“We must not conflate Belarus with Russia”

John Smith Fellow Anton Radniankou (Belarus, 2018) explains why and how UK and European policy makers should engage with Belarus’s pro-democracy movement. 

The leader of the Belarusian opposition in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been calling on Europe, the UK and the US to step up support for her country’s pro-democracy movement. Earlier this month, she met UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron at an IMF meeting in New York. The politicians discussed appointing a UK special envoy for Belarus and initiating a strategic dialogue between the two countries.  

It’s encouraging to see politicians engaging with the Belarusian opposition in exile. This recognises the country’s strategic importance for the future European security. It’s a positive sign given that during the last few years, a dearth of reliable information on Belarus has led to misconceptions and a lack of interest. 

One of the issues is that politicians and the media often refer to Belarus in the same breath as Russia. This is especially true since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Lukashenko regime’s complicity in Putin’s aggression led to sanctions, while countries’ policies towards Belarus are often linked to Russia. 

But conflating Belarus with Russia is erroneous and damaging. It obscures the political repression within Belarus – which pre-dates the war – and overlooks opportunities for engagement with Belarusian leaders and changemakers in exile. These are people who believe passionately in democracy, good governance, the rule of law and fundamental human rights. 

Belarus in crisis 

The current crisis in Belarus began in 2020 with the authorities’ mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. In response, grassroots volunteer movements sprang up to help the healthcare system cope, while also protesting against the government’s denial of the pandemic.  

In May 2020, the country held its presidential election, with several pro-democracy candidates running. Tsikhanouskaya was one of the leaders who emerged at this time. She stepped forward when her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, an activist who had announced his intention to run for president, was jailed by the Lukashenko regime.  

Tsikhanouskaya joined forces with activists Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala. Together they formed the “female trio” that spearheaded a record-breaking civil mobilisation campaign with a nationwide roadshow. 

Despite the high turnout, the election results were falsified and Tsikhanouskaya went into exile in Lithuania. A wave of mass repression followed the large-scale protests. Over the course of three years, 30,000 people were incarcerated, with more than 1,500 being political prisoners. Additionally, around 350,000 people left the country. Two John Smith Fellows also suffered consequences and are currently in detention

Increased polarisation 

In 2022, when the war brought the Lukashenko regime closer to dictatorship and integration with Russia, many more people left the country to avoid being mobilised or further escalation of repression. Since then, we have witnessed a growing polarisation within society: between those supporting democratic change and loyalists to the regime, as well as among those who oppose or endorse the war. 

Meanwhile, the situation has become more precarious for Belarusians in exile. A recent law passed by Lukashenko banned Belarusians renewing their passports, leaving them at risk of becoming stateless.

Practical steps 

So, how can institutions and policy makers support Belarus’s democracy movement? The John Smith Trust is supporting better governance and the rule of law, both through the work of existing Fellows and by creating a bespoke Fellowship programme for Belarusians in exile. It was a privilege to meet these six changemakers at an event in Warsaw organised by John Smith Trust earlier this month. 

Six Fellows met in Warsaw earlier this month as part of our new Fellowship Programme for Belarusians in exile.

During the event, we discussed practical steps policy makers can take to support Belarus’s future leaders, who are working towards democracy for their country. We believe strongly that UK and European governments’ strategies for approaching Belarus would have greater success if they sought regular input from these leaders. Similarly international institutions and organisation that deal with Belarus would be much more successful in their activities if they had at least one Belarusian in their team. 

Other suggestions included cultural events that open doors separately for Belarusians, without a connection with Russia, foreign language courses for children and online leadership courses for young people. On a practical level, issuing visas for independent Belarusian journalists would make it possible to disseminate truthful expert information to the international community.

The Belarusian diaspora actively coalesced after the protests of 2020, emerging as a powerful driving force behind the democratic movement. Essentially serving as the “rear support” for advocates of change within Belarus, it attracts resources, international attention, and solidarity. The diaspora builds infrastructure to support the democratic movement within Belarus. The support from the Belarusian diaspora for the society and its leaders is not only a crucial step towards strengthening freedom in Belarus but also in establishing a resilient regional security system. 

Anton Radniankou is a chair of the board at the Belarusian independent think-tank Center for New Ideas. His main sphere of expertise is sociological polls, foreign policy and regional development. During the 2020 presidential elections, Anton was responsible for strategic communications and policy advice in the joint campaign of Belarusian democratic forces. He now lives outside Belarus.