It’s around 2 a.m. on Oct. 8, and Nataliya Kolegova is speeding through the dark in her Toyota. She’s heading from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius toward the Belarus border and constantly checking her mobile phone.
Kolegova, 54, is a real-estate agent, but ever since the government in Belarus started going after its own citizens, she has been helping people to safety in Lithuania.
At 2:29 a.m., her car’s headlights shine upon a man on the edge of an empty highway. He’s carrying a backpack and wearing a blue jacket and jogging pants. His hair is cut short and he has a hopeful look on his face.
Kolegova brakes and gets out of the vehicle. Illuminated by the red brake lights, they embrace.
“I cannot believe that you really exist,” says the man. His name is Mikhail, a 37-year-old locksmith from the city of Zhlobin. Like hundreds of thousands of Belarusians, he had taken part in demonstrations against Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s ruler, after the disputed election in August.
“I needed to get away immediately.”
Mikhail sinks into the passenger seat next to Kolegova, and he immediately starts talking. For weeks, he had been hiding from Lukashenko’s henchmen in a dacha, sneaking out to his job during the day. At night, he would lay sleepless.
Just 30 hours earlier, his wife had called him and said Lukashenko’s men had just ransacked their home. Not long before that, they had discovered a white-red-white flag in his car and flyers from opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Mikhail’s life was in danger. “I needed to get away immediately,” he says. He was facing the possibility of between seven and 15 years behind bars, with the authorities accusing him of being a “coordinator of mass protests.”
Kologova stops at a McDonald’s. While she orders a large coffee and a coke, Mikhail stares into the night.
“Ever since I crossed the border, people have been treating me with respect. In Belarus, we were treated like dogs.” After a pause, he asks: “Is Tsikhanouskaya in the city?” Kolegova answers, “She will soon be returning from Germany.”
She parks her car under a streetlight in the old town center of Vilnius and leads Mikhail into a rear courtyard. At 3:05 a.m., he climbs the stairs to an apartment that she used to rent to tourists through booking.com. There are two freshly made beds, the light is dim.
“Don’t be afraid,” Kolegova says to Mikhail. “You now need to sleep. Lie down. You will easily find work in Lithuania as a tradesman.”
Only 180 kilometers (110 miles) separate Minsk from Vilnius. But they are worlds apart.
The Center of the Exile Community
Lithuania has become the center of the Belarusian opposition-in-exile. Around 32,000 Belarusians live in the Baltic country, and ever since the violence in Minsk began escalating, more have been coming every day. The most prominent such resident of the city is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian democracy movement.
Vilnius is an old city filled with young people. The only free Belarusian university moved here years ago. Many of the new arrivals had good jobs in Belarus, until recently.
There is a market researcher who fled after she ripped a balaclava from a police officer’s face. There is the construction worker who was so badly beaten by security forces that a photo of his seemingly dead body went viral, and he was prematurely declared the protests’ first casualty. Two sound technicians now live in Vilnius because they played a freedom hymn – “Peremen!” – at an event at a state theater before the election.
The Belarusians now living in Vilnius have set up a network to help others fleeing the country. The Lithuanian government has even placed a two-story house at their disposal, where they can learn Lithuanian. Indeed, the Lithuanian state is welcoming the fleeing neighbors with open arms. The government has set up a “humanitarian corridor” and is issuing two-week protective visas at the border.
Since August, more than 300 people have applied for the visa. The country has also made it easier for Belarusians to apply for work visas.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius says that the numbers are still low, but if the excessive state violence across the border continues, he believes a mass exodus is possible.
On a recent morning, Kolegova arrives in a rear courtyard covered with grapevines carrying two bags of bed linens. A white-red-white flag hangs in front of one of the apartments. Two journalists and their children are living inside, along with a businessman. They are all waiting out their two-week coronavirus quarantine, and Kolegova is supplying them with necessities.
She has helped 80 people who have crossed the border since the election. “I call them my children,” Kolegova says, and laughs. Kolegova herself also hails from Belarus, but she has been living in Vilnius for 20 years with her Lithuanian husband. She remembers Belarus as a country “where the people submit to the regime.”
