INTERVIEW: Nobel Peace Prize nominee Olga Karatch on the squandered chance to change Belarus

INTERVIEW: Nobel Peace Prize nominee Olga Karatch on the squandered chance to change Belarus
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Olga Karatch says Belarusians have fallen out of favour with the Lithuanian government. / Olga Karatch
By Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius April 1, 2024

The life of Olga Karatch, head of the Belarusian Nash Dom (Our House) NGO in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and nominee for the 2024 Nobel Peace Prize, has taken a nightmarish turn: the brave fighter for Belarus’ freedom is now fierily warding off the accusations of Lithuania’s State Security Department (VSD) that she has collaborated with Russian intelligence and poses a threat to Lithuania’s national security.

“Unfortunately, I’ve become a victim of the politics – Belarusians have fallen out of favour with the Lithuanian government. But the same fate awaits many Ukrainians here,” Karatch said to bne IntelliNews, 10 years after she fled from Belarus to Lithuania to protect her family. 

Meanwhile, she sees little hope for change in Belarus. Almost four years on from the mass protests after the 2020 election, where many Belarusians saw a real chance to change the country, as next year’s presidential election approaches there is little hope of dislodging long-term incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko’s grip on power.  

bne IntelliNews: Heralded as a staunch fighter for human rights and democracy in Belarus, you ended up being a threat to Lithuania’s national security, an astonishing change. What happened?

Olga Karatch: 10 years ago, I took my two little children to Lithuania. I was being threatened by Belarusian intelligence, the KGB, with the so-called decree 18 which stipulates children can be taken into state custody from what the agency deems a ‘disorderly parent’ – the decree can be applied to any parent participating in opposition activities. As I had always seen my life in Belarus, we did not ask for political asylum when we arrived here, especially as, until mid-March of 2020, I kept going back and forth. 

However, after the presidential election in Belarus in autumn 2020, my entire family was threatened. At the end of 2021, my husband, our children and I spent 17 days in a heavily guarded shelter; for safety, we were whisked from one city to another – the local authorities had received information that the Alexander Lukashenko regime planned to assassinate me. Only in late 2023 did I ask the Lithuanian authorities to grant me political asylum, but I was rejected. No wonder – Lithuania’s intelligence has been lately repeating that Belarusians pose a risk to national security, and, in my case, the VSD went even further and announced that I collaborated with Russian intelligence services, which is nonsense. 

At the beginning of the year, the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania upheld a lower-tier court’s decision not to grant asylum without providing you any specific reason. You are contesting it at the Strasbourg-based human rights court, aren’t you?

Indeed so. Even in the court, Lithuania’s State Security Department did not provide any evidence to prove my ostensible guilt. All it said was that the information is secret and cannot be disclosed. In defending myself, I had no other choice than to lodge a complaint over what I believe has been a violation of my [human] rights with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in February. I think my case in the court is the first of its kind from a Belarusian citizen living in Lithuania. But I am sure that other Belarusians will follow me and ask the court to step in. As of now, around 2,500 Belarusians are regarded as a national threat to the state of Lithuania, which is just preposterous. I categorically disagree with that and see it as political manipulation.

Are you allowed to stay in Lithuania until the Strasbourg court’s ruling is announced?

I am. I am on a humanitarian visa here now. The situation is absurd to me – as an applicant for asylum, deemed a threat to the Republic of Lithuania, I can stay here on humanitarian grounds. My humanitarian visa is valid through August, and I suppose it will be extended. Until now, it was extended automatically.

What happens if you get a negative answer from the local migration department in the autumn?

I cannot rule out that I will be extradited to Belarus, where capital punishment awaits me as someone on its terrorist list. In addition, I am a defendant in three new criminal cases against me, including on charges of attempting to commit a coup in the country.

Sadly, Lithuania’s State Security Department is looking for enemies in the wrong direction, towards the Belarusians in Lithuania. As far as I know, there is not a single Belarusian citizen arrested on charges of espionage here. 

Yet, you are not denying you went to Moscow on several occasions.

That’s correct. The last time was in 2016, when I went there for a conference whose participants included Russian government members, NGOs and an array of foreign guests. Then the political situation was quite different. Ahead of the Belarusian presidential election in 2015, Lukashenko was trying to befriend the West while tightening his grip on domestic affairs, Ukraine was not at war, so against that background, my trip to Moscow was unimportant. I met various people while in Moscow, but, of course, no one from the FSB or KGB.

