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Meet the Belarusians in Lithuania who fled political crisis back home

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Ivan was dropping off his youngest child at a nursery in Belarus when he was grabbed by a group of men and thrown in a van.

Accusing him and his wife Kristina of being drug pushers, they ransacked the family home and took away their computers.

The experience, like for many other Belarusians since the disputed presidential election in August, forced them to flee.

Their compatriots have headed to Ukraine, Poland or one of the Baltic countries.

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Ivan and Kristina — like opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — chose the latter, so shaken by their experience at the hands of the Belarusian security services that they drove to the Lithuanian border with a just a single bag.

They are among 367 Belarusians to have officially moved to the country since Alexander Lukashenko was crowned the winner of the August election with an 80% vote share. Critics said the vote was fixed in his favour. It sparked huge protests and even bigger crackdown, with demonstrators, political opponents and journalists jailed or forced to flee.

Vilnius has granted hundreds more Belarusians a work visa since August, according to figures from the interior ministry. Between August 11 and December 31, 2020, Lithuania granted visas to 6,814 people from Belarus, up from 5,196 over the same period the year before.

‘We have to pinch every penny’

Ivan says they had come to the attention of Belarusian security services because Kristina joined Vesna, an opposition-supported organisation, which helps the victims of government repression with legal help.

“My wife set up a chat room on the Vesna platform and organised and coordinated assistance,” said Ivan.

“She also helped with collecting money to pay the services of lawyers.”

But, having fled difficulties in Belarus, life has not been immediately all plain sailing for Ivan and Kristina in Lithuania.

“The biggest problem we’ve encountered here was the documentation,” said Ivan. “In the very beginning, we had to self-isolate for a fortnight, a mandatory step here for all Belarusians arriving in Lithuania amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“But with our humanitarian visa valid for a fortnight too, we ended up being in the country as illegals after self-quarantine expired.”

In Lentvaris, near the capital Vilnius, and with the help of a local entrepreneur, Ivan succeeded in getting a plumber’s job, which pays just a little more than most manual jobs in the area, approximately €600 a month.

“We have to pinch every penny here,” Ivan confessed.

In Belarus, the family lived in Zhlobin, some 200 kilometres from Minsk. There, Ivan had held mostly managerial positions. But rather than moan about being overqualified for any work he can get in Lithuania, Ivan says he was raised to appreciate any opportunity that comes along.

“I am just not in a position to be choosy yet,” he told Euronews.

‘I never thought I’d end up doing this’

Andreij, another Belarusian in Vilnius, came to the country on a work visa before Christmas after being arrested at an anti-Lukashenko protest in Minsk.

“They shoved me forcefully in the riot militia van,” he told Euronews. “But I was lucky to have been taken to hospital – perhaps my complaints that I felt weak helped me. They wanted to incriminate me with grave charges, so I took no chances [and left].”

The 40-year-old, who lives in a shared room in a city centre hostel, said the hardest bit about the move was finding work that appealed to him.

“I am a content producer, I have a degree in journalism from Moscow State University,” he said. “I’ve spent 15 years in Moscow. But Lithuania needs carpenters, welders, builders or plumbers. Even those are in less demand amid the coronavirus depression.”

Unable to find a job that would match his career path, he was forced to take low-paid jobs to make ends meet.

“Now, I am a food delivery guy in the evenings and, to eke out an existence, I also clean houses,” he said. “I never thought I would be doing this in my life. The manual work is discouraging, but I see it as something very temporary.”

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Belarusians arrive with ‘an array of psychological traumas’

It’s not just scarce job options that Belarusians have to cope with. Others say they have to deal with bureaucratic hurdles, the language barrier, cultural differences and often unaffordable rental prices. These, of course, are not unusual for anyone moving to a new country, but on top of this, some Belarusians are haunted by the trauma of repression back home.

“The Belarusians resettling to Lithuania experience an array of psychological traumas, stress, first of all,” said Natalija Kolegova, head of Vilnius-based NGO Dapamoga, set up to help Belarusians newly arrived in Lithuania. “Many have suffered emotionally, psychologically and even physically from the authoritarian regime.”

Kolegova said, away from the psychological issues, another key problem was for those arriving with refugee status.

“With that status, people are not entitled to work for months and months,” she said. “And those who manage to receive a work visa, are facing a very competitive job market here – with a whole lot fewer jobs during the pandemic, especially for women.

“Those with the refugee status can enjoy much wider medical coverage, but when it comes to employment, they cannot work under the status and are compelled to rely on the ridiculously low social welfare payments, sometimes €20 euros a month.”

It’s a scenario that Ivan and Kristina have experienced.

“I was able to change my status to a D visa, which allows me now to work in the country, but my wife still has refugee status,” said Ivan. “With that, she is eligible for a €20 monthly allowance for nourishment and €10 to buy hygienic goods. It is nothing. The rent of our little house costs us €350 a month – Lithuania is not cheap.”

‘Lithuania should be more like Ireland in the 1990s’

“Simply speaking, there is a lot of bureaucracy on our side,” said Valdas Bartkevicius, a Lithuanian entrepreneur, who is helping Belarusian refugees with accommodation and work.

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“As a country with a relatively short history of our own independence, we should be much more sensitive and responsive to the calls of help from those who are fighting for their own freedom now – be it the Belarusians or the Russians.

“We should be acting like the Ireland of the 1990s, when it, with us already unshackled from the Soviet Union, embraced hundreds and thousands of Lithuanians going there in search of a better life.”

Marius Parescius, vice-president of Paysera, a leading Lithuanian e-payment platform, agrees. He said despite recent improvements, Lithuania is still lagging behind Estonia – and some say Poland as well – at providing Belarusian refugees with the necessary help.

“Estonia, for example, provides each resettler what the Russian word сопровождение describes best –accompaniment from the first moment when the people cross the border to taking them directly to a place where they will have to stay, to having someone personally filling out the required documentation for them in the local social welfare service and so on,” Parescius told Euronews.

He said the migration of Belarusian citizens, business and capital has intensified following the contested elections last August.

Belarusians in Lithuania use his platform to send money home.

“In the first half-year of 2020, we opened 2,300 Paysera accounts for Belarusian nationals and over 4,500 in the second half-year,” he said.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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