Belarusian Combatants in Ukraine: Heroes or Criminals?
On 29 August, Ales Charkashyn, a member of tactical volunteer group Belarus Fighting in Donbas, died from combat wounds. This is the first known death of a Belarusian citizen fighting on the Ukrainian side.
No Ukrainian diplomats attended Charkashyn’s funeral in Brest yesterday. Kyiv has been reluctant to acknowledge the devotion of Belarusian volunteers fighting for Ukraine by awarding them Ukrainian citizenship and see them as an obstacle in relations with Minsk.
The Belarusian side, on the other hand, continues to say that it will persecute Belarusians who join the fight in Ukraine, on either the Ukrainian or the Russian side.
Belarusian Volunteers in Ukraine
The true scale of Belarusian involvement in the Ukrainian conflict remains unknown. Most Belarusians conceal their participation in order to avoid persecution at home. Estimates in the media, such as those given by Belsat TV, range from a few dozen to several hundred volunteers.
Several political activists and individuals formerly recognised as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International have joined the fight in Ukraine. Vasily Parfiankou, who served a prison sentence for participating in protests after the rigged 2010 presidential election, has been serving in Ukraine since last winter.
On 25 July, co-chair of the Young Front Eduard Lobau published a video announcement stating that he had arrived in Ukraine "to fight the common enemy”. Arrested for organising protests following the 2010 election, Lobau left Belarusian prison just six months prior to the announcement.
The involvement of well-known Belarusian political activists in the Ukrainian conflict who do not conceal their identities draws media attention. Yet according to an anonymous volunteer interviewed by the European Radio for Belarus, the majority of Belarusians fighting for Ukraine have no political background and speak Russian. Many of them have joined the tactical Belarus group, which belongs to Ukrainian militant group Right Sector (Pravy Sektor).
Belarusians Die for Ukraine
On the night of 10 August, the Belarus group came under fire. The Ukrainian coordinator of Belarusian volunteers, Vitaly Tsilizhenko, died right away. Charkashyn, 33, was sent to intensive care with shards in his head, chest and kidney. Ukrainian doctors fought to save his life for two weeks, but he died on 29 August.
Since the early 1990s Charkashyn has belonged to the democratic movement in Belarus. He studied at the Tavriyskiy Christian Institute in Ukraine and previously served as the leader of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party in Brest, a city of 310,000.
At the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, Charkashyn assisted with humanitarian aid delivery. Eventually he became a soldier. Charkashyn seemed like a quiet and religious man when the author met him several years ago.
Charkashyn is the first Belarusian known to have died fighting on the Ukrainian side; several other Belarusian volunteers died fighting for the separatist cause. Some 150 people attended Charkashyn's funeral on 3 September. The crowd chanted “Heroes don’t die” as his coffin was carried through the streets of Brest.
Several leaders of the Belarusian opposition attended, including Paval Seviarynets of the Belarusian Christian Democratic party and former political prisoners Zmicier and Nasta Dashkevich of the officially banned Young Front. No Ukrainian diplomats appeared.
Are Belarusian Fighters for Ukraine Criminals?
The majority of Belarusian volunteers fight in combat groups such as the Right Sector, a Ukrainian far-right organisation frowned upon by the Ukrainian authorities and the international community. A possible reason for this is that only Ukrainian citizens can join the official Ukrainian army. Right Sector, the only pro-Ukraine combat group unaffiliated with the Ukrainian government, may be the only choice for foreigners seeking to support the Ukrainian cause.
According to one volunteer, even though all Belarusians who return home from the Ukrainian front are convicted as mercenaries, they do not qualify for refugee status in Ukraine. Were the Ukrainian government to enforce its laws, it could start deporting the volunteers, most of whom stay in Ukraine longer than the laws allow.
Even though Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov once promised to award citizenship to Belarusian fighters, most volunteers still have no Ukrainian citizenship. Two Ukrainian parliamentary deputies close to the volunteer corps, Igor Guz and Dmitry Timchuk, proposed a law that would permit granting Ukrainian citizenship to foreign volunteers fighting on the Ukrainian side.
The only Belarusian fighter who has received citizenship to date, Sergei Korotkich, has a dubious past. Korotkich had lead a neo-fascist organisation in Russia and participated in a crackdown on Belarusian pro-democracy activists in the 1990s.
Belarusian volunteers who spoke with Belarus Digest named two reasons for the reluctance of the Ukrainian authorities to grant citizenship to Belarusian volunteers. One reason is the current dysfunctionality of the Ukrainian state. A no less important reason is Ukrainian concern about the ongoing negotiations between Minsk and Kyiv.
The Belarusian government threatens to criminally prosecute Belarusian volunteers as mercenaries Read more
According to volunteer Andrej Strizhak who spoke to Belarus Digest, Ukrainian MPs drafted a law awarding a Hero’s Medal to Belarusian Mikhail Zhiznieuski, shot dead at the Euromaidan protests, but the draft was never voted on in parliament, “perhaps due to a political agreement between Belarus and Ukraine”. Instead of the Hero’s Medal, Poroshenko presented the Order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes, a lesser award, to Zhiznieuski's parents.
The Belarusian government threatens to criminally prosecute Belarusian volunteers as mercenaries. The KGB reportedly summons relatives of volunteers fighting for Ukraine for questioning.
“Do you understand that people go there to kill and then return and live among us?”, Chairman of the Belarusian KGB Valiery Vakulchyk told the media in June 2015. He said that these people should face the consequences of their actions, sooner or later. At the same time, no criminal cases have been initiated to date, possibly because all the volunteers have remained in Ukraine.
