The Belarusian Diaspora Awakens
Following years of standing still, Belarusians are having an awakening. A week after the sham presidential election that showed Aliaksandr Lukashenka winning nearly 80 percent of the vote, the people of Belarus held one of the biggest protests in Belarusian history. Starting with the response to the coronavirus pandemic and followed by a reaction to the political repressions during and after the election campaign, Belarusian society has shown a high level of solidarity and politicization. Previously politically inactive citizens are joining the underground fight for democracy in unprecedented numbers. This civic awakening is being reflected in the actions of the Belarusian diaspora, which, until this spring, was neither active nor consolidated.
According to various sources, about 1.5 million Belarusians live abroad. This is a significant figure, taking into account the population of Belarus is almost 9.5 million. Even though many ethnic Belarusians are part of associations of compatriots abroad, the Belarusian diaspora has not been visible, politically active, or consolidated until spring 2020. The situation has changed drastically, starting with the presidential election campaign and unprecedented political repressions in Belarus against potential candidates and their supporters.
This year, several spontaneously formed groups of the diaspora community formed protests abroad and initiated measures of solidarity against the actions of the current Belarusian government and Lukashenka. Often spearheaded by young Belarusians in the diaspora, solidarity groups have cropped up in places like Germany, France, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, the United States, Canada, and even as far as India. The purpose of these groups is to draw international attention to the situation in Belarus, to demand the release of all political prisoners, and to ensure Belarusians free and fair elections. Expressions of solidarity and support with Belarusians inside the country has been one of the main goals of the ongoing solidarity actions.
The activity of the initiative groups increased significantly during the elections with the community taking ownership of tasks difficult to implement within the country due to the high risk of repression. The diaspora groups made a great effort to track falsification attempts at polling stations outside the country and to record the real number of votes for alternative candidates, mirroring the work of civil society within Belarus. For this, representatives of the Belarusian diaspora organized exit polls and made every effort to become election observers. Additionally, the campaign Golos (The Voice) encouraged all voters to photograph and submit their ballots to prove the real results of the election. When organizers within Belarus could no longer continue due to security concerns, the campaign was almost entirely carried out by Belarusian programmers abroad.
The nature of the protests in Belarus differs from those in other countries because there are no organizers, no elite, or one leader behind them. The diaspora has played an important role in providing information to their compatriots during the two days of the Internet shut down after the elections. Telegram channels have become one of the main instruments to coordinate protesters' actions by collecting current information about what was happening there in real-time. The most popular one, NEXTA, with over 2 million subscribers, is operating from abroad.
As the fight for democracy becomes more fervent in Belarus in the aftermath of the election, so too are the activities of the diaspora. Solidarity actions are part of a daily ritual. More and more Belarusians abroad are joining Belarusian solidarity communities, organizing solidarity marches, and showing their support through art and performance. In Paris, Belarusians put the historic white-red-white flag, a symbol of the protest movement, on the monument to Jeanne d'Arc in Paris. They symbolically show the brutality of the regime with artificial blood and painted traces of beatings. In Berlin, they repaint a piece of the Berlin wall. Shocking pictures of injured and tortured Belarusian people are presented with an appeal to stop the violence. Belarusians outside the country go to the streets, as their compatriots inside the country do, luckily, with the big difference that they do not risk their lives and freedom.
It is noteworthy that support has not been limited to protest and election activism. At a time when the government has disabled Belarusian crowdfunding platforms (Ulej, MolaMola), the diaspora has stepped in and raised over 2 million euros in private donations to help those repressed and injured during the protests. Representatives of Belarusian diaspora have announced their intention to register a charity foundation and regularly post public reports on how they spend the money.
Along with demonstrations and financial support, the Belarusian diaspora spread truthful information about the recent developments in the country to the world, to draw more international attention and to create an information flow alternative to the official propaganda. Grass-root initiatives, born out of spontaneously consolidated Belarusians, advocate their interests among different stakeholders and policymakers abroad, appealing for their compatriots’ freedom and safety. Further efforts are aimed at supporting victims of the repressions by organizing treatment and rehabilitation in clinics abroad.
It is only a matter of time now when the Lukashenka regime will fall. With its actions, the diaspora supports and legitimizes Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opponent of Lukashenka, who most likely won the election. The further political developments in Belarus are not predictable, but there is every reason to believe that Tsikhanouskaya would keep the promise to hold new, free democratic elections. The further efforts of the Belarusian diaspora will most likely be aimed at supporting the democratic movement in Belarus and closely observing the next steps of the new leaders, to make sure they are democratic.
It is in the best interest of pro-democratic actors like the European Union to support diaspora grassroots initiatives. Not only have these groups made an enormous contribution to the democratization of Belarus, but they also continue to raise the profile of democratic values among its neighbors.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.