Just three years ago, following a brutal crackdown on democratic forces in Belarus after the rigged presidential election, thousands of Belarusians fled to neighbouring Lithuania, mostly Vilnius, the capital city, where they were embraced wholeheartedly.
Today, their reception has become decidedly frostier, with rightwing politicians – already suspicious of Belarus for historical reasons – seeing them as a potential threat to Lithuania’s national security.
They now argue Belarussians should be treated more like Russians than Ukrainians when they come to the country. Lithuania has taken one of the toughest stances towards Russia in the EU, and has been one of the strongest backers of Ukraine.
Several Belarussians have now had their claims for refugee status refused.
“My friend was denied refugee status two weeks ago, after almost two years of waiting. He cannot return to Belarus, because he would be immediately arrested there. He thinks about leaving,” Andrey Erguine, who also fled Minsk for Vilnius, told bne IntellIiNews.
Nataliya Kolegova, head of the Belarusian NGO Dapamoga, told bne IntelliNews that there is distinct fatigue in Lithuania about aiding the refugees.
“When the authoritarian Belarusian regime cracked down on protests of democratically-minded Belarusians in late 2022, Lithuanian politicians sounded genuinely embracive and supportive, when talking of our common history. I remember the Lithuanian PM Ingrida Simonyte’s words then ‘We helped you, are helping and will always help. You just need to be patient’. But it seems that Lithuanian has run out of patience with us. We’ve become Lithuania’s pain.”
The most high-profile case of denied asylum is Olga Karach, a prominent Belarusian activist whose Vilnius-based NGO Nash Dom (Our House) has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Karach has recently been denied asylum in Lithuania due to her alleged links to the Russian intelligence service. However, she will remain in the country with a temporary residency permit because the authorities admit there is a threat to her life in Belarus.
Turning a deaf ear
Laurynas Kasciunas, the conservative Homeland Union chairman of the powerful parliamentary Committee of National Security and Defence (CNSD), turns a deaf ear to all the laments.
“We accepted 60,000 people [Belarusians]. That's a lot. And there will no doubt be a humanitarian corridor for people fleeing the regime – it is humane. But the Wagner [mercenary group’s] arrival in Belarus has changed things, and we have to look at them differently,” Kasciunas insists.
The CNSD head has said on several occasions that many of the Belarusians haven’t been vetted properly upon arrival to Lithuania, meaning that their loyalty to Lithuania should be investigated. Referring to the findings of the VSD security service, he says approximately 1,000 Belarusians pose a threat to Lithuania’s national security.
“The fact proves that not only human rights defenders, not only the democratic opposition, not only businesses fleeing authoritarianism, but also people connected to the regime in one way or another to the structures are starting to come to Lithuania...Therefore, Lithuania, as a self-respecting state, must manage risks. This is being done through the cancellation of residence permits in Lithuania, the unification of restrictions for Belarusians and Russians,” he says.
“I think no one can be sure that with the thousands of Belarusians in Lithuania, Russia won’t attempt to provoke a hybrid war using them as the card,” he warns.
Political analyst Vytautas Dumbliauskas says the Belarusians who sought refuge in Lithuania should not be surprised about their different treatment now.
“Their country has gone from being Russia’s satellite to a colony, one very supportive of the war in Ukraine. Due to our limited capacity to check the background of all the Belarusians who arrived in Lithuania en masse then, our special services do the job kind of belatedly – some of the Belarusians are undoubtedly infiltrated by Belarusian intelligence,” he told bne IntelliNews.
The way of obtaining Lithuanian visas by some Belarusians has also aroused suspicions in Lithuania.
Emphasising that foreign nationals make up nearly 7 per cent of Lithuania's population for the first time since independence, Raimundas Lopata, chairman of the parliamentary Committee for the Future, says that, every day, 4,000 to 4,500 Belarusians cross the border between Lithuania and Belarus.
“Given that we issue about 1,000 visas per month, one wonders who issues visas to the rest of the Belarusians," he says.
The MP says Lithuanian authorities have information that a visa of an EU country can be bought on the "black market" in Minsk for €1,000.
Experts say many of these Belarusian visitors are migrant workers, who are needed because of Lithuania’s skills shortage.
Most temporary residence permits in Lithuania are granted to drivers, construction workers, and employees in the industrial and meat processing sectors, according to Investuok Lietuvoje (Invest Lithuania), Lithuania's foreign investment promotion agency.
Others are much sought after IT professionals. Data from Investuok Lietuvoje shows some 5,200 Belarusian IT professionals are now living in Lithuania.
Nevertheless, citing national security concerns, the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament, is set to revisit the issue of granting temporary residence permits to foreign workers in Lithuania. In its autumn session it is also likely to reconsider whether to impose more restrictions on Belarusian nationals despite protests by the liberals in the government. This proposal is backed by President Gitanas Nauseda, who argues that Belarussians should be put under the same restrictions as Russians.
“In late 2020, many ruling MPs rubbed their hands, hoping that the Belarusians will fill up the [workforce] void. Now they appear to be bad. But how to find someone who is an excellent worker, loving Lithuania cordially and answers the mandatory question on the Crimea [which country the Crimea should belong to is part of the questionnaire by Lithuania’s Migration] without a blink of an eye?” a Lithuanian businessman quipped to bne IntelliNews.
Kolega says there are already clear differences between the treatment of Belarussians and Ukrainians.
“Unlike Ukrainians, who can start working here as soon they enter the country, Belarusians, even doctors, who are willing to go to work as nurses in hospitals in the border municipalities, cannot do that. It is very sad,” she says, adding: “The local politicians need a scapegoat. There was the pandemic, the war, the Wagner scare and us.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the former Belarussian opposition frontrunner against Lukashenko, who now lives in exile in Vilnius, has warned Lithuanian officials about the souring relations. She said recently that some Belarusian IT companies that have moved to Lithuania are considering exiting the country. She has also spoken out against Lithuania’s decision to shut down two checkpoints on the country’s 670-kilometre border with Belarus.
“We ask the Lithuanian side not to equalise all restrictions for Belarusians and Russians,” Anna Krasulina, communications head for Tsikhanouskaya, told bne IntelliNews. “First of all, this would hit pro-democratic Belarusians, those who participated in the protests in 2020, and our movement as a whole. This will be used by propaganda, which is also trying to equalise Belarusians and Russians, and will sow discord between our peoples, the Belarusians and Lithuanian. We shouldn't allow this to happen.”