From here to home: Belarussian political refugees in Batumi

Journalist: Olga Bubich, , Illustrator: Asya Asart
Topic: Conflict

I remember the day all too well: the sticky heat under the empty sky, the motionless leaves of the birch grove across the road—still and silent, as if cut out from a children’s coloring book. Grumpy people in a crowd in front of the polling stations, surrounded by the loud propaganda music that was only turned on during “special” occasions, supposedly to evoke patriotic feelings toward Lukashenko’s version of Belarus. Tension stuck in my throat, a ball of unspoken words. Little did we know that August 9, 2020 would change the lives of thousands of Belarusians forever.

After the rigged presidential elections that ended up with Lukashenko’s claim of a landslide victory, the country witnessed unprecedented protests violently suppressed by the police. More than 1,100 Belarusians were recognized as political prisoners; 13 independent media were labeled “extremists” and banned; and around 300 NGOs were forced to close. Detainees faced humiliation, rape, and torture; no charges were ever filed against the prison administration or riot police. 

Belarusians started to realize that if they wanted to stay free and continue their fight for the country’s independence, they had to leave the country. 

As Belarus is not an EU member-state, there were limited choices for relocation: people with good paying jobs that allowed them to work remotely moved to Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. Others chose Ukraine and Georgia. Russia, the country repeatedly described by Lukashenko as Belarus’ “elder brother,” was not an option: its special services practiced extradition. 

Officially more than 110,000 Belarusians left their homeland in 2020-2021: Most moved to Poland and Ukraine, with a minority heading to other nearby countries. Approximately 3,000-5,000 refugees chose Georgia, mainly settling in Tbilisi and Batumi.

“The rate and efficiency of social development actually depend on a small number of people—some 5-7 percent. The current regime is forcing the most active and educated out of the country. From a certain point of view, we are witnessing a disaster,” Gennady Korshunov, a sociologist and ex-director of the Institute of Sociology of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences—now a political refugee himself—told Nasha Niva.

In July 2021, with 43 kilograms of books, a laptop and a shabby red teddy bear— a token of a happy childhood—I arrived in Batumi. I did not know the Georgian language, people or customs. But there was one thing I was sure of: in Georgia I would feel safe. 

During the first months it all felt surreal—the city was vibrant, relaxed and very much alive, with its face changing according to the part of the day and the neighborhood I found myself in. As an avid traveler and international culture journalist, I could easily compare it with other places I had visited: at night the New Boulevard pretended to be Las Vegas, while downtown, with its one-story buildings, bore a closer resemblance to cozy Portuguese quarters. On sunny afternoons certain roads lined with plane trees evoked Prague and porticos covered in grapevines called to mind peaceful Tuscany. 

Multiculturality made me invisible, flashbacks brought back the feeling of reality. With time, my memories of stun grenades exploding in front of the entrance of my apartment building in Minsk and the black silhouettes of the riot police running under the windows gradually began to blur. I knew that in Georgia I could continue working and keep the world’s attention focused on Belarus. I wanted to make sure the fight and sacrifice of my people was not for nothing. That was my duty. 

Moreover, in Batumi I was not alone—with Belarus occupied by Russian troops that are now using it as a platform for their attack on Ukraine, the influx of refugees is only increasing. The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs states that more than 15,767 Belarusians citizens have arrived in the country since the war started. Their stories are different, but the traumas and emotions that led them to forced immigration have much in common. 

Roman is a human rights lawyer and lecturer. During the 2020 Belarussian protest he provided free assistance to people whose human rights were violated. In May 2020 Sergei Tikhanovsky, a Belarusian pro-democratic YouTuber, known for his activism against Lukashenko’s regime, announced his intention of running for the 2020 presidential election and was arrested two days later. Roman, with 10 other activists, was detained the same day. Such actions of the law enforcement organs were classified as “preventive”they feared that some opinion leaders would nominate themselves for the presidency. There were so many detainees across the country that detention centers normally used for offenders serving their terms for criminal offenses were hastily turned into prisons.

