‘I’m back to being afraid’: Three years after mass protests rocked Belarus, exiled Belarusians still fear Lukashenko’s long arm

Three years have passed since the fateful presidential vote that prompted the biggest anti-government protests in the history of Belarus. Incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko responded with a brutal crackdown and heading into 2021, the massive street protests faded into underground resistance. Tens of thousands of Belarusians fled abroad, including rival presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who set up — and continues to run — a transitional government-in-exile. Then, in 2022, Belarus became a staging ground for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prompting another emigration wave. Today, an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Belarusians are living in exile. And the Lukashenko regime is forever inventing new ways to curtail their rights and pressure them to return home. Journalist Serge Faldin reports for The Beet.

When protests broke out in her home city of Minsk in August 2020, Veronika (name changed) knew she had to take part. After a presidential vote marred by political persecution and rampant electoral fraudAleksandr Lukashenko was set to remain in office for a sixth consecutive term. His main rival, pro-democracy candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, disputed the election results and urged her supporters to stay on the streets. Tens of thousands of people across Belarus answered the call.

Veronika, a sociology student in her mid-twenties, promised her mother she’d do everything she could to keep herself safe. She hid her face from AI-equipped surveillance cameras with a medical mask, refrained from posting anything on social media, kept her accounts avatar-free and private, and used secure messaging apps to communicate with her family and friends. Rather than attending mass gatherings, she “tried to choose the safest jobs” — coordinating rallies using private Telegram channels, laying flowers in the streets, and wearing red-and-white clothes.

“I was too afraid of ending up like the thousands of stories I read about online,” Veronika explains.

The authorities responded to the opposition protests with an unprecedented crackdown. Riot police violently dispersed peaceful street rallies using rubber bullets and tear gas, and arrested some 7,000 people in four days. At least four protesters died, and hundreds of others suffered torture and mistreatment in police custody.

After the police raided her philosophy teacher’s apartment and arrested him for protesting, Veronika organized a student march calling for his immediate release; she and her classmates also wrote group letters to their imprisoned teacher, which they refrained from signing.

Belarusians fled the country en masse, finding refuge in nearby Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Poland. Tsikhanouskaya was forced to join the exodus herself, leaving behind her husband, jailed regime critic Siarhei Tsikhanouski.

Nevertheless, Veronika remained in Belarus until 2022, when she enrolled in a university for Belarusians in Vilnius. She enjoyed living in Lithuania but missed home and made round trips to Minsk to see her family every month.

One such weekend, Veronika returned to her apartment to find a sealed white envelope in the mailbox: it contained a police summons asking her to appear in court as a witness. “At first, I thought it must be a mistake,” she recalls, “But then I remembered reading stories on Radio Liberty where initial witnesses became detainees and I got scared.”

Veronika crossed the border back into Lithuania that same evening. “There are no witnesses in Belarus,” she says. “Only the accused.”

‘It’s insane, but we’re used to it’

On August 9, hundreds of exiled Belarusians gathered in central Warsaw to mark the third anniversary of the disputed election. Similar rallies took place in Lithuania, Latvia, and even Belarus, despite the risks.

As they did in Minsk three years ago, the marchers in Warsaw waved white-and-red flags — the national banner of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic and, in its early years, post-Soviet Belarus — and demanded freedom, democracy, and rule of law. Against the backdrop of Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine, they also demanded peace and a European future over Russian dictate. They carried posters calling for Lukashenko’s arrest and chanted the revolutionary slogan, “For our freedom and yours.”

As BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford noted, many protesters wore masks. “Not because of Covid,” she wrote on X (formerly Twitter). “Belarusian police still check video and photos from protests, and these people have relatives back home who could get arrested. No surprise they want change.”

Indeed, many Belarusians still fear persecution — even while living abroad.

In July 2023, Delfi’s Lithuanian edition released a documentary titled Chronicles of Modernity that featured archival footage from the 2020 protests in Belarus. Dozens of Belarusians who had participated in the protests were terrified to discover that they appeared in the film without their faces blurred. “All the Belarusians at our university received an email from the dean’s office urging us to watch the movie and, if we saw someone we knew who was back in Belarus, to urge them to leave the country immediately,” recalls Veronika.

Delfi removed the documentary from its website within an hour and released an anonymized version several weeks later. Still, the damage had been done: Belarusian law enforcement claimed to have downloaded the original to use as evidence in new criminal cases. Several people who allegedly appeared in the film were later detained.

A similar incident occurred in 2021, following the publication of Ya Vykhozhu (I Am Going Out), a photo book featuring uncensored photographs of Belarusian protesters. That summer, Tsikhanouskaya donated a copy of the book to the U.S. Library of Congress. Belarusian law enforcement later claimed they had used the book’s photos as evidence in criminal cases against 50 people.