Just a year ago, the Ukrainian authorities welcomed foreigners willing to fight for Ukraine. Today, they view Belarusian volunteers as a liability rather than an asset. The volunteers deserve more respect than the Ukrainian authorities give them.
Why Belarusians Prefer to Shop in Poland and Lithuania?
In July the Ministry of Trade announced a plan to levy a tax on online purchases in foreign shops. Since then the state agencies have been elaborating the methods that will be used for tax collection. It could become another tool to prevent Belarusian customers from buying abroad, both online and in the flesh.
Earning almost three times less than Poles and Lithuanians, Belarusians often prefer to buy food, clothing, household appliances and many other goods in neighbouring EU countries rather than at home. The reason is simple: foreign shops have a wider variety of goods, which are on average cheaper and of better quality then in Belarus.
Unattractive Belarusian Goods
Lukashenka stated in September 2013 that Belarusians spend approximately $3 billion annually on shopping in EU countries (over 4% of GDP). This is quite a significant number when compared with the fact that each year the authorities struggle to find the necessary resources for the paying back of between $3-4 billion of foreign public debt.
Surprisingly, “richer” Poles are not interested in shopping in Belarus, while “poorer” Belarusians often buy in Poland. In the last five years spending of Belarusians in Poland has more than doubled, reaching just under $1 billion. At the same time, Poles spend around $25 million annually in Belarus. They mainly buy alcohol, cigarettes, and petrol. Although this number does not include the contraband that Belarusian smugglers take illegally to Poland.
Various consumer goods in Poland and Lithuania cost less than in Belarus while their quality is better and the range is wider. This applies to wide variety of goods, for instance, cheese and meat, washing powder and shampoo, jeans and trainers, IKEA furniture and a new iPhone. In addition, in Poland and Lithuania, Belarusians can find the latest products and products with significant discounts. This is something rather rare in Belarus, especially in state-owned shops.
Yet, 25 years ago there was hardly any difference between Poland and Belarus in living costs. Belarusians could go to Poland to buy or sell one type of groceries, e.g. eggs, while Poles could go to Belarus to buy or sell other types of groceries, such as meat. Today Belarus has hardly any good offers to tempt Polish customers. Even worse, it gets harder and harder to interest its own customers.
Shopping In Poland Becomes the “New Normality” For Belarusians
Belarus occupies the first place in the world on the number of Schengen visas per capita. According to the European Commission, in 2014 Belarusians received 880,000 visas, which is 108 thousand more than a year before. These figures do not include holders of the Pole's Card which allows people who claim to have Polish roots the opportunity to visit Poland without a visa.
Four out of five Belarusians declare shopping as the main purpose for visiting Poland, according to the Central Statistical Office of Poland. Moreover, each time Belarusians visit Poland or Lithuania as tourists, on business or to participate in various events, they always visit local shopping malls. Whether they go to Vilnius for a rock concert or to Warsaw airport, they will bring back goods bought in Poland or Lithuania.
The Polish government established a special type of Schengen visa for Belarusians that provides “for shopping”. Malls close to the border can issue invitations for potential customers. The first invitation for a short term visa can be for free with the obligation to spend $70-100 on goods. The next time, VAT invoices which confirm the previous shopping escapade should be sufficient for receiving another visa, which is usually a long term multi-entry visa.
Many Polish and Lithuanian shopping centres close to the Belarusian border organise special offers for Belarusians, like the annual Marathon of the Belarusian Week of Shopping and Recreation in Białystok, the capital of Podlaskie voivodship in Poland. During such weeks, shops and hotels grant Belarusians various special offers and discounts. VAT tax recovery on purchases on the border creates additional incentives for Belarusians to shop abroad.
Białystok’s and Vilnius’ malls actively advertise also inside Belarus. Akropolis and Ozas in Vilnius, the mecca for Belarusian shoppers, hold major advertising campaigns in Belarusian cities.
In Podlaskie voivodship of Poland shopping malls such as Auchan, Ikea, and Leroy Merlin install billboards written in Belarusian language. The shops try to market themselves among the increasing number of Belarusian customers.
Belarusian Government Tries to Limit Shopping Abroad
Belarusians became so active in shopping abroad that Lukashenka presented in 2013 the idea of introducing a $100 fee for Belarusians crossing the border with the EU. As a result of foreign shopping foreign currency leaves the economy putting pressure on the Belarusian rouble. The $100 fee was supposed to limit the negative impact of shopping abroad. However, following a wave of criticism Lukashenka retracted this proposal.
the authorities actively look for ways to tax purchases made online in foreign shops Read more
To encourage Belarusians to shop in their own country on 10 March 2015 the government introduced new restrictions on the import of goods by individuals for private purposes. Now, the new policy allows Belarusians to import various duty-free items such as microwaves, refrigerators, washing machines and computers but they have to prove that they are bought for personal use.
Furthermore, the authorities actively look for ways to tax purchases made online in foreign shops. In late June, the chairman of the upper chamber of Belarusian parliament, Michaił Miasnikovič, revealed a plan to introduce a tax on imported online purchases.
The economic crises makes Belarusians count their money more carefully. Shopping abroad, particularly in big cities near the border with Belarus, has already become a way to save money and to buy better quality goods for many Belarusians. More and more frequently lucky owners of a Schengen visa travel for shopping in Vilnius, Bialystok and Warsaw.
Belarusians will prefer to shop abroad as long as the Belarusian authorities sustain the old ineffective economic system which produces many uncompetitive and unwanted goods. The recent depreciation of the Belarusian rouble will temporarily make imported goods more expensive but the trend to shop abroad is irreversible.