She says the feeling of freedom in Lithuania was overwhelming, and she soon began earning money by helping others experience that feeling. Kolegova founded an agency that helps emigrants from Belarus and Ukraine in their move to Lithuania, for a fee.
“Set Off Immediately”
Ever since the first Belarusians fled across the border from Minsk on August 29, Kolegova has focused entirely on taking care of them. In September, she registered a donation-funded aid group called Dapamoga. “The first people who fled were deeply traumatized,” she says. Directly after the election, Lukashenko’s special police force, known as OMON, tortured many people brutally.
She says that the second wave of people fleeing Belarus, which began on Sept. 15, included many who had tried to resort to legal measures after being mistreated in jail. “They were once again persecuted. A catastrophe for their psyche.”
She says that the “third wave,” which began in early October, is made up of parents. The regime, she says, often takes children away from opposition supporters by accusing them of endangering their wellbeing because they join demonstrations and leave their children with their grandparents.
People ask Kolegova for help from Minsk via Facebook. She says most of the messages are lengthy, from desperate people wanting to tell their whole story. Kolegova then suggests switching to Telegram, the encrypted messenger app, and asks the following questions: “How is your mental state? Are you being persecuted? How much time do you have to flee? Are there children involved? Were you imprisoned for political reasons?”
Once the questions are answered, Kolegova most often tells them: “Set off immediately.”
This was the case with Mikhail. He comes down to the courtyard at 11 a.m. the morning after arriving and lights a cigarette. He says he only slept half an hour. “I miss my wife.” After she told him on the phone that their apartment had been raided, they both decided to drive to Minsk in separate cars. There, they hugged one last time. Then Mikhail hitchhiked to the border.
He is struggling to understand that, for now, he has no homeland. “My bit of earth,” he says. “I love the landscape. I belong in Zhlobin.”
The only thought that gives him comfort is that he is now in the same place as Tsikhanouskaya. “I can see in her face that she doesn’t want to betray us,” Mikhail says. During the election campaign, he followed her, full of hope, through the entire country.
On August 8, he drove to Minsk, intending to vote there the next day. He wore a white band around his wrist, a symbol of support for Tsikhanouskaya.
But because Mikhail apparently wasn’t eligible to vote in Minsk, he got into a discussion with the security personnel in the voting location. “I wanted to call my authority in Zhlobin to clear things up.” Suddenly he was accused of having called for people to vote for Tsikhanouskaya.
OMON, the special police, put him in a van. Shortly thereafter, he was locked in the infamous Okrestina jail. A 12-day nightmare began.
He was forced to crawl through the courtyard naked. When he stumbled, he was beaten. After spending hours on his knees, he was shoved into a tiny cell crammed with 38 people. “For an entire week, they gave us nothing to eat and poured ice-cold water on us.” He says he was interrogated naked. He constantly heard screams.
Before his release, the supervisor forced him to sign a paper that he would no longer attend protests. Mikhail remembers that he then had to take part in a race — while being beaten –- that supposedly determined whether he would be allowed to leave or not.
Mikhail was released and made it back to Zhlobin. But the harassment didn’t stop – an experience that many others have also related. “Police officers observed me. They banged on the door.” But he refused to open up.
Because Mikhail didn’t want to give up hope of getting rid of the hated regime, he went back to the protests. He was once again imprisoned. His throat still hurts from being choked so hard by a special police officer. After that, he hid in the dacha.
He only wants one thing now: “That Lukashenko and his men be held accountable.”
Freedom and Lives at Risk
For 10 weeks, Lukashenko and his men have been browbeating Belarusian citizens. After the disputed presidential election on August 9, he declared himself the winner, claiming to have won 80.1 percent of the vote. Those who question that narrative put their freedom, and their lives, at risk.
OMON has arrested thousands of peaceful protestors, pulling opposition supporters from their bicycles, spraying retirees with pepper spray and dragging women out of churches or universities and packing them into paddy wagons. Opposition calls for dialogue and a new election have gone unheard.
