Free Belarus Center: «Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better»

Survivors
Калаж: Аліса Ганчар / Collage by Alisa Hanchar

The Free Belarus Center is a relatively new initiative that emerged after the events of 2020 when political refugees began arriving in Ukraine. In collaboration with the German Belarusian community «Razam», the center’s volunteers raised funds for housing rentals. Since then, the center has opened an office in Poland and has started engaging in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations on a strategic level. Reform.news discussed with Polina Brodik, head of the Free Belarus Center, why the welfare of Eastern European countries should be valued in itself, and why these countries should not be seen as merely a buffer zone or a tool in the fight against Russia.

The Free Belarus Center (FBC) is an independent public organization created to help people forced to leave Belarus. FBC engages in information education, international advocacy, and provides legal and psychological assistance. The organization was founded in 2020 in Kyiv, but after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, part of the team relocated and continued their activities in Poland.

«It is important to admit to yourself that you can ask for help»

At that time, there were no organizations one could turn to for legal issues, says Palina. All employees and volunteers of FBC had long been engaged in public activities both abroad and within the country. Therefore, despite the organization being only four years old, the team itself is very experienced.

— In Kyiv, we emerged with a very specific goal — to help people who were fleeing Belarus from repression. To provide humanitarian aid: housing, food, medical needs. Also to offer legal and psychological consultations. We were not sure if our work would be in demand for a long time because there was hope that the country would quickly change and the need for such assistance would disappear. But unfortunately, we are where we are.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: Аліса Ганчар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

In 2021, the FBC team realized that they needed to expand and engage in more substantial activities, says Palina. From a small initiative aimed at supporting political refugees, FBC has turned into a full-fledged organization operating in Poland and Ukraine.

— We still have an office in Kyiv where we continue to provide assistance. Some of the staff decided to stay, others left. Personally, Ukraine has long been a second home for me because I lived there for the last seven years, and I had no plans to move anywhere else. Only because of the start of the full-scale invasion in 2022 did we decide to expand geographically.

One of the specializations of the Free Belarus Center is psychological assistance. Consultations are conducted online, offline, in groups, and in individual meetings. Palina believes that the topic of psychological help in our society is not fully disclosed.

— Of course, quite a few people sought psychological help after 2020, mostly women. Gradually, the proportion between women and men changed and sometimes even shifted towards men. In my opinion, this is positive and means that men have started to allow themselves to seek help, which is normal. There should be no gender differences here.

When the events of 2020 were unfolding, Palina continues, it was logical to seek a psychologist after repression and torture. However, today not everyone can diagnose the early signs of depression, which happens more and more often.

— The hope we had in 2020-2021 is certainly different now. Everyone understands that this is a long-distance run. People definitely burn out and get tired. It is impossible to live in such conditions 24/7. This affects the psychological state. It is very important to admit to yourself that you can ask for help.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: Аліса Ганчар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

After the expansion, significantly more people began to turn to FBC for legal advice. Despite similar organizations existing in Poland, the number of requests remains high. Palina Brozik says that Poland is one of the few countries that views the presence of Belarusians positively and loyally.

— Here we have a fast-track for legalization. This also includes issues with schools, kindergartens, driver’s rights, pensions. However, not all issues are regulated. When leaving Belarus, people did not think about pensions, but over time this is becoming increasingly relevant. I hope the Polish government can resolve this issue.

Lawyers and psychologists have been working in the organization since 2020. Belarusians from Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, Georgia, and Turkey seek consultations at the Free Belarus Center.

— We monitor the dynamics in the countries where we operate. Thanks to our work, a number of legislative changes have occurred there. Belarusians are very mobile, and therefore the circle of difficulties increases according to their geography.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: Аліса Ганчар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

«Community unity, Belarusian cafes, and services help maintain identity»

In addition to legal and psychological assistance, the Free Belarus Center (FBC) is involved in civic education issues.