Do you know Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election and who has been living in exile in Vilnius since then?

I know her quite well. We’ve met several times. But to be frank, now, she is in a completely different situation than in 2020, when she had a historical chance to make change in the country, uniting all the democratic opposition forces. I don’t think another chance of this kind will come in the next 50 years. 

I’ll put it bluntly – she squandered the chance, dividing the opposition into “correct” democrats and not “correct”. It makes me sad, as so much energy has been wasted on squabbles and bickering within the opposition. I am sure if the opposition had been united going into 2020, Lukashenko could have been ousted.

Also, to be honest, until the 2020 election, Tsikhanouskaya was just a caring housewife, without any job, a good mother and wife raising little children in a depressing little Belarusian town. But having fled Belarus to Vilnius in the wake of the crackdown on the opposition protests in late 2020, she has been enjoying a luxurious and opulent lifestyle here in Lithuania. 

Saying that she represents the Belarusian opposition now would be not true – the situation has changed dramatically. I wish she had done much more for the local Belarusian community [in Lithuania]. I’ve never heard her ask the Lithuanian government to address issues the Belarusians are dealing with here.

Belarus will hold a presidential election next year… 

A couple of scenarios are plausible, although forecasting is very hard in this unstable time. First, we need to see if the Belarusian military will join the war in Ukraine. If this happens, it will be a catastrophe for Belarus. In this case, the election will be like the [presidential] election that just took place in Russia – very formal, with the winner known well in advance.

In the second plausible scenario, with Lukashenko trying again to open some doors to the West, Lukashenko might want to conjure up the picture of as free an election as possible, but it would be naïve to expect that opposition people will appear on the ballot.

In another scenario, which is being considered by the Lukashenko circle, Lukashenko vacates the presidential seat and becomes the new chairman of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus, but that would be bad for Belarus, too – we’d simply see a Russian-style Putin-Medvedev-Putin rotation. 

[Dmitry Medvedev was president of Russia between 2008 and 2012, as the Russian constitution barred Vladimir Putin from competing for the post for a third consecutive term.] 

The candidates currently being discussed [in Belarus] are very pro-Putin. If any of them becomes president, a much faster integration of Belarus into Russia could be expected.

Do you think that Lithuania, over time, will start to treat Ukrainian refugees differently – perhaps like the Belarusians? Will the authorities become suspicious and possibly deem some of them a threat to national security?

I cannot rule it out. I’ve spent 10 years here and I see that your authorities are increasingly wary and weary and tired of the record-high number of migrants in the country. [It is estimated that over 200,000 people of Slavic origin have settled in Lithuania since late 2020.]

It seems to me that Lithuanian politicians do not have a clear strategy or vision of what Lithuania look like in, say, five or 10 years from now. Part of them see migrants as necessary to replenish the drought in the workforce, however, some are fearful of them, but at the same time they are struggling to offer solutions to the cheap labour shortage.

Speaking of the Belarusians here, I believe their integration programmes were poorly or at least hurriedly executed. 

Imagine, Belarusians need to pay €200 for a 10-class course of the Lithuanian language. It is ridiculous!

My own children already speak Lithuania, although they attend a Belarusian-language school with much focus on Lithuanian.

I am happy to have my both parents here too. The parents of my husband, we suspect, were murdered in the Belarusian town of Vitebsk at the end of 2022 – both were found dead on the same day…

That’s the reality in Belarus.

How do you see your own future in Lithuania? 

The VSD case against me is very distracting, not only to me but to the organisation too, as instead of focusing on Belarus, we need to focus on the unfair treatment of Belarusian exiles here in Lithuania. 

I am happy that most of my fellow countrymen understand that the accusations against me are political, and they stand behind me, sharing stories of their family members or friends who ended up being in the eye of the VSD.

To make ends meet, I keep writing analytical articles for a number of Western media outlets. Nash Dom is still carrying out multiple projects, none of which is sponsored by the Lithuanian government.

Some more bad news came this week: Lithuania’s Migration Department informed my husband, Oleg Borshchevskogo, who is the editor of the website, which belongs to Nash Dom [both are deemed extremist in Belarus] that it has started the process to deport him, even though Oleg faces up to seven years in prison in Belarus.

We will continue fighting, however – for ourselves and the other Belarusians in Lithuania.