Last Saturday, Lukashenko spoke with jailed opposition representatives in an absurd imitation of dialogue. And the very next day, his henchmen started beating people again and 700 people were arrested. One Monday, the Internal Affairs Ministry for the first time threatened to shoot protesters.
One day later, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the opposition, issued an ultimatum: If Lukashenko hasn’t stepped down by Oct. 25, and all the political prisoners haven’t been released and the violence ended, the country will embark on a general strike.
A meeting with Tsikhanouskaya involves an elevator ride to the top of a non-descript office tower with a view over Vilnius. Young men and women type rapidly on their laptops, lending the place a startup-like atmosphere.
“OK and not OK,” she says, when asked how she is doing. “I feel safe, but my thoughts are with the people of Belarus.”
It’s just a few days before Tsikhanouskaya, 38, is planning on traveling to Germany, and she receives her visitor in an office surrounded by glass. She is wearing a brown pantsuit and her hair is tied back. She has an open-minded look on her face.
She says she spent the last 10 years at home. “A normal life,” she says, as if she is still surprised that it might interest anyone. She and her husband, Sergei Tikhanovski, had traditional gender roles, she says, with Sergei travelling around the world as a businessman. She looked forward to weekends and trips with the children.
No Fear of the Regime
The family’s life changed when Sergei became a video blogger. His videos about the problems facing everyday people Belarus, in which he would angrily berate Lukashenko, began attracting significant attention. In late 2019, when Sergei “began speaking too loudly for the authorities’ taste,” he was jailed for the first time. Tsikhanouskaya admires him. “He has no fear of the regime.” She remembers how she would watch his most recent YouTube videos at the time and worry about him going back behind bars.
Then, Sergei was jailed for the second time. His attempt to run in the presidential election was blocked by the Central Election Commission. Tsikhanouskaya says that since she had not been a focus for the authorities, she submitted her own papers instead.
“It was an act of support for him. I wasn’t thinking about future elections, only of my husband.” When he was released from jail, she wanted him to see that “what he is doing is also important for me.” Sergei Tikhanovski was shocked when he learned of her candidacy.
When she brought her documents to the electoral commission, she says, she was “one-hundred percent certain” that “they wouldn’t accept them.” She also believed that, as Sergei’s wife, she might be considered dangerous to the regime. “If I had known that they were going to accept my candidacy, I maybe wouldn’t have brought them.”
Today, Tsikhanouskaya thinks they accepted her candidacy to “make fun of her.” The plan, she believes, was to create the illusion of a democratic election in which she would be allowed to run as a woman, but not receive any votes.
When Tsikhanouskaya was planning her campaign on May 29, her husband was incarcerated for the third time. “That was the last time I saw him.” Today, Sergei is still in jail in the city of Zhodzina. She had only been able to communicate with him through lawyers until a week ago Saturday, when she was allowed to speak to him by phone after her trip to Berlin. He told her to continue fighting even more energetically.
And she is prepared to do so, with some limitations.
Would she run again in Belarus in a new election? “No. I still feel that it’s not the sphere in which I feel comfortable.”
Tsikhanouskaya is not like Juan Guaidó in Venezuela or Alexei Navalny in Russia. She never wanted to become president. Nevertheless, independent surveys have found she likely received 70 percent of the vote. She absolutely wants to help carry out democratic change. But how?
Her answer: “pressure.” Pressure through protests in the country. But also sanctions from outside. She says that the support of important countries that do not recognize Lukashenko as president is important. She knows that Lukashenko has destroyed the structures of civil society in the last 26 years, and she argues that, for this reason, it is extremely important to strengthen them.
She says that working groups of the Coordination Council, that was founded to lead the country to democratic elections, are already tackling questions of culture and economics, and talking about strikes.
Her advisors talk about the growing self-organization of the citizens. They need to be given information and structures for the time after new elections. Tsikhanouskaya wants to shape the new Belarus from abroad. She wants to create a country that doesn’t yet exist.
“It is not enough to have new elections,” she says. “Something has to stand after this.” Her team wants to return to Minsk within a year. Maybe earlier.
