Belarus dissidents get foreign help
Activists opposed to the iron rule of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko have regrouped in neighbouring Lithuania. But influencing opinion inside Belarus is an uphill struggle, the BBC’s Alix Kroeger reports.
When the door to the library of the European Humanities University (EHU) swings open, it reveals a largely empty room. This is the library of a university in exile.
The EHU has been in Vilnius for two years. It moved from the Belarussian capital Minsk after it was forced to close by the authorities there.
It left much of its library behind, but took its students with it. Like Anastasiya Matchenko, 20, a second-year student of international law.
Following the EHU to Vilnius was a difficult decision, she admits. But in the end, she says, she could not get the same education at a Belarussian state university.
“Here you can receive a free education, where you are provoked to express your thoughts, your feelings, and where you can discuss, you can argue,” she says. “And if you don’t like something, your opinion will always be taken into consideration.”
Fifteen years ago, Lithuania and Belarus were part of the same country, the USSR. Now Lithuania is in the EU, while Belarus is reverting more and more to its Soviet-era ways.
Vilnius, just 110 miles (180 km) from the Belarussian capital Minsk, has become something of a refuge for the Belarussian opposition, but also for those who fall foul of the government for non-political reasons – like the EHU.
Its vice-rector, Vladimir Donaev, does not hold out any hope of an imminent return to Minsk, at least as long as President Alexander Lukashenko remains in power.
“I am afraid that yes, he is thinking of us as a threat to his regime,” he says wryly. “Our project is academic. The authorities have a sort of interpretation of our project as a political project. And this politicisation is not our choice.”
If the university is critical of society, he says, that is its duty, part of the idea of academic freedom. He compares Belarus today to Poland under martial law after 1981.
The EHU is supported largely by international donors, including the European Commission, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Open Society Institute.
Earlier this year, the Commission announced it was giving another 4.5m euros (£3m) to fund scholarships for Belarussian students, both at the EHU and at universities in Ukraine. It also funds independent radio broadcasts to Belarus.
In November, the Commission made public what it was prepared to offer Belarus in aid, access to markets and technical assistance. In return, it was urging Belarus to become more democratic and extend the rule of law.
The Belarussian ambassador to Brussels, Vladimir Senko, says his government is still studying the document, but he is unimpressed with the Commission’s approach.
“What we are waiting for is equal treatment,” he says. “We are seeking relations based on principles of equality and non-interference. We would never accept a policy of punishing or pushing.”
The European Commission is at pains to stress that it is not funding the Belarussian opposition, but rather giving money to projects that promote democracy and human rights.
The international wing of the American Republican Party has no such qualms.
In a basement office in Vilnius, Trygve Olson from the International Republican Institute briefed a group of Belarussian opposition leaders and activists on the results of a Gallup poll.
Everything he said had to be laboriously translated from English to Belarussian. But for the opposition, it was the only way they could get access to such information.
The group were late arriving. They were stopped at the border leaving Belarus and subjected to a full search.
Two of the main opposition leaders were not there: Alexander Milinkevich, because he had been arrested three times in previous weeks, and Alexander Kozulin, because he was on hunger strike in prison. He ended his hunger strike ten days later, after seven weeks without food.
In March, President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected with 82% of the vote. The EU and US condemned the vote as “fundamentally flawed”.
Thousands of protesters filled the main square in Minsk. It was nothing like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but by Belarussian standards, it was unprecedented. More than 150 people were arrested when police broke up the demonstration.
Mr Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, was jailed for 15 days. Mr Kozulin got five and a half years for “organising disturbances”.
One of their fellow opposition leaders, Anatoly Lebedko, says he is ashamed that his country is a dictatorship in the middle of Europe.
“Belarus is like an experimental laboratory, where 10 million people are being kept in an ideology of totalitarianism and populism,” he says.
It is a problem that Belarussians must solve for themselves, he says, but they need outside help. He appeals to Europe to keep Belarus on its agenda.
Outside, a group of young opposition activists were conducting a straw poll of their own. They had been given questions to ask: about attitudes to Belarus, to the Lithuanian economy, even the performance of Vilnius’ own mayor.
If they did this in Belarus, they said, they would be questioned by the authorities. And people would not be so willing to talk to them.
Denis, 22, hopes to stand as an opposition candidate in local elections in Belarus in January – if he is allowed to by the government.
“Local elections offer a possibility – a legal possibility – to talk to people. And if just one or two opposition candidates get onto local councils, this will be a small victory. We have to take it step by step.”
“Our capacity to challenge the authority of the Belarussian government is pretty minimal,” says Trygve Olson from the IRI. “But what is true is that ideas matter. And what we’re trying to do is to say to people, not what you should do, but it’s okay to have ideas. And if that’s a threat to the Belarussian government, they may be afraid of ideas.”
Ambassador Senko insists that the January local elections will be free and fair. He says the fact that the opposition must rely on support from abroad shows it has little backing at home.
He also points out that Belarus is the second-largest transit country, after Ukraine, for Europe’s oil and gas. Last year, Russia turned off energy supplies to Ukraine, with a knock-on effect for Europe. Mr Senko regrets the fact that Belarus, unlike Russia, has no oil or gas of its own.
For Belarus, that may be a strategic disadvantage. But Belarus is now on the EU’s eastern border. That means the West, and Europe in particular, now has a vested interest in making Belarus a more open, democratic neighbour.