— We try to develop an understanding of how society should function under democratic conditions. How we can achieve this from the bottom up, not the top down. To do this, we need to understand the processes and procedures of building an independent state.

FBC organizes both short-term training sessions on digital security and six-month accelerators, where participants can learn to develop projects independently, receive mentoring support, and obtain microfinancing for their implementation.

— We have just finished accepting applications for the Activist and Journalistic Investigations Accelerator. We believe that these skills will be useful not only to journalists but also to members of public organizations.

In parallel, there is an ongoing call for the Cultural Projects Accelerator. The head of FBC explains that the organization strives to make the programs as tailored as possible to the needs of the participants.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: з архіва ФБЦ / Photo from FBC’s archive

— The demand for our educational programs increases year by year. For the internship programs, we receive more than 100 applications for a limited number of spots. This indicates that Belarusians have many ideas, desires, and resources for their realization. We want to see progress in the development of the initiatives we support, their professional track.

For the Free Belarus Center team, it is important to preserve national identity, so the organization engages in cultural diplomacy. In Palina’s view, the risk of assimilation of Belarusians in new communities is decreasing.

— Belarusians have a desire to strengthen their identity, however they understand it. This is not necessarily the Pahonia coat of arms and the white-red-white flag. Community unity, Belarusian cafes, and services help maintain identity. From here comes the feeling of ‘a Belarusian to a Belarusian is a Belarusian’

At the same time, Palina believes, it is important not to isolate ourselves within our Belarusian circle but also to learn new languages.

— By the way, recently Andrei Strizhak asked on his Facebook: ‘How many languages do you speak in everyday life?’ Most responded that it is more than four languages. These include not only Belarusian and Russian but also French, Spanish, Lithuanian, and Turkish. This is an incredible treasure that we can bring back to the country, not to mention professional skills.

«We want to show who the modern Belarusian is»

Every year, the Free Belarus Center organizes Hučna Fest. This year, the Belarusian culture festival will take place on June 29 in Warsaw. Participants will be able to get acquainted with contemporary Belarusian art, design, music, literature, and activist projects. Palina boasts about the number of participants — last year, more than a thousand people attended.

— We specifically hold the festival free of charge in the city center so that everyone has the opportunity to join. So that every participant can learn about Belarus, talk to real Belarusians.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: з архіва ФБЦ / Photo from FBC’s archive

For FBC, it is important to reflect the modernity of Belarusian culture, Palina notes.

— The need to find our ethnic roots is something we try to weave into the fabric of contemporary culture, which can be in demand not only by Belarusians. We want to show who the modern Belarusian is.

Last year, the festival featured Alhierd Baharevich and the publishing house «Yanushkevich».

— Poles bought the books as well. Some of them approached us and said that they also know Belarusian music.

At the festival, the organizers emphasize activism to popularize initiative and self-organization, Palina continues.

— At Hučna Fest, there were games where donations were collected for political prisoners, books were sold, and the money went to a rehabilitation center for volunteers. Given our background, it is important for us to help Ukrainians in resisting Russian aggression.

Palina explains that the organization has always strived to meet the challenges of the times and plans to conduct an internal audit of its activities soon.

— We want to try to look at the situation from the outside and analyze how needs have changed over the past four years. We want to make sure that we are not moving out of inertia. We want to shape our future from a forward-looking perspective rather than a retrospective one.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: з архіфа ФБЦ / Photo from FBC’s archive

«Realize what we did wrong and find joint ways to solve common problems»

At the end of last year, the Free Belarus Center launched a new analytical direction of work, with special attention to Ukrainian-Belarusian relations. Palina emphasizes that our common future depends on this.

— We need to find common points of interest and reach an understanding between our peoples. Together, we must fight for an independent Ukraine and Belarus.

Palina reflects on the importance of dialogue so that Belarusian and Ukrainian politicians can find non-obvious answers to some questions.

