Belarusians Weigh Cost of War

"I will leave or go to prison, but I will not shoot."

Belarusians Weigh Cost of War

"I will leave or go to prison, but I will not shoot."

Thursday, 10 March, 2022

As Russia uses Belarus as a springboard for its invasion of Ukraine, Minsk is facing repercussions including international sanctions and economic disaster.

The Belarusian opposition has rallied round Ukraine, with reports of dissidents joining up to fight with the Ukrainian forces.

Russian tanks rolled in to northern Ukraine from Belarus, where the largest joint military drill with Russia ended a few days before the invasion began.

Belarus’ international isolation has increased since the start of the war as tougher sanctions have been imposed on the regime and Lukashenko in thrall to the Kremlin to maintain a political relationship that keeps him in power.

Authorities in Minsk still claim they are not involved in the war and that there is no conscription of soldiers, but a referendum held on February 27 paved the way to amend the constitution to remove the provision that Belarus is a neutral country.

"On the streets of Minsk, people do not walk just like that, they go from point A to point B with dispassionate faces. They are hiding their problems— Russia, war, repression," said Vyacheslav, not his real name.  The 45-year-old radio engineer from Minsk left Belarus four days after the war began, he believes there will soon be mobilization.

"I am trying to find out what my options are. I will leave or I will go to jail, but I'm not going to shoot,” added Victor, a rehabilitation doctor who asked to remain anonymous. He is still in Minsk, although likely to leave soon.  

A Chatham House’s study showed that the majority of Belarusians believe that the war with Ukraine is a disaster. As voting for the constitutional referendum was underway, some people took to the streets to protest against Belarus’ involvement in the war. Some 800 people were detained in Minsk, Vitebsk, Baranovichi and Zhlobin. There are no estimates of how many people participated in the demonstrations.

The regime jailed thousands of people after the presidential vote of August 2020, largely regarded as rigged. Those who escaped prison either emigrated or decided to keep silent.

"Yes, people probably [are intimidated],” Dmitry, a worker at the Minsk tractor plant, told IWPR, adding that public opinion was against the war. “Even the elderly. Although I was surprised to hear one young guy saying that the US was to blame. In short, whoever watches TV broadcasts [propaganda] believes that."

The Belarusian diaspora has been vocal in their support for Ukraine. Over the years, thousands have fled, mainly to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Georgia as well as Ukraine.

Some Belarusians who moved to Ukraine are now refugees again.  

"I hoped until the last minute that there would be no war, but one day I was woken up by explosions,” said Kira, a former political prisoner who managed to flee Belarus to Kyiv in the spring of 2021. [ME1] “We went to the border and stayed at the border crossing for two days, almost without advancing in the queue.”

On the third day of the war, she was able to leave Ukraine[ME2]   with other Belarusians and cross into Poland.

"A border guard asked me how Belarusians could allow Russian troops to occupy the territory of Belarus and why no one was protesting," she recalled. The other passengers in the car explained that they had been persecuted and were also refugees.  

THE BELARUSIAN BATTALION

Lukashenko stated that "no war is waged from the territory of Belarus", a claim that the opposition labelled as a lie.

"As he provided its territory for the aggression against Ukraine, Belarus itself became an aggressor in accordance with the definition of aggression in the UN resolution of 1974," said Valery Kovalevsky, the foreign policy representative of the exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

"We see the work of humanitarian associations and journalists. Citizens are forming defence units, which join the territorial self-defence and regional military units in Ukraine. [These are] volunteer initiatives," he added.

Belarusian men are not allowed to enter Ukrainian territory, but many citizens who found shelter in Ukraine after the August 2020 crackdown have joined the fight.

"Wars do not forgive nations easily.”

"There was a call from one of ours, he said that he had applied to the draft office, he had questions from the security service of Ukraine, he was asked to confirm that he was not a saboteur. He has been living in Ukraine for 15 years," Lithuania-based Belarusian activist Yuri, not his real name, told IWPR.

There are at least 100 Belarusians fighting alongside the Ukrainian troops, according to Sergei Bulba, a Belarusian resident of Ukraine who leads the Bely Legion, an organisation operating in Belarus since the late 1990s to counter Russia's influence in the country. On March 1, Ukrainian media Unian confirmed that a Belarusian battalion was fighting with the Azov territorial defence.

Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to Tikhanovskaya, told media that Russia’s invasion was also eroding support for the authorities among the military. Officers were taking sick leave or ending their contracts, with conscripted soldiers trying to leave the country.

"Lukashenko has already proved that he is a puppet of Putin, not a sovereign ruler," Kovalevsky noted. “The French president called on Lukashenko to stop being a vassal; when the US embassy closed in Minsk [diplomats] said that the regime had lost the ability to make sovereign decisions."

Lev Lvovsky, an economist at the Minsk-based Centre for Economic Research Beroc, said that the new sanctions would hit hard, adding that the impact on the cost of living will be high as countries and businesses target Belarus alongside Russia.

For example, in 2021, Bolt, the international taxi service, announced millions of dollars worth of investment in the Belarus market. In February 2022, it announced that it was ceasing to work in the country.

Russian banks have been disconnected from the banking messaging system SWIFT and large credit cards companies have left the country, moves that are bound to impact Belarus.

"It is impossible to say with certainty that the Visa card will work in Belarus in a month or a week,” Lvovsky said.

While economists do not predict food shortages, they see inflation hikes as likely and that the national bank will institute tough measures from freezing assets to the forced conversion of foreign currency deposits into roubles at the official exchange rate.

"Wars do not forgive nations easily,” Lvovsky noted. “To return to the [pre-war] situation the war needs to end, and then Belarus must change in a way that does not associate it with this war. Without a complete change of government and repentance, the sanctions will not go away."

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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