When Elena Zhivoglod arrives in Kiev on August 4, five days before the first round of the Belarusian presidential election, it is with “A backpack, a few pairs of socks, underwear, a waistcoat” and plan to stay only two weeks at most. The electoral monitoring NGO, Honest People, of which she is a member, then decided to set up a rear base in the Ukrainian capital to thwart the inevitable pressures of the Belarusian authorities.
→ READ. In Belarus, the regime alone facing the street
“We had our tickets to go back to August 15th”, she explains a month later on the terrace of a cafe in Kiev, “But nobody expected that”. Taken aback by an unprecedented wave of protest and the regime’s repression, Elena Jivoglod finds herself stranded in Ukraine.
She is not alone. Since the fraudulent re-election of Alexander Lukashenko to the Belarusian presidency, several dozen opponents, trade unionists, civil servants, journalists and activists have left the country in order to escape arrest. A thousand kilometers of common border and the absence of a visa regime between the two countries make Ukraine a logical destination, but not always chosen: it was after being kidnapped by the Belarusian security services that Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov are deported to Ukraine on September 7. Present at the same time, Maria Kolesnikova, member of the opposition coordinating council, will tear up her passport in the no man’s land between the Belarusian and Ukrainian border posts to avoid forced exile.
→ READ. Belarus: opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova resists extradition
Departures are often rushed, circumstances always unique. 22-year-old Belarusian journalist Alexei Khudanov is invited by colleagues to Lviv, in western Ukraine, after three days spent in early August in the suffocating cells of the Belarusian police. And when Dmitry Koudelevich, a 48-year-old miner, union leader and striker, jumps out of a window to escape the KGB on August 20, he hopes to get to Poland first.
But the closure of the border due to the coronavirus epidemic forces him, the same day, to fall back on Ukraine, a three-hour drive from the city of Soligorsk. “I don’t think the KGB expected me to go that fast, they must have thought that I had gone to hide with friends”, he explains today. He arrives in Kiev in the evening.
A passive government
In the Ukrainian capital, these opponents and activists were able to receive the support of a Belarusian diaspora that the democratic awakening a few hundred kilometers to the north galvanized. “We have really met since the start of the demonstrations”, wonders Palina Brodik, a Belarusian activist present in Ukraine since 2015. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had certainly promised last year to make the country a welcoming land for dissidents in the region. But it is in fact civil society that took charge of supporting the opponents, the government itself having been rather passive.
Ukraine is also for many a transit zone while awaiting departure for Poland or Lithuania, two other countries which have become key places for the Belarusian opposition and which offer the additional guarantee of being part of the European Union. . Dmitry Koudelevich now lives in Warsaw, where he traveled after obtaining a humanitarian visa from the Polish government. Elena Zhivoglod hopes she will soon leave for Vilnius, Lithuania, where opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has established herself. Without assurances for the future, but with a conviction: “Until the fall of the regime, we will not be able to come back. “