Over the past 10 years, countries in the post-Soviet space could be divided into two groups: those people that escape from to avoid political persecution, and those they escaped to. The political regimes in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia continue to force out anyone who does not accept the current state of affairs in those countries. If you love your grandmother and take care of her while she has COVID-19, and then you simply tell people about what was going on in the hospital, that’s enough for them to come after you.
Many refugees choose to seek asylum in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic countries.
In the last two years, people have been emigrating from Belarus in the largest numbers. Since Belarusian authorities suppressed the protests against the falsification of the 2020 presidential election results, more and more Belarusian citizens not only see no future in Belarus, but even fear criminal prosecution.
In the film Seven Roads, Euroradio tells the stories of Belarusian émigrés who decided to leave their country after the events of 2020.
Paper vs. People
However, once a citizen of Russia, Belarus, or Azerbaijan enters Ukraine, they usually encounter obstacles to getting residency or other forms of legal status. As a rule, people live there for a long time without an ID card, which means that they have no access to state medical care and can’t find a job or a place to stay.
Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are attractive for political émigrés because Russian is still spoken there, émigrés have friends and relatives there, and the operations of the state bureaucracy, inherited from Soviet times, are familiar. Additionally, the visa regimes in Ukraine and Georgia make it easier for citizens of Russia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan to travel there.
To find out more about the problems faced by political émigrés in Ukraine, read “How political émigrés become legal in Ukraine” at Hromadske.
A False Sense of Security
At first glance, it would seem that political refugees are safe once they cross the border. The reality is not so simple. Practice shows that the territories of Georgia and Ukraine are transparent for the intelligence services of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. In August 2021, for example, 26-year-old Vitaly Shishov, director of the non-profit Belarusian Home in Ukraine, was found hanged. Friends of the activist say that they have reason to believe that Shishov was assassinated. Ukrainian authorities, however, have yet to reveal the results of their investigation. Ukrainian courts and law enforcement take a legalistic view of requests for political asylum and may deport asylum seekers if they have been accused of a crime in their home country. It should be remembered that in Belarus and Russia criminal accusations of hooliganism or attempting a coup d’état are often brought against people who participate in protests. Sometimes law enforcement works directly with the countries that political asylum seekers came from. That happened in the case of opposition journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who was kidnapped in the center of Tbilisi (Georgia) and sent to Azerbaijan.
To find out more about how political émigrés do not feel safe in Georgia or Ukraine, watch this video from Meydan TV:
Road Map for Political Refugees
For now, the Baltic countries seem to be the safest destination for political emigration. Apart from applying for political asylum, in the Baltic countries it is possible to gain legal status by finding a job or investing money in real estate or in business. But obtaining legal status is only the beginning of the difficult work of integrating into a new society, new circumstances, and different rules of life. For many, emigration is a difficult process involving a loss of social status and the need to study a new foreign language.
To find out more about what political émigrés face in the Baltic countries, read “A Refugee’s Passport, Work, and Real Estate” at Novaya Gazeta Baltic.
Bonus – video reminder
Zhenia Snezhkina, produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange