Belarus suffers brain drain amid year of political unrest

By Lisa Haseldine

FOLLOWING nine months of political unrest in Belarus following Alexander Lukashenko’s stolen election in August 2020, Belarus is experiencing a brain drain.

Regular civil unrest protesting Lukashenko’s disputed victory over Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya last August have prompted increasingly harsh retaliatory crackdowns by the government.

Tsikhanouskaya ran for the Belarusian premiership in place of her husband, blogger and activist Siarhei Tsikhanousky, following his arrest in May 2020 over his own intention to run for President.

Her manifesto promised the release of all political prisoners, fair and free elections, the reinstatement of the two-term presidency and a move towards a more independent, less Russia-reliant Belarus.

This attracted a large number of Belarus’ younger population, many of whom were born in the last years of, or after, the Soviet Union, and were drawn to the liberalising reforms she was proposing.

Due to a lack of reliable information sources and the near impossibility of producing unbiased polling in the country, it is difficult to discern the exact numbers and demographics of Tsikhanouskaya’s supporters, but pre-election rallies across the country in support of her drew the largest crowds in the history of post-Soviet Belarus.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, where Lukashenko claimed to have won an improbable 80.1 per cent of the vote, large-scale protests were met with brutality by the government and state police.

Over the past months, days-long country-wide internet black-outs and restrictions on foreign journalists have been combined with mass arrests on charges ranging from participating in ‘illegal’ protests to displaying, or even wearing, the colours of the opposition’s alternative national flag, red and white, in an effort by Lukashenko to crush resistance to his rule.

Many skilled young professionals were among those detained by state police at protests and suffered human rights abuses condemned by the UN Human Rights Council, and began to leave the country, triggering the start of a brain drain over the autumn.

Belarus’ booming IT sector, responsible for almost 50 per cent of the country’s GDP growth in 2019, has been disproportionately targeted by the government crackdowns as Lukashenko holds IT firms responsible for enabling and mobilising the protests through their platforms.

Raids on firms such as Yandex have spooked many IT firms into quietly beginning to relocate their Belarusian employees abroad, where they are able to work without fear of government reprisals or internet blackouts.

Many young professionals just don’t see a future in Belarus for themselves under the current regime.

The Belarusian economy has faced stagnation in recent years – with fewer opportunities for young people.

The intensification in political repression of the last year adding to the mix, and no quick fix in sight, means many have left for places like Poland and Lithuania, who are offering fast-track visas for individuals and schemes for companies. 

“There are many intelligent and educated people from all sorts of professions among the protestors: medics, businessmen, IT workers, and they can’t envisage their future under this regime,” said protestor and young professional Dzmitry Safronenka, 26.

She told Redaction Report: “After such brutal repressions from the Lukashenko regime, particularly when people have experienced detention, beatings and being locked up in prison, their desire to get out of the country only intensifies.

“People were also leaving before to get away from the regime and dictatorship, but now this is happening on a mass scale.

“Often, people are simply left without any other choice: it’s either court, prison, fines or leaving the country. This is very scary.”

The Belarusian government has never formally acknowledged the exodus of people fleeing the regime, although on 19th December 2020 the country’s land borders were shut until further notice to citizens trying to leave.

The decision was justified as an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but in the context of the government’s refusal to lock down or introduce any other large-scale restrictions, many, including Tsikhanouskaya have voiced their scepticism at the government’s motive.

Based in Lithuania since the August vote, Tsikhanouskaya said: “[Lukashenko] didn’t care about covid before. Now repressed Belarusians cannot flee and seek asylum abroad.”

For many, the way out of Belarus is now much harder.

While the precise impact and scale of this brain drain will take time to become apparent, the health of Belarus’ economy is now inextricably linked to the country’s political situation. 

Might victory for democracy reverse the brain drain? Perhaps, but with the recent fiasco over the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich, Lukashenko isn’t showing many signs of changing.

*Some details have been changed or withheld to protect anonymity.

Featured Image: Максим Шикунец @WikimediaCommons

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