Belarus’ isolation risks trapping citizens with ‘the beast’: opposition leader

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — Belarus’s democratic opposition in exile are increasingly worried about the consequences of their country’s growing isolation due to its alliance with Russia in its war on Ukraine.

They fear that Baltic states tightening security along the border with Belarus, amid increasing threats of a spillover from Moscow’s war, will trap its population under the dictatorship of long-time Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Poland has plans to move 10,000 troops to the border with Belarus, while Lithuania last week closed two border crossings. The U.S. this month warned American citizens in Belarus to leave the country immediately, saying more closures along the borders with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland are expected.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian democratic leader exiled in Vilnius, is warning that Belarus should not be left as a “consolation prize” for Russian President Vladimir Putin if Europe and the West seal off the country amid the fight for Ukraine.

“There must always be opportunity for Belarusian people to flee repression,” she said in an exclusive interview with The Hill from her offices in the Lithuanian capital last week.

“Just imagine if you close all the borders for people, it’s like you have keys for this prison and you are leaving Belarusians alone with this dictator, with this beast.”

Lukashenko has been a key Putin ally since the start of the war, offering a staging ground before the invasion and more recently welcoming nuclear weapons and Russian mercenaries into the country.

After the death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, Lukashenko has said its forces are welcome to remain in the country, following a deal he brokered after a short-lived mutiny in Moscow two months ago.

Lukashenko, like Putin, has resorted to nuclear saber-rattling to intimidate Ukraine’s allies, suggesting all available tools will be used in response to Western aggression — though Belarus does not have nuclear weapons.

“If aggression against our country is launched from the side of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, we will immediately respond with everything we have,” Lukashenko said in an interview earlier this month.

“NATO stands behind Poland, Lithuania, Latvia. We certainly understand that the forces are incomparable. But we will deliver an unacceptable strike against them and they will receive unacceptable harm, damage. It is what our security concept is based on.”

Tsikhanouskaya said Lukashenko has sacrificed “Belarusian sovereignty, Belarusian safety,” to do Putin’s bidding.

She was hopeful that Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash outside Moscow last week might be a positive development for Belarus.

“Wagner mercenaries were completely dependent on his leadership,” she said in a text after our interview. “Hopefully, it would weaken or kill Wagner organization, and it won’t be able to impose such threat to our country and our neighbors.”

Prighozhin’s “march for justice” in June set off a flurry of activity among Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters, as it exposed the vulnerability of Putin.

“The fate of Lukashenka, to a huge extent depends on the Kremlin, and any weakening of the Kremlin gives us an opportunity to make some concrete steps,” she said.

“We collected like, emergency coalition — where main stakeholders [met] just to synchronize our actions,” she said of that day’s events. They mobilized social media campaigns preparing Belarusians for instructions on labor strikes or acts of sabotage.

“But of course the situation with Prigozhin ended unexpectedly, the same as it started, and I think at that moment Lukashenko gained some political [clout],” she said of the Belarusian leader’s role as an intermediary.

With thousands of Wagner forces reportedly arriving in Belarus in the intervening weeks, its NATO neighbors are prioritizing their security over refuge for the Belarusian people.

Poland’s Interior Minister on Monday warned that Warsaw and the Baltic states are prepared to close the border with Belarus if “a critical incident occurs.”

Earlier this month, Poland accused Belarus of violating its airspace during a military exercise. And on Aug. 14, two Russians were arrested for disseminating Wagner recruiting information and propaganda in Warsaw and Krakow.

Lithuanian lawmakers are reportedly proposing to vote on legislation in September to impose more travel and residency restrictions on Belarusian nationals.

The law sends a political signal that Belarusian opposition exiles in the country are becoming less welcome, but Lithuania’s security establishment says it’s driven by a need to stay vigilant against security threats from Minsk and Moscow.

Last week, the Vilnius-based, Belarusian opposition activist Olga Karach was reportedly denied asylum in the country over what Lithuania’s State Security Department (VSD) alleged are ties to Russia’s intelligence services.

Karach has reportedly denied the charges and can stay in Lithuania because the VSD acknowledges she faces threats to her life if she returns to Belarus.

And earlier this month, Lithuania declared more than 1,000 Russian and Belarusian citizens living in the country as threats to national security and stripped them of their permanent residency status.

Tsikhanouskaya called the proposed legislation “a challenge,” but she called Lithuania “our best partner” and said she’s been reassured by the Lithuanian government that support for the Belarusian people remains strong.

“We are trying to find the best solution for this law, we are going to meet with parliamentarians to explain our position,” she said.

Belarus’s democratic opposition in exile is strained by limited resources three years since they launched an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko’s fraudulent claim of election victory in August 2020.

Tsikhanouskaya was Lukashenko’s main challenger for president in his, at that time, 26-year reign.

Originally a stand-in for her imprisoned husband, Tsikhanouskaya was considered the likely winner of that election even as Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote.

Massive protests broke out after the contested results were announced, followed by an even more intensive crackdown on dissent.

Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee Belarus for Lithuania over the threat of arrest. In March, a court in Belarus sentenced her, in absentia, to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Her husband remains in prison, one of an estimated 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus and with many subject to isolation, torture, and cruel and inhumane treatment, according to the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna.

Tsikhanouskaya concedes the democratic movement she leads has likely lost focus on nurturing their relationship with Lithuania in lieu of courting bigger friends.

President Biden’s hosting of Tsikhanouskaya in 2021 “was a very warm meeting,” she said, even as she explained she was intimidated by the power of the president of the United States.

He understood the situation in Belarus, she said, and told her that America supports the movement for democratic change in the country.

“Maybe Belarus is not priority for U.S.A. because of course with China, Russia, all these big countries, but still we feel a lot of attention to our cause,” she said, emphasizing the intertwined fates of Belarus and Ukraine.

In the same way, she is concerned America’s partisan politics over Ukraine could have blowback on Belarus.

“I’ve heard that there are Republicans who are against supporting Ukraine. But it is important to understand that not helping the countries who are fighting with the aggression. … It’s like cancer, if you don’t stop this disease at the root, it will spread further and further,” she said.

“Belarus is part of our original crisis, yes we have different context of course with Ukraine, but we are fighting with the same enemy, the imperialistic ambitions of Russia, it’s very aggressive in Ukraine, it’s like creeping in Belarus.”

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