Besieged Belarusian opposition finds Baltic refuge

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Vilnius (AFP)

Waves of repression in Belarus have turned its EU neighbors into places of refuge for pro-democracy Belarusians, with presidential challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya only the latest to take shelter there.

Tikhanovskaya said she made the “difficult decision” to leave for Lithuania following a contested election in which she claimed victory over Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1994.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius announced her arrival on Tuesday and said on Wednesday that she was “in a good mood” and would speak “in the near future”.

NATO member Lithuania, which, like Belarus, was once under Soviet rule, shares a 680-kilometer (420-mile) border with its southern neighbor and has long been home to Belarusian and Russian opposition figures.

The Lithuanian capital Vilnius is only 170 kilometers from Minsk, which makes it an “ideal location” for pro-democracy Belarusians, Laurynas Jonavicius, an analyst at Vilnius University, told AFP.

The city is home to the Belarusian House of Human Rights, a non-governmental organization, and an EU-funded Belarusian university in exile, the European University of the Humanities, which was closed by Lukashenko in 2004.

– “Waves of political immigrants” –

“We are helping to disseminate information from here because in Belarus the authorities control the Internet,” Sabina Aliyeva, an 18-year-old opposition activist who also heads the union, told AFP. university student.

Vadzim Vileita, a 37-year-old journalist and political analyst from Belarus living in Lithuania, said the country was “a very natural destination for Belarusians looking for a safe place away from Belarus”.

“If people want to leave Belarus for political reasons, they usually go to Lithuania or Poland.

“After many elections during the repression in Belarus, waves of political immigrants have arrived in Lithuania every time to avoid political prosecution,” he said.

But, while the street protests after Sunday’s vote are still ongoing, Aliyeva said that at the moment, many young Belarusians based in Lithuania are returning.

“They want to help,” she said, adding that her parents had asked her to stay away herself.

– Government in exile? –

Lithuania and Latvia, which also has a border with Belarus, have offered to take in all political refugees.

Lithuania and Poland called for an emergency EU summit and Poland offered to negotiate any dialogue between Lukashenko and the opposition.

Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said any political refugee arriving in the city would receive assistance and called for “solidarity”.

Poland has around 28,000 Belarusians and received 37 asylum applications from Belarusians in 2019.

Lithuania officially hosts around 20,000 Belarusians and has granted refugee status to 55 of them since 2011, with authorities now preparing for many more to come.

Lithuanian Interior Minister Rita Tamasuniene said there was “a plan of measures, if the number of Belarusian citizens seeking asylum in Lithuania increases”.

Viktoryia Andrukovic, a Belarusian based in Lithuania and also involved in the pro-democracy movement, said the Baltic state may even host some kind of government-in-exile for Belarus led by Tikhanovskaya.

It would be a “symbol of freedom” for Belarusians, even from outside the country.

“She is the rightful president,” she said.

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