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Belarusian Warsaw – ghetto or gilded cage?

For twenty years Alyaksandr Lukashenka, president of Belarus, has ruled with an iron hand, and ruined the economy; and still there is no sign of the screws loosening. Meanwhile, as Annabelle Chapman reports, his country has seen a brain drain of young talented Belarusians, many of them to neighbouring Poland.

Overheard on a Warsaw tram last year: ‘I arrived last night’ says a lanky youth in Belarusian, “I sneaked across the [Belarus-Poland] border at Brest, and hitchhiked. ‘Not bad’, says the other man, not much older. ‘I haven’t been back for so long. They released Kavalenka this morning, you heard? That means there’ll be trouble.’

Belarusians are not very visible in Poland's capital: Poles mostly mistake them for Russians or Ukrainians. But, over the last few years, as the political situation in Belarus has worsened, Warsaw has become a hub of Belarusian exile activity. There is no traditional Belarusian population in Warsaw; Poland's small Belarusian minority is concentrated in its eastern Podlasie region. With little publicity, however, Warsaw, in fact, now has a larger Belarusian community than Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which made the news in 2004 when it offered a home to the European Humanities University and other Belarusian organisations expelled from Minsk.

Belarusian Warsaw is not exclusively political. Outright opponents of the regime are only the core of a more ambivalent, partly invisible, migrant population whose size is difficult to estimate. Yet this elite group of politicians and journalists, activists and students has a role to play in Belarus now, and in years to come.

Home and away

The Belarusian House calls itself ‘the alternative Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw.’  It stands just along the street from the Polish Parliament building, a white-and-red Belarusian flag fluttering from an upstairs balcony; in Belarus, this was officially replaced by a red-and-green flag in 1995, and the old flag has since become a symbol of the opposition. Director Aleś Zarembiuk, a genial man in his early thirties, shows me round the organisation's high-ceilinged apartment, with a meeting room, one or two offices, a kitchen and a small playroom for children. ‘Unfortunately we can't yet offer somewhere for guests to sleep,’ he laughs.

An old-style Belarusian flag flies on the balcony of Belarusian House in Warsaw. The old-style flag is a symbol of the opposition, first used by the People's Republic of Belarus in 1918. Photo: Annabelle Chapman

The Belarusian House calls itself ‘the alternative Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw’

Zarembiuk used to be in local government, he explains. He left Belarus, for political reasons, and settled in Warsaw. The rigged Belarusian presidential election of 19th December 2010, were a catalyst for many: street protests were suppressed by riot police; and several hundred people were arrested, including seven of the presidential candidates. At that point a lot more people left Belarus, many of them came to Warsaw; and the Belarusian House opened in 2011.

The House is not a political organisation, says Zarembiuk. He sees it instead as a meeting place, for all kinds of debate about Belarus, both political and non-political. Its primary aim, though, is to serve Belarus, not the diaspora. ‘We have more room for manoeuvre here than in Belarus itself,’ he says.

Warsaw is also home to two other prominent Belarusian NGOs, the Solidarity with Belarus Information Office and Charter '97, which has had offices in both Vilnius and Warsaw since the December 2010 crackdown. Its director, Natalia Radzina, was arrested at the time and later fled Belarus.

Not all the Belarusians in Warsaw are dissidents. True, it has become a haven for some of the opposition; much of the European Belarus civil campaign has found refuge here, though its leader Andrei Sannikau is in London. Yet many Belarusians move to Warsaw simply to earn more money or to develop their careers in this bustling Central European capital.  However, at times, the distinction between political and economic migration can be blurred. Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish newspaper, has reported cases of Belarusians who falsely presented themselves as victims of political repression in order to be granted asylum abroad.

Not all the Belarusians in Warsaw are dissidents

Similarly, not all the Belarusian students in Poland – of whom there are many – are there for political reasons. Some are supported by Poland's Kalinowski Scholarship programme, founded in 2006 to support students who cannot study in Belarus because of their political activities, or those of their parents. Currently 286 Belarusians are studying in Poland on the programme, but most of the Belarusian students in Poland have come to get a good ‘European’ education, rather than to escape the security services. Warsaw's private universities, in particular, appear to be popular with the children of mid-level Belarusian bureaucrats.

Volha Shved, for example, who just wanted to study journalism. She could not do so in Belarus, where university journalism courses are, in her words, ‘simply propaganda studies.’ When she first arrived in Warsaw in the early 2000s, she could count all the Belarusians here on the fingers of her two hands. Ten years on, she is web editor at Belsat television in Warsaw. These days, when she catches the train to Minsk, she is pleasantly surprised to hear passengers whom she does not recognise, chatting in Belarusian.