Lithuania’s foreign minister admires Tsikhanouskaya’s development. Speaking via Skype from his coronavirus quarantine, Linas Linkevičiusis makes it clear that he, too, is yearning for change in Minsk.
“Our people still remember the price of freedom,” he says. During the push toward independence from the Soviet Union in 1989, over a million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in the three republics formed a human chain. Recently, 50,000 Lithuanians re-created a version of this “Baltic Way” in solidarity with the protestors. Hand in hand, from Vilnius to the border.
Lithuania is exhibiting a significant degree of self-confidence in its approach to its Russia-supported neighbor. “We feel some empathy to those who are abused. It is our task to find the way to support those victims of repression. Civil society, free media,” says Linkevičiusis. On the eve of the elections, Lithuania issued visas for people “who could be exposed to danger,” including Tsikhanouskaya.
“The Only Way Out Is New Elections”
He argues that Lukashenko believes they can settle thing in their own way, as they used to do before. He believes Lukashenko is playing for time and counting on the winter to make the protesters crumble. The Lithuanian is warning the international community against getting used to this “new normal” that Lukashenko is trying to put in place. The brutality is continuing, he adds, while the only dialogue taking place is with the Kremlin.
“A lot of very strong messages should be sent to stakeholders, like Russia, not to invade, not to intervene,” he says. He argues that now that the leadership is weak, even illegitimate, Russia will do its best to devour the country to the degree possible.
“The only way out is new elections.”
But what happens when the external pressure on the regime disappears? What if the demonstrators get tired?
Many exiled Belarusians have a bad conscience because they can no longer stand up for democracy in Minsk. They feel helpless, so close and yet so far away. In those moments, Telegram channels like “Nexta” from Poland or its Lithuanian equivalent, “Belarus Golovnogo Mozga” connect them. Thousands also watch “Nash Dom TV” on YouTube.
The YouTube Resistance
Moderator Olga Karach, an eccentric human-rights activist, is spurring on the opposition in her videos. She believes that the new spirit of freedom can’t be put back into the bottle.
“Lukashenko is behaving like a household tyrant,” Karach says into the camera on this October evening. She claims that no matter how a woman in Belarus behaves, she is always punished according to his moods. That’s why, she says, it is perfectly OK to follow your own path, that you don’t need any permission from a “bad regime.” It’s time that “we become bad girls and boys.” She makes a frivolous liberation speech in which she compares Lukashenko to an ex-boyfriend who can’t let go.
Karach is wearing a white dress covered in musical notes along with red pumps and a red band around her hip — a blend of femme fatale and 1930s style. She streams out of an empty apartment above the rooftops of Vilnius. Fans ask for selfies with her on the streets.
The 41-year-old – who has founded “Nash Dom,” or “Our House,” a human-rights organization – has considerable experience as a resistance figure. In her hometown of Vitebsk, she was the only young woman representing the opposition on the city council. She took care of potholed streets, fought for women’s rights and was frequently arrested.
Nash Dom TV has 100,000 subscribers. “We have replaced Sergei Tikhanovski ’s channel,” she says. His wife, she says, is not an enthusiastic speaker, and she is not particularly interested in power. She argues that there is no time to lose. Karach is impatient.
“It is normal that one sometimes loses hope in an abnormal situation,” she says into the camera. “But the law is on our side. We now need to ensure that our ex doesn’t return, even when he is trying to break down the door with an axe.”
The opposition figures in Vilnius gather every evening in front of the Belarusian Embassy. They wave flags, light candles, talk about Minsk.
“Standing in the group with a flag is the best form of rehabilitation,” says Kolegova, after picking up Belarusians who had recently fled from Minsk to bring them to the gathering.
A manager who has been in Vilnius for two days steps forward and stands across from the embassy with a flag. The situation is new for him. He has never been to a protest where his life isn’t in danger. After 10 minutes, he can’t stand it any longer. He sits down and takes his mobile phone out of his bag. On the screen, he follows people in Minsk who are courageously resisting. He says he’d like to be there with them.