“We were taken to another town and hidden from our relatives...There were 32 of us in a cell meant for eight. Without enough space on the floor, we took turns sleeping. The guards were yelling and threatening to poison us with gas. They made us kneel down with our hands up and faces against the wall. All of us were deeply shocked. No one expected the protests would be so massive—it was a real riot.   

I never wanted to leave Belarus, but in June 2021, when repressions started targeting independent mass media and NGOs, it became clear that they would not allow me to work and live in the country… I thought I would have more time to plan my immigration, but it did not happen. On July 19 my house was searched by the KGB, my laptop and other equipment were confiscated—a week later I headed to Batumi.

Till the last day, I had no idea of the destination or how I would leave Belarus. I realized the KGB was following my every step and also checking my online activity—I couldn’t go online to see the train timetable, they would immediately know about my plans. I changed all my SIM cards, but it didn’t help… Georgia looked like the easiest way out. Tbilisi flights were sold out, so my friends bought me a ticket to Batumi. The decision was fast—I literally left overnight... I remember walking from the Batumi airport with no cash and almost no luggage... accompanied by only beach dogs…”

Julie left Belarus because of her fear that the police might come for her, and her 15-year-old daughter would lose her mom for an indefinite period due to her work helping political prisoners’ families, mostly those arrested according to Article 23.34 (infringement of the procedure for organizing or holding mass events). When the persecution of volunteers began, Julie realized that staying in Belarus was unsafe. About 90 percent of those she had worked with also left the country because of the indirect signals they received—for many it was a decision taken overnight. 

“When I was choosing between Tbilisi and Batumi… I wanted peace, and this is exactly what Batumi and the sea give me. I enjoy its climate, nature, and people, who are mostly hospitable and friendly. 

Another important factor had to do with the prices for renting and food that I, as a Belarusian, could afford. Theoretically, I could have considered Georgia as a kind of temporary place to stay, but, to tell you the truth, with my depressed state, I just had no energy to ask myself ‘what is next?’.

All these months I have been living in the same apartment, so I know shops and cafes in the area and I feel glad when the locals know my name and ask me how I am and how my work is going on. I am happy to develop closer relations… 

The first time I was asked whether I was Belarusian, Ukrainian, or Russian, was at the end of February. Upon learning that I had left for political reasons, people treat me with sympathy and even a little bit of pity, but always kindly. I want to think of Georgians as people with a positive attitude toward foreigners.

Basically, many Georgians have only a broad idea of ​​what happened in Belarus. They know we had some kind of ‘revolution’ or ‘war', as they put it, but no one understands our situation in detail and they are not aware of what really brought us here.”

Tanya worked for a Belarusian NGO that dealt with the issues of gender and sexuality in Minsk for eight years. In the autumn of 2021, information about her organization appeared on a pro-government Telegram channel where its employees were blamed for allegedly planning protests and inciting hatred—typical charges that often served as formal “grounds” for imprisoning activists, opinion leaders, and human rights defenders—usually even without a trial. This pushed her to pack up her luggage and leave the country. The situation was especially difficult since she had to flee with a baby who turned three months old on the day of their departure, November 30, 2021.

“With my baby dependent on me, I realized it was no longer solely my personal story. I could endure imprisonment, but what would happen to my child? I knew how vindictive the authorities were… my parents might simply fail to get custody rights because of the obstacles the state would pose... Thinking about it scared me. The fact that my child could end up in an orphanage…. She did not deserve such a fate. 

By that time, almost all my colleagues had left Belarus and I was one of the two people from my team who were still there. My first reaction was to freeze. I had neither the impulse to flee nor unbearable fear. Sitting in that room, all by myself, squeezed into a chair, I was asking myself, ‘What should I do now? Why hadn’t I left before? I never broke any laws, did I? Why should I leave? I have never done anything wrong.’ 

