A week after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Czech government stopped issuing visas to Russian and Belarusian citizens. “Belarus is fully involved in the aggression against Ukraine,” Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky (Pirates) explained.
Belarusians who disagreed with the regime of Alexander Lukashenko have found a second home in the Czech Republic since the 1990s. Thousands more have left the country after it brutally suppressed protests against the presidential election faked August 2020.
Dozens of them turn to Kryścina Šyjanok, who studied Czech in Minsk and earns her living as a court interpreter. “I am sorry that such general resolutions were adopted quickly and without taking into account the consequences for Belarusians,” he said in an interview. People rand they are looking for lawyers who can help them.
What do you think of the brutal attitude of the Czech government towards Belarusians?
I have two nationalities, Belarusian and Czech. As a citizen of the Czech Republic, I believe that this ban is a populist measure, because it does not take into account the current situation in Belarus and does not take into account that Belarus is an occupied country, more than twice : an illegitimate regime and the Russian army. As a Belarusian citizen, I consider this step as, in a way, an insult to people who have been actively fighting since August 2020, and some even before.
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I regret that such general resolutions were adopted quickly and without taking into account the consequences for Belarusians. The restrictions are expected to affect Lukashenko’s regime. Instead, they fall on those who opposed Lukashenko.
The government resolution specifies that “humanitarian exceptions” are envisaged.
The ban has not been sufficiently communicated, there is no exhaustive list of cases or contact line to which Belarusians and Belarusians could turn. The Czech Embassy in Minsk does not respond, so we do not know what does or does not fall under this exception.
So is there no cooperation with the Czech embassy in Belarus?
At a time when the medical evacuation program for persecuted Belarusians was underway (the Czech government’s health and humanitarian program, through which 60 Belarusians and their family members injured during the protests in the summer of 2020 were transported to the Czech Republic for treatment. Red.), so the help was enormous, the cooperation was excellent at the time.
Currently, as far as I know from people who turn to me as a representative of the Belarusian diaspora, the Czech Embassy does not answer phone calls or emails, it does not comment on individual cases . I miss at least a human approach in this situation, as well as precise instructions and general information on their website.
Who most often comes to you for help?
I would divide it into three groups. First, these are the Belarusians who left the country after the 2020 protests, these are the people who have been directly affected by the repression, or they are simply worried about their safety. Thousands of people have settled in Ukraine. Now they are fleeing the war. They are therefore refugees more than twice. Lex Ukraine does not count on Belarusians who did not have permanent residence in Ukraine. Even those who left after 2020 don’t have it. We try to help them as a diaspora. We work with lawyers and non-profit organizations.
The second group are people who came here for work. They started to process biometric cards here, but in the meantime the war has started and the offices of the Ministry of Interior are rejecting them with reference to the government’s resolution. But these people are already there. We try to filter that. For those who are not in danger, we will send them back to Belarus for now. But we have cases where people learned here that after their departure a search took place in their apartment. They cannot safely return to Belarus, but at the same time they have no evidence to prove it. We also put these people in contact with lawyers.
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The third and, in my opinion, the most threatened group are the minors. The parents live in the Czech Republic and cannot return to Belarus for security reasons, but their children remained in Belarus, for example with their grandparents. These families cannot reunite now.
How many people turn to you?
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, there are dozens of people every day.
What is the approach of the Czech authorities towards these people?
The human factor and the familiarity of the specific managers with the situation play a big role. We recently dealt with a case where a mixed Belarusian-Ukrainian couple came to the Czech Republic from Ukraine. When they went to report to the aliens police, that they are required by law, if they want to stay here legally, the man was arrested by the police in front of his girlfriend. He spent several hours in police custody and received a release order.
And what about Belarusians who have been living in the Czech Republic for a long time? What is the mood in the Belarusian diaspora?
Belarusians live here, who resisted the regime in the 1990s, for example, they have been here for a long time, but they still hope that one day they can return to Belarus. The Czech Republic’s current approach has also affected them: they have been discriminated against over the past month. For example, there is a cafe in Žižkov, which posted a message that it does not serve Russians and Belarusians. However, discrimination also occurs in individual workplaces, whether in the Department for Asylum and Migration Policy of the Ministry of the Interior, the Aliens Police or other authorities.
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The decision of the Czech government is based on the involvement of Belarus in the aggression against Ukraine; the Russian army also attacked Ukraine from Belarus. Looking Back: Was the International Community’s Support for the 2020 Belarus Protests Enough?
Was not. We, the Belarusian diaspora around the world, led by Sviatlana Cichanouska, recalled in 2020 after Belarus was disconnected from SWIFT or Belarus was expelled from Interpol so that it could not be misused to persecute uncomfortable people. We have not been heard. Europe has become accustomed to a convenient policy, where it is much easier to express “some concern” about a situation than to deal with it concretely. Everyone was “concerned” about what was happening in Belarus…
So there is no consistent distinction between Lukashenko’s Belarus and Belarusian civil society, led by Sviatlana Cichanouska?
Exactly. The Czech government is in contact with the office of Sviatlana Cichanouska, a phone call recently took place between her and Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky. The ministry then published a report on support for Belarusian civil society, but concretely, this support is lacking.
I think the starting point from the Czech perspective is: Belarus equals Lukashenko, Belarus equals the aggressor. It is a mistake. It should be based on how we can help Belarusian civil society to fight the Lukashenko regime. Thus, instead of looking after the property of people linked to the regime, looking after the economic ties of individual Belarusian companies in the Czech Republic or Czech companies founded by Belarusians who are linked to the regime. The Czech Republic has chosen the path of restrictions against civil society, which fought against the regime.
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