— Why didn’t Belarusians win in 2020? Is Kyiv still communicating with the regime? What can Belarusian democratic forces offer Ukraine? We also need an analysis of the Ukrainian situation to work on mistakes. Realize what we did wrong and find joint ways to solve common problems. Naturally, after the start of the full-scale invasion, there was a rollback, which is understandable. Not all Ukrainians followed the events of 2020. The revolution did not win, and this is evident. Most people draw certain conclusions from this.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: Аліса Ганчар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

Palina notes that there are certain obstacles for Belarusians within Ukraine, related to legalization issues, bank accounts, expired passports, and even visas.

— For example, the only bank through which you can pay the consular fee when applying for a Polish visa fundamentally does not serve Belarusians. And people who lost their documents during military actions faced the fact that Ukrainian border guards would not let them out. Thus, it turns out to be a paradox: on the one hand, Ukraine is not very happy to accept Belarusians today, but on the other, it does not easily let them leave.

At the beginning of 2024, Ukraine appointed a special representative for Belarus, former ambassador Ihor Kizim. His position is «ambassador with special assignments». Palina believes this is a big step forward.

— We understand that this person will communicate with democratic forces. He knows our situation well and does not need explanations about where Belarus’s political prisoners come from. This is a very important political step towards Belarusian democratic forces, giving hope for greater understanding in the future. The appointment of a new special representative can positively affect the situation of Belarusians in Ukraine.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: Аліса Ганчар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

Palina Brozik explains that Belarusians in Ukraine get along very well with the locals and rarely notice signs of disrespect.

— The situation is not as critical as it was in 2022 when some restaurant doors had signs saying ‘Belarusian and Russian pigs are not allowed.’ This was also the case in Warsaw, but today it is not. A large number of Belarusians are fighting and collecting humanitarian aid. This is a kind of public diplomacy that gradually changes attitudes towards Belarusians for the better.

The situation is also improving regarding the legalization of Belarusians in Ukraine.

— Both Belarusians and other foreigners can stay in Ukraine with valid documents until the end of the martial law. There are also new challenges, such as expired passports. This complicates legalization, but gradually we are finding solutions to these issues.

«The desire to cooperate with the regime as before has disappeared forever»

When talking about discrimination against Belarusians, Palina continues, it is essential to understand the difference between isolated incidents and systemic discrimination.

— Blocking Belarusians’ bank accounts in Ukraine is systemic discrimination. When minor incidents occur in Poland, such as scratching a car or attacking someone for speaking Russian, this does not yet indicate widespread discrimination. Such incidents also happen to Ukrainian citizens in Poland.

According to Palina, Belarus is increasingly seen as less of a subject in international relations, making it harder for Belarusian democratic forces to influence the region’s future.

Free Belarus Center: "Public Diplomacy Gradually Changes Attitudes Towards Belarusians for the Better"
Фота: Аліса Ганчар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

— Unfortunately, the focus of many international organizations and politicians is on Russia. They think that the main goal is to defeat Russia, often overlooking the interests of other countries. Historically, Ukraine had significantly more agency, but still not enough; with Belarus, it is even less so. The problem lies not only in the presence of the regime and our exile but also in the geopolitical vision of the region by the collective West. Eastern Europe has always been viewed through the lens of Russian interests. We need to change these approaches. The well-being of Eastern European countries should be an inherent value, and these countries should not be seen merely as a buffer zone or a tool in the fight against Russia.

Palina Brozik believes that the future of Belarus is directly linked to the future of Ukraine.

— Our neighbors are interested in seeing Belarus develop and become a reliable partner, with conditions favorable for democratization and the growth of civil society. Previously, Ukraine viewed us only as a business partner, and supporting civil society was not a priority. Today, the attitude of Ukrainian political elites is changing. There is an understanding of the difference between the Belarusian regime and civil society. The desire to cooperate with the regime as before has disappeared forever.

Text: Herman Zabaronak. Photo: Alisa Hanchar

The special project «Survivors» documents the state of Belarusian civil society organizations (CSOs) in the year 2024.

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