I have no plans for the future—I only want my life to not be so hard. I feel extreme tension, my whole body has turned into some spasm. I'm glad to be in Georgia, but I feel like there is a hole inside me: deep down I don’t know why I’m here…”

I have been in Batumi for four months now…it is impossible for me to work in the NGO now and I am not considering starting something similar in Georgia—I don’t feel I have the right to do it. When you are alone with a baby, lightness disappears and responsibility comes. I no longer understand the word ‘next.’ Fantasizing about the future is a privilege that I no longer have.”

In Belarus Maria was an activist and a volunteer. She took part in all the rallies, raised money and made parcels for political prisoners. Maria’s nightmare began the day of the arrest of her close friend Tatiana Ostrovskaya, a volunteer from “Strana dlya Zhizni” (“Country for Life”), a Youtube channel launched in 2019 by Sergei Tikhanovsky.  

“We had to put on hold all the volunteering activities—some were paralyzed by fear, others were at a loss, and my own efforts were aimed at helping my friend with legal procedures. Also, I realized that the KGB might come after me because I had been in contact with her a lot. Her husband confirmed, telling me ‘They are inquiring about you.’

Tatiana, as we learned later, was accused of ‘сalling for action aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus,’ Article 361 of the Criminal Code. She risked being sentenced to up to 12 years. 

My own interrogation by the KGB lasted for more than eight hours. I was supposed to confirm some of the evidence they had collected through wiretapping Tatiana’s phone conversations. At some point, I felt hysterical, and told them ‘Let me go or put me in prison. I cannot bear it any longer!’ They made me sign my statement and gave me a subpoena. I was supposed to attend a court hearing two days later… My status, however, was still that of a witness. It was clear:I had to stay quiet, otherwise my role in the trial would change.

So, I had only one day to decide if I would stay in Belarus and go to court or leave the country. By coincidence a friend of mine was in Batumi on holiday and she said she’d find me a place at the hostel, so I headed to Georgia. Initially we thought it would be a temporary relocation. My plan was to stay in Kyiv, a city my family knew well and where culture and language differences would not be so big.

Now I am scared that the attitude toward  Belarussians might change. In Tbilisi I have already experienced several instances when Georgians rudely told me to go f**k myself, like the Russian warship, despite the fact I wear yellow and blue symbols on my clothes. I don’t deserve such an attitude. I have never done anything bad to the Georgians. I always fought for my country’s freedom and helped both political prisoners in Belarus and Ukrainian refugees. I don’t understand. How is it that in a week we went from ‘flower girls’ to 'aggressors?’” 

Ales has worked as a documentary film producer and web journalist for 10 years. And it is because of his professional activities that he had to immigrate. He left two days before the premiere of his film, in October 2021. The film, which explored not only the history of Belarus, but also the current political perspective and August events, was to be shown on Varlamov’s Youtube channel.  It included an interview with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the only registered opposition candidate who remained free, now recognized by many democratic states as the president of Belarus. 

Initially, Ales did not plan to stay abroad. He thought of the trip to Batumi as a temporary vacation, an opportunity to observe how things would unfold in Belarus from a distance. However, when he arrived in Georgia, he saw the arrests were continuing at an unprecedented scale and realized that returning would be too risky.

“During the first few weeks in Batumi, two people from my film crew were arrested, another one managed to flee. We realized that we would stay here much longer than we had planned and started… discussing ideas for possible future projects. I even monitored the real estate market.

But our main problem was the psychological ‘baggage’ we brought here. Only once we were in Georgia did we realize that we had escaped from a concentration camp where all our freedoms were suppressed… we had faced so much violence … Initially, it was hard to find a balance between our life before and now. And as soon as we had started to feel that we had reached this balance and spread our wings in a psychological and emotional sense, the war [in Ukraine] started...

After Georgia, the only place I want to go is my home, Minsk. And now, while my homeland is used as a platform for war, I cannot imagine myself there. Belarusians are under double occupation—that of their own dictator and that of the neighboring country, Russia.” 

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