For activists living in exile, however, their main concern is often family members back in Belarus. “I 100 percent won’t be going back home, so I’m not afraid to protest openly. But my parents are vulnerable,” says Veronika, whose family travels back and forth between Minsk and the E.U. “So now I’m back to being afraid, not for myself but of how my actions might affect them.”

According to stories from Veronika’s friends, rummaging through browser history and social media accounts is still common practice at Belarusian border crossings. “People get arrested for [social media] posts like they did three years ago,” she says. “It’s insane, but we’re used to it by now.”

Old messages, photos, and even a device’s location during the 2020 protests can also be incriminating, according to media reports. At least 58 people were arrested immediately upon returning to Belarus in 2022–2023, the Belarusian human rights group Viasna reported in February.

A sociologist based in Belarus declined to answer any questions related to politics — even over encrypted messaging. “In Belarus, everything is encrypted,” they said, “up to a certain point.”

‘People are still getting killed and thrown in jail’

Masha (name changed) was in Moscow during the 2020 protests in Belarus. She only returned to her native Minsk after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. “I love Russia, but I hate its government. It breaks my heart to see the freak show on TV and in the newspapers,” she explains. “It was hard being among all the Z-signs and propaganda.”

Asked if being in Belarus is any better, Masha says that “people judge and say it’s shilo na mylo” — a Russian idiom that means trading bad for worse. “But it’s hard for me to be away from home for a long time,” she admits. “Though, of course, I’m thinking about leaving.”

“You’re not a Belarusian if you haven’t considered leaving the country in the past three years,” quipped George, a student from Minsk (whose name has also been changed).

But leaving Belarus isn’t as easy as it was three years ago. Despite ongoing repressions inside the country, the ongoing Belarus–E.U. border crisis and Minsk’s involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine have led neighboring countries to shut down crossing points, erect border walls, and keep visa restrictions firmly in place.

In some instances, E.U. policies and restrictions go so far as to equate Belarusians with Russian citizens. “This marks a drastic shift, though I would caution against overestimating its impact,” says Yahor Azarkevich, a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick who studies political opposition in Russia and Belarus. “The contrast between restrictions put on Russians and Belarusians is still significant.”

This is mainly owing to the ongoing lobbying efforts of the exiled Belarusian opposition, Azarkevich explains. “We managed to explain that Lukashenko is not Belarus and that Belarusians have been fighting against this regime since 2020. That Lukashenko’s regime is [Vladimir] Putin’s accomplice, but Belarusians are against the war,” Tsikhanouskaya’s press secretary, Anna Krasulina told The Beet.

“Whenever people [in Warsaw] find out I’m from Belarus, they say, ‘Good job on the 2020 protests! You almost did it!’” observes Vlad, an IT specialist from Baranavichy, who left Belarus after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. “Few people mention my country’s involvement in the war or the fact that the repressions haven’t receded.”

“People are still getting killed and thrown in jail,” he adds with a sigh. According to Viasna, there are 1,485 political prisoners in Belarus today.

‘Life goes on without a valid Belarusian passport’

Last month, Lukashenko ordered Belarusian embassies to stop issuing passports to citizens living abroad. According to the decree, passport renewals would henceforth have to take place inside the country — forcing exiled Belarusians to return home lest their documents expire. The announcement sent a shockwave through the diaspora.

“What else can I say?” laments Ilya, a middle-aged IT professional residing in Gdańsk since 2022. “Now nobody has any doubts that Belarus is a country that doesn’t give a fuck about its citizens.”

“I guess it’s time to seek a new citizenship,” says Masha. “If before I only joked about marrying for citizenship, now it actually seems practical.”

While many Belarusians are worried, others, especially the ones living abroad, hope Western countries will step in. “We showed resistance in 2020, so I’m sure the E.U. won’t forget about us,” Vlad speculates.

The E.U. immediately denounced Lukashenko’s order as another demonstration of the regime’s “total disrespect for its citizens’ fundamental rights.” The fact that Belarus does not recognize dual citizenship and is not a signatory to the 1954 and 1961 U.N. Conventions on Statelessness complicates matters even further.

At the same time, some sources told The Beet that Belarusians living in exile have had trouble accessing consular services for the past three years.

“[Since 2020] it’s been virtually impossible to get any help from the [Belarusian] consulate, let alone a new passport, so this is just another small legal revenge on the diaspora,” says Dan, a Warsaw-based entrepreneur from Minsk, who’s building a startup that will help Belarusians legalize their status in the E.U. “The initial panic will subside when people realize life goes on without a valid Belarusian passport.”