The Belarusian ghetto

‘I live in a sort of ghetto here,’ continues Shved with a smile. She works in a Belarusian environment, her husband is Belarusian, and so are most of her friends here. Is it a difficult life? I ask. ‘No, it's actually very comfortable.’ The other Belarusians in Warsaw are in the same situation, and understand her perfectly, unlike some people at home. ‘This is what I imagine it being like one day, back in Belarus,’ she says.

Her colleague mentions a Catholic mass in Belarusian, held in a church in Warsaw's old town once or twice a month. Sometimes it is joined by other denominations - Protestant, Orthodox and Uniate. Well-known opposition figures like Zmister Bandarenka and Natalia Radzina can be sighted there. Each mass is followed by a discussion. ‘About religion?’ I ask. ‘No, no. One Sunday we discussed homosexuality; another time, what it means to be free – free in relation to the state,’ explains Viktor, who first came to Poland from Hrodna, a city in western Belarus, to study theology and is now doing his PhD in Warsaw.

‘Some people become Belarusians here in Warsaw’

It is a young community, with plenty of children. There is no Belarusian school in Warsaw, but parents arrange informal gatherings through facebook. ‘We want our children to see that they aren't the only ones speaking a different language,’ a young mother tells me.

Many of the Belarusian adults have had to learn Polish from scratch, though the languages are closely related. What do they speak among themselves? Some arrived speaking Russian, the first language of many Belarusians, then began using Belarusian in their daily lives. It could be the number of Belarusian cultural events organised by the community, or to distinguish themselves from local Russians. As one journalist from Belarus told me, ‘Some people become Belarusians here in Warsaw’.

Battle for the airwaves

Belsat is tucked away on the upper floors of Polish public television's offices in the heart of Warsaw. It has been providing independent Belarusian satellite television since 2007, with several dozen journalists based in Warsaw, plus freelance correspondents across Belarus (its website also publishes news in Polish and English). It provides an alternative to Belarus's heavily controlled state television, with a full schedule of news, documentaries and children's programmes. In Belarus the Internet remains a free source of information, but most people still rely on traditional news sources.

Belsat, the independent Belarusian satellite television, aims to provide censorship-free news and was once dubbed 'a stupid and congenial project' by Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Photo: Annabelle Chapman

Alaksei Dzikavitski, Belsat's Director of Information Programming, formerly worked as a journalist in the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He left Belarus after the 2001 elections. It was a choice between leaving and prison, he says. He continued to work for the radio station, now as its Warsaw correspondent, until he was invited to join Belsat when it was being formed in 2006. He now leads a dedicated team.

Why did the journalists at Belsat choose Warsaw? ‘This is where there's work – it's not a question of sentiment,’ says Volha Shved. With both a TV station and a handful of Belarusian NGOs, she sees the city as offering a rare opportunity for journalists from Belarus to continue working in their profession abroad. Dzikavitski, however, disagrees. He could have gone anywhere in the world, he says, but chose Warsaw because it is historically and culturally close to Belarus – not to mention geographically. Also, he adds, ‘the Polish government has a strong position on Belarus, unlike most other EU countries, which only have rhetoric.’ Belsat was backed by Poland's Foreign Ministry from the start, and is funded by the Polish state.

Homecoming

These young Belarusians have made Warsaw their home, built their careers and sent their children to school here. Would they return to Belarus, that is, if the authoritarian rule of Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to an end? ‘Many people say they would,’ says Shved, ‘but it gets harder, as your children are growing up in Poland.’

‘If the current Belarusian government fell,’ says Dzikavitski, ‘I would board the train that evening, and arrive in Minsk the next morning, ready to work for state television,’ . He believes that, when the time comes, state television will play a key role in shaping a new, democratic Belarus. And, fortunately, he heads a skilled team of television journalists in Warsaw, who he hopes would come with him.

‘If the current Belarusian government fell,’ says Dzikavitski, ‘I would board the train that evening, and arrive in Minsk the next morning’

For nearly two decades, Lukashenka has trampled on democracy and basic freedoms in Belarus, backed by the security services. Even so, perhaps the regime's greatest sin is that it has forced many young, talented people to leave Belarus, says Dzikavitski; and there is no guarantee that they will ever go back: ‘That's the price Belarus will one day have to pay for the Lukashenka years.’


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