Belarusian exiles in Central and Eastern Europe after 2020, International workshop, CEFRES, May 19th, 2022
A review by Ciryl Prost, intern at CEFRES
On 19 May 2021, CEFRES organised, in partnership with Charles University, an international research workshop devoted to the exile of Belarusians in Central and Eastern Europe after the protests in August 2020. While the focus is now put on the Ukrainians’ exile, this topic remains relevant in the context of the war in Ukraine, for many Belarusians who had fled there are now pushed into a second exile. This conference held in Prague brought together scientists and civil society actors, from Belarus and other countries in Europe, to inquire into the different dimensions of this European exile.
History of Belarusian exile
The first panel of the conference focused on the history of the exile in Belarus which, according to historian Dorota MICHALUK, started with the proclamation of the independence of the Belarusian People’s Republic on 25 March 1918. At the end of the First World War, a large part of the Belarusian population had been scattered all over Russia pushed by the German offensive. The challenge of nation-building in Belarus was also hindered by the lack of a clear support from various European countries. This short experience ended in 1921, when Belarus fell under the authority of Moscow. Many political activists who were working for the emergence of a sovereign Belarusian state went into exile to Germany and to Czechoslovakia. The cold war then torn this diaspora between the West and the East. The long history of the exile calls for an in-depth analysis and a comparison of the various waves of exile across the 20th century. The historian Daniela KOLENOVSKA, thus, distinguished between these different contexts before identifying elements of ruptures and continuities.
Belarusian exiles, politics, and democracy
The second panel of the conference questioned the relationship between exile and politics. Researcher Ekaterina PIERSON-LYZHINA, a specialist in Belarus-EU relations, opened the session by highlighting the challenges posed by the international recognition of the opposition. Recent events and the economic recession have driven many people into exile, so that in nearby countries, Belarusian opposition actors are increasingly involved in local politics, in Poland and Lithuania for instance. This opposition, structured around Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, is trying to be regarded as legitimate in managing the country’s turnaround.
Especially since the post-election process in 2020, these changes towards a sovereign state capable of providing its population with public services have become imperative, as shown by the academic Ekaterina DEIKALO, who has worked with the United Nations office. The most prevalent tension in nation-building process is whether primacy should be given to democratic principles or national identity. She seeks to understand the role that exiled Belarusians can play in this process.
Based on her experience in welcoming and integrating Belarusian refugees in the Czech Republic, the activist and interpreter Kryscina SYJANOK traced the evolution of the Czech political attitude towards the exiles. The Czech Republic has a long experience in humanitarian aid but for the first time had to work with non-governmental actors in Belarus. As a Belarusian herself, she showed how the Czech effort has evolved since 2020, rather towards a decrease in interest in the Belarusian issue, now overtaken by Ukrainian refugees.
As a well-known activist, journalist and linguist, Vintsuk VYACHORKA compared the protests and motivations in 1990, in which he took part, to those in 2020. He highlighted two main differences. In 2020, demonstrators were motivated not only by material considerations but by political issues. Secondly, there was a shift from vertically organised opposition to a more spontaneous and sustained opposition. The emergence of new information technologies was identified as a key parameter of this new horizontal opposition.
Academics, students and exile from Belarus
The third panel focused on the situation of academic freedom in Belarus on the one hand and the reception of exiled students in the Czech Republic on the other. Dmitrij METLICKÝ as a student of Belarusian origin showed the role of youth unions in the 2020 protests and the pressure held on students by Belarusian universities. After 2020, many activists left the country, some of them simply disappeared.
Nina SKEPYAN, an independent Belarusian researcher, traced the evolution of higher education institutions devoted to history. In the years of perestroika, the opening of schools, such as the School of Archaeology, fostered a renewed interest in history and an increase in number of enrolled students. Nevertheless, the installation of the Lukashenko regime led to a nationalisation of historical knowledge and the restriction of scientific freedom. Those who resist to this political orientation are forced into exile.
During her studies, Karolina KRACIKOVA established many links between Czech students and the Belarusian opposition in exile. Based on her experience, she described the solidarity networks set up to welcome and integrate Belarusian exiles into the Czech academic system. She raised the difficult questions of the exiles’ perspectives and possible return.
The experience of exile: gathering life histories, analysing narratives
The last session highlighted the experience of exile. The Belarusian sociologist Henadz KORSHUNAU opened the panel with a reflection on the social frontier between those who stayed and those who left. He identified the elements that allow the preservation of a sense of community, the content of this belonging and its potential dynamics. He examined these issues in five periods, from the pre-Covid era until the war in Ukraine.
Ronan HERVOUET, as a sociologist, has conducted numerous interviews with Belarusian exiles in 2021-2022. In his presentation, he analysed the elements that often came up in these interviews, notably the fear for repression, the separation from family and friends, the sense of guilt for enjoying freedom “elsewhere” or the difficulty in continuing a political struggle in exile.
Anna TALIARONAK, a specialist in international law who has worked at the United Nations office in Belarus, discusses the situation of Belarusian exiles in the light of the war in Ukraine. Many Belarusians had found refuge in Ukraine and were fully integrated into the local society. As they often have no permanent residence permit, though, because of corruption and the price of such a document in Ukraine, they cannot benefit from European aid programs.
In conclusion, the anthropologist Michèle BAUSSANT imbedded the various issues discussed during the workshop into a reflection on the notions of the memory of exile.
Featured image: Martin Mádl