorities did not like my position in society and the activity linked to it. And so when they were about to open an investigation into me and my wife was pregnant, I decided to leave with her “.

What do you plan to do for Belarus? “I participated in various demonstrations in Geneva at the United Nations headquarters and we are organizing in view of the ice hockey world championships in Zurich for next September 15 on which occasion we will deliver a petition to the International Ice Hockey Committee to ask it not to play the international championship 2021 in Belarus as per the calendar. Latvia, which is co-organizer of the event, said they will withdraw from this role if Belarus is confirmed as the venue for the sporting event.

Your relations with Swiss politicians? We are mainly in contact with exponents of the Social Democratic party now in the minority in the Swiss Parliament and we want to create links with the party of the Christian Democrats and with the” greens “.

Larysa has lived in Madrid for 16 years. She is an art historian and works as a tour guide (she speaks perfect Italian) and explains that in Spain there are about 4,000 Belarusians trying to make themselves known since “the Spaniards don’t know much about us”. They organize demonstrations, try to make themselves heard with articles in the newspapers and speeches on the radio though not many but above all they try to help Belarusians to be informed about events in their own country if they are unable to follow the news in other languages. The creation of this European link between members of the Belarusian diaspora is very important because it can serve to strengthen ties with their country. “In Madridshe explains – we are here to learn from the experiences of our colleagues in other European countries how we can help our fellow citizens in Belarus”.

What will happen now? The group ‘Belarusians in Italy’ replies that “the Coordination Council, created in Belarus by Svetlana Tihanovskaya, candidate for the presidency, has practically“ dissolved ”because the members have either fled or have been arrested”. (The document indicates as sources: TUT.by, telegram channel @NEXTA, tvrain.ru, telegram channel @tpbela) Tihanovskaya, as we know, took refuge in Lithuania after the result of the elections in Belarus gave the leader Lukashenko the winner with a majority close to 90%.

“The Coordination Council – continues the document – was set up to initiate a process of resolution of the political crisis and to guarantee the sovereignty and freedom of the people. The members of the Council have tried several times for a dialogue with Lukashenko but to no avail ”.

“Of the seven people who made up the Councilitdcontinues – only one remained at liberty: Svetlana Aleksievich, who was being interrogated by the Investigative Committee in this period on charges of piloting the revolution with illegal methods to bring down the President. Svetlana Aleksievich has publicly said that she refused to testify against herself ”.

The document also informs that Maksim Znak is also unreachable. He was supposed to do a live interview with a Russian newspaper but the line stopped after two seconds. He only had time to say that ‘the masks’ have arrived, as agents with covered faces are called.

Yesterday the world’s press covered the news of the kidnapping of Maria Kolesnikova, the leading figure of these elections together with Tihanovskaya and Tsepkalo. (we mentioned this at the beginning of this article with the statements of the EU High Representative Josep Borrell).

Kolesnikova is instead in custody on the border between Belarus and Ukraine for checks. She was arrested and is currently in the KGB prison in Minsk, according to independent media, updated a few minutes ago 09.09.2020). In front of agents at the border checkpointMaria tore up her passport. Maksim Znak himself had commented on Kolesnikova’s disappearance saying that she would never voluntarily leave the country.

Olga Kovalkova has been arrested and taken to Okrestina prison, now known to all as the torture prison. She was sentenced to 25 days of arrest, but after 20 days she was taken to Poland by persons unknown. Serghey Dylevskij sentenced to 25 days of arrest, is currently in Okrestino. Lillia Vlasova is in custody by the financial investigation department of the state audit committee. Pavel Latushko is in Poland and is forbidden to set foot on Belarusian territory.

These are the individuals who should have helped shape the future of Belarus under a new presidency. Now we can only ask: Quo vadis  Belarus ? Where do you go ? And maybe: How can we help you ?

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