“For those who were persecuted for political reasons, the opportunity to obtain or renew a passport at consular offices has long been unavailable,” agrees Arseniy Kislyak a popular Belarusian musician better known as AP$ENT. Arseniy and his wife Maria fled abroad last year after she was jailed for three days and then put on trial for comments she made on Telegram.

Lithuania has already announced plans to issue special travel documents to Belarusians residing in the country without valid passports. Tsikhanouskaya’s team unveiled an alternative passport project — the “New Belarus” passport — back in August, promising to lobby for international recognition. “For us, this [“New Belarus” passport] initiative is a key element in building new institutions and setting up new state functions,” Krasulina told The Beet. “We’re doing this in parallel with Lukashenko abandoning these functions, as the recent story of refusing to give out passports abroad brilliantly illustrates.”

Whether E.U. countries will recognize an alternative Belarusian passport remains to be seen — and without international endorsement, such a document would be worthless. Historical precedents — such as the Nansen passport and those the Baltic countries’ envoys in exile issued during the Soviet occupation — seem more an exception than the rule.

Still, as Azarkevich explains to The Beet, Lukashenko’s decree has made the idea of issuing an alternative Belarusian passport relevant and offered the opposition a new opportunity to win the public’s trust. “It’s likely that even less politically active Belarusians will now take an interest in the prospect of obtaining an alternative travel document as their current passports near expiration,” the researcher says.

“Lukashenko treats everyone who left as opposition,” says Veronika. “If we come back, he’ll put us in jail. If we stay, he’ll do everything to make our life harder. Tsikhanouskaya’s new passport would come in handy right now.”

‘Without a democratic Belarus, there can be no safe Europe’

At a conference in Warsaw in August, exiled opponents of Lukashenko’s regime adopted a declaration on Belarus’s future membership in the European Union. “Europe is where we come from. And it’s where we are heading,” Tsikhanouskaya told the European Parliament a month later. “I know it will take time. I know it won’t be easy. But there is no way back for us! The European Union is our ultimate destination. Period.”

While arguments about Belarus being a “European country” are hardly new, they weren’t part of Tsikhanouskaya’s platform in 2020. Although she opposed further integration with Russia, her promise of free elections was what drew the support of Belarusians — many of whom had never backed Lukashenko in the first place.

Belarus hasn’t had an election deemed free or fair since Lukashenko first became president in 1994. According to Azarkevich, attitudes towards Lukashenko were split before 2020, with a third in favor, a third opposed, and the rest avoiding the topic, dismissing politics as “a complicated matter.”

The 2020 protests revealed the cracks in the regime as even apolitical Belarusians threw their support behind the opposition. “The protests brought Belarusians together. The whole country came together to face a common enemy — the state and the cockroach,” says Vlad, using a disparaging nickname Tsikhanouskaya’s husband coined for Lukashenko.

A 2021 Chatham House survey found that more than 70 percent of respondents wouldn’t back Lukashenko for president. But as the protests waned and opposition figures found themselves behind bars or fleeing abroad, the old dynamics returned. “Not only have almost all the activists who chose to remain ended up in prison, but the overall political mobilization of the population is extremely low,” Azarkevich says.

Tsikhanouskaya’s opposition, meanwhile, is lobbying the E.U. for its continued support, which dwindled after Russia’s 2022 invasion shifted the bloc’s focus to Ukraine.

“She doesn’t have an army, and her financial resources are limited,” worries Veronika. “Ultimately, it’s not up to us or Tsikhanouskaya but to the E.U. and NATO [countries] to decide whether they want to see us, Belarusians, as legitimate citizens.”

“Sure, the war in Ukraine is taking [center] stage in current affairs. But it also became obvious to everyone that what Belarusians were shouting in 2020 was true: The Lukashenko regime is dangerous for Belarusians and the entire region,” Krasulina says.

At the same time, Lukashenko’s grip on Belarus remains threatened by pressure from Moscow for further integration. Belarus’s ongoing role in the war against Ukraine also lends itself to the idea that Lukashenko is merely an executor of Putin’s wishes.

“If Lukashenko were to die tomorrow,” speculates Veronika, “Putin would take Belarus. And nobody [among the population] would even argue.”

Azarkevich disagrees. “The strategically vital role of Belarusian territory in the war affords Lukashenko significant leverage and negotiation power,” he explains. “The notion of becoming directly entangled in the war in Ukraine remains deeply unpopular within Belarusian society. [...] Thus, the prospect of going to war in the event of a merger with Russia hardly seems enticing to the Belarusian army.”

Though some experts believe that the exiled opposition’s E.U. ambitions could alienate Belarusians living inside (and outside) the country, The Beet’s sources seemed to share the belief that Belarus must first sever ties with Russia for anything to change domestically.

“Without a democratic Belarus, there can be no safe Europe,” Krasulina underscores. “Under no circumstances can Belarus be left to Putin as a consolation prize.”