Belarusians in Lithuania felt hurt: they accused Nausėda of using hate speech

Belarusian flags next to LT --BY border. Photo V. Ščiavinski

Some Belarusians living in Lithuania say they notice the deteriorating situation of Belarusians in Lithuania, as the country is becoming dominated by the priority of national security, and the interests of refugees are allegedly being pushed to the sidelines. Belarusians criticise the way Lithuania declares some Belarusian citizens to be a threat to national security, which is done without a thorough understanding of the situation and without reliable data, Eglė Samoškaitė is writing at the news portal.

Olga Karach, head of the International Centre for Civic Initiatives Mūsų namai, has received a negative response to her application for refugee status in Lithuania but calls the decision absurd and plans to appeal. She says that the State Security Department, which considers her a threat to national security, played a key role.

“I have been declared a threat to national security. I think this is absurd because this response probably came from the Department of State Security because of our active role in trying to protect Belarusians, who have already been declared a threat to national security. I have not yet read all the documents, but I am sure there is no threat to Lithuania’s security. Some of the reasons are very silly. For example, Vladimir Zhirinovsky has given me an interview. This supposedly means that I am a threat to national security. So now you can be declared a threat to national security because I am giving you my interview,” Karach, who until now has been living in Lithuania with a residence permit, told journalists on Friday.

The Migration Department announced that since the end of November 2022, when a special questionnaire was introduced for citizens of Russia and Belarus, in which they are obliged to provide certain information and to express their attitude towards Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, 1,164 citizens of these countries have been recognised as a threat to the national security of Lithuania.

According to the data of 4 August, after assessing all public and non-public information, 910 Belarusian citizens were found to be a threat to national security, 337 of whom were refused a temporary residence permit in Lithuania, and 121 were refused a replacement of their residence permit. 205 Belarusians had their previously valid temporary residence permits revoked. Two Belarusian citizens were refused permanent residence permits in Lithuania, and four had such documents revoked.

They complained about Lithuania’s changing attitude

On August 18, several Belarusian organisations held a press conference explaining that Lithuania is starting to treat Belarusians unfairly. The press conference was very strange in the sense that representatives of the different Belarusian organisations sought to present their position in a very broad way, but no time was left for any questions.

In total, Natalia Kolegova of the public institution Dapamoga, as well as Yauhen Vilsky of the Narodnaya Hramada party, Andrei Vazjanau, a lecturer at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Nika Wegorsky of the Polyglot language organisation, a translator, Maxim Kapran of the unregistered association Free Belarusians of Vilnius, and Olga Karach, the head of the International Centre for Civic Initiatives Our House, who has been mentioned above, all took part in the conference.

For example, N. Kolegova said that she has been living in Lithuania for a very long time, her grandmother is a Lithuanian from Darbėnai, and her husband and son are Lithuanian citizens, but she has never felt embarrassed that she herself has a Belarusian passport. However, she said, the situation is changing now, and you can feel it in the air.

“In the last couple of months, there is definitely a situation where I can feel it,” explained Ms Kolegova, who has refugee status and who spoke Lithuanian, although it was very difficult to understand some sentences.

Kolegova said that not long ago, a Belarusian political prisoner tried to enter Lithuania via Russia, but the border guards at the Kybartai border checkpoint with Russia refused to accept his asylum application. Only the Lithuanian Red Cross intervened to change the situation.

The Belarusians also pointed out that they have noticed campaigns against the Belarusians on social networks for using the Vytis sign. “There are claims that the Belarusians want to take away Lithuania’s history”, Kapranas explained.

Recently, a story broke in the media when Lithuanian defence expert Darius Antanaitis encountered a Belarusian citizen living in Lithuania in a bar in Vilnius, who explained that Vilnius is a Belarusian city. Such clashes are not frequent, but they are an indication of growing tensions.

However, when asked about this, O. Karach said it was probably drunken men talking in bars and that it should not be paid attention to: “I think that Vilnius is really Lithuanian, as 100% of Belarusians here think so. But it was drunken conversations in a bar. In my opinion, we should not react to any people who talk while drunk on vodka in a long alcoholic discussion”.

Accused Nausėda and Bilotaitė of fear-mongering

O. Karach’s organisation issued a statement accusing President Gitana Nausėda of “hate speech” against Belarusians, as the President has consistently proposed to equalise restrictions for both Russian and Belarusian citizens, as both countries are considered as aggressors who attacked Ukraine. Recently, the debate on equalisation of restrictions for Russians and Belarusians has resurfaced, especially with the establishment of Wagner in Belarus and the closure by Lithuania of two of its six border checkpoints.

The International Centre for Civic Initiatives Mūsų namai has also been attracting the attention of the Minister of the Interior Agnė Bilotaitė and the information campaign launched by the Ministry of the Interior in January on the preparedness of the population and state institutions for a possible nuclear accident, military threats and other disasters. The campaign was described in a statement as “fear-mongering in society”.

“In reality, it was the announcement of a campaign by the Ministry of the Interior aimed at pushing out Belarusians from Lithuania,” reads the statement by the International Centre for Civic Initiatives Mūsų namai.

“Hate speech and negative statements by Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda against Belarusians in Lithuania” is the title of one of the chapters in the same statement.

Karach herself says she has had a residence permit in Lithuania since around 2014 but has only been living permanently in Lithuania since 2020, before which she claims to have lived between Belarus and Lithuania, and her children are in Lithuania.

“I work as a human rights defender, and, of course, I wanted to have contacts in Belarus and to be able to go to Belarus, to feel the situation, to talk to the victims of repression,” she said, explaining why she has been going back and forth between Belarus and Lithuania for so long.

Recently, she sought asylum in Lithuania, but the answer was negative, which she intends to appeal to the courts.

According to Karach, she has been declared a terrorist in Belarus and faces the death penalty. “I risk being shot,” she said, adding that her organisation had been declared extremist because of its criticism of the Kremlin and the Russian Federation.

She explained why most Belarusians do not speak Lithuanian

Around 55,000 Belarusian citizens have been granted residence permits in Lithuania, but not all of them are refugees. For example, about 35,000 are long-distance drivers whom Lithuanian companies are happy to hire because there is a constant shortage of long-distance freight drivers. People are beginning to notice that Russian is constantly being spoken around them because, in addition to Belarusian citizens, Lithuania is also home to refugees from Ukraine, which has been attacked by Russia, as well as from Russia itself.

However, O. Karach says that it is particularly difficult for both Belarusians and other non-Belarusians to learn the Lithuanian language, as courses are very expensive, and the only way to learn Lithuanian for free in Lithuania is to be granted asylum – either refugee status or temporary protection.

“How can we learn Lithuanian? If you are Belarusian and you want to learn Lithuanian, you can’t do it on Youtube, and we need teachers. We need an education system so that you can learn for free. But, for example, I have not been granted asylum, which means I have to pay. I have to pay a minimum of 200 euros for ten lessons. That is very expensive for most people, including me. Imagine, 200 euros is not enough to learn a language. We have met with different members of the Lithuanian Parliament and asked them to give us the opportunity to learn Lithuanian for free,” explained Ms Karach.

According to the woman, only a few hundred Belarusian citizens have been granted political asylum in Lithuania out of approximately 55,000 Belarusians, which means that only those few hundred can learn Lithuanian for free.

According to the reports of the Migration Department, 471 Belarusian citizens were granted asylum in 2022 and the first half of 2023.

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