The Belarusian regime is systematically attempting to destroy its own culture and Russify it, Estonia's special representative to the Belarusian democratic forces believes. ERR News spoke to Marko Koplimaa about his first six months in the role, the situation in Belarus, and what Estonia is doing to support those who oppose the regime in exile.
Estonia has been actively supporting Belarusian civil society since 2020 after a wave of violent repressions followed the presidential elections, widely regarded as rigged, that returned Alexander Lukashenko to power.
Thousands of Belarusians who supported presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled the crackdown and there are now significant diaspora communities in Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Ukraine, and Czechia. Estonia also has a smaller Belarusian community.
Approximately 1,500 people have been jailed as political prisoners in Belarus and Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters have been in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania for more than three years. Tsikhanouskaya's husband is also in prison, and she has been handed a 19-year sentence in absentia.
Belarus has since moved closer to Russia and allows Russian military forces to use its territory to attack Ukraine. It also orchestrated a migration crisis on its borders with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
Understanding what's happening inside the country is important as it affects regional security, including Estonia's, and increases the number of Russian forces on the EU's border.
The position of special representative was created last year under former Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) to support Belarusian dissidents in exile. Koplimaa has been in the role since the spring.
While many abroad call Tsikhanouskaya and her team the opposition, Estonia prefers the term "democratic forces."
"We don't think this is the right term as they do not represent so much as opposition to the Lukashenko regime, but they are the democratic forces in Belarus that aim for real democratic change," Koplimaa, who is based in Vilnius, explains.
During Reinsalu's term, Estonia's support for Tsikhanouskaya, her exiled government, and civil society fractured relations with the Belarusian regime to such a degree that Estonia was told to reduce its member of embassy staff in Minsk to one. Estonia has not had an ambassador in Belarus since 2021.
This makes it hard to fully understand what is happening inside the country.
Koplimaa's role helps fill this gap and he has two main duties. His first is to be the contact person for Tsikhanouskaya's government and civil society. Secondly, he tries to get a clearer picture of what is happening inside Belarus.
"What effects do the political, economic, and social climate in Belarus have on the wider security in the region? This is obviously what a normal diplomat should do," he says, describing his role.
This is made possible by speaking to the diaspora, think tanks, and people who either have been recently forced to flee or still have friends and family there.
"A systematic attempt to destroy a nation"
The information Koplimaa has heard since he took up the post this spring makes grim reading. The two biggest trends he sees are deepening repression and Russification.
"I think people are obviously afraid, I think this is the best way to describe it," he says, explaining the atmosphere inside Belarus. "The repressions, the system of repressions, is very strong [and] I would, unfortunately, say effective in squashing any kind of discontent or any moment of protest in Belarus."
Punishments are also getting "stronger and stronger". People are being handed longer prison sentences for "lesser crimes," such as political activity which the regime deems to be a crime.
"So, if in 2020 during the protests, after the protests, an administrative arrest of 15 days or 30 days was pretty much the norm for being outside with a white-red-white flag, then now we can see sentences are up to three, four, five years for the same kind of same act," the special representative says.
"We've also seen cases of people returning from outside of Belarus, from Georgia, also from Europe, entering Belarus to visit families, their phones being searched and then imprisoned for whatever that could be found on the phones. So I think this kind of level of repression is very deep."
The Lukashenko regime is also trying to eradicate Belarusian culture.
"What is happening in Belarus is, and I feel very uncomfortable saying it but I feel like it's the right way to describe it, is a very systematic and organized attempt to kill, destroy the Belarusian culture, language, and history, and make it Russian in essence," Koplimaa says.
"So we've seen national poets from the 18th, 19th century being outlawed and the Belarusian language being almost pushed out of schools. So it is a systematic attempt to destroy a nation, which is almost unheard of in history, where a nation itself is trying to kill its own nation."
Asked why Lukashenko wants to do this, he said nobody knows exactly. One explanation could be that Belarusian culture became a symbol of opposition to his regime, especially the red and white flag, after the 2020 election.
"The symbol of free Belarus became the flag, the language, it was a defining factor, something against the Lukashenko regime and now the regime is pushing back. So to the extent that if you speak Belarusian, you are assumed to be in opposition to the Lukashenko regime," Koplimaa says.
"I think for Lukashenko one way to define who is against him is Belarusian culture, Belarusian language, Belarusian identity and so if you don't allow it to happen, if you weed it out, if you destroy it, maybe there's a thought in his head that will strengthen his power and there's less opposition to him then which is a position of the immense insecurity."
Strengthening the country's ties with Russia and President Vladimir Putin helps keep Lukashenko in power.
Now, under the current regime, Belarusian culture can only flourish among the diaspora, Koplimaa says.
"I've heard people reference Warsaw as the new capital of Belarus culture, for example. That's where it has found a new home, and the governments and people of Poland and Lithuania have been very welcoming."
Belarusians need to find their own way forward
Estonia's top priorities are to offer support to the democratic forces and draw attention to what is happening inside the country.
"I don't think that Estonia has the power to do something directly in Belarus, and we have to be realistic about that," Koplimaa says. "I think, it's important that Belarusian people find their own way to bring change into the country.
"So, we've been very supportive of what Madame Tsikhanouskaya does, and giving her political support is one of our top priorities. And I wouldn't underestimate how important that is. Giving visibility, talking about political prisoners, talking about the crimes of the Lukashenko regime, and talking about the human rights situation in Belarus is supporting the democratic forces. That's what we have to do, that's what I try to do at every moment."
There are approximately 1,500 official political prisoners in Belarus, but the true figure is likely to be "far higher" as a number of people are being held for "political action," Koplimaa says. This can include "waving a flag or speaking in Belarusian or writing a Belarusian newspaper or any kind of protest against the regime."
Many people do not want the status of a political prisoner as they receive worse treatment, Koplimaa adds: "They have extra restrictions, they have less ways of communicating with the outside world, less opportunities to see their families or even lawyers, and are more often thrown into solitary confinement. It goes to the extent where political prisoners in the prison system have to wear a yellow badge with the prisoner number on their chest whereas the normal badge is white. So they are singled out from the very beginning for everybody to know."
A recent United Nations report found the Belarusian authorities are "misusing counter-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation to further purge civic space, suppress freedom of expression and eradicate political opposition".
The government still allows people to leave and approximately 500,000 have done so since 2020. Koplimaa says the regime may see this as a "pressure valve" as those who may cause it problems are no longer inside the country.
But life is also being made harder for those who leave. Another big issue faced by the democratic forces is assisting with issuing documents, such as passports, to the diaspora, which the regime stopped this summer.
"But it's also birth certificates, it's also diplomas from universities from Belarus, it's also proof that you're not a former criminal. These are all necessary documents for people to live in other countries and the regime is not issuing them anymore in embassies. It is important to note that one of the main functions of the embassies is to be there for the citizens. So the regime is failing their own citizens on this issue," Koplimaa says.
"But we have to look at it as a punishment system /.../ It forces people to come back to the country to renew their passports and then for the regime to have the opportunity to arrest, put extra pressure, and so on, on those persons."
Koplimaa said European countries are working out how to resolve the issue but there are no quick solutions.
Estonia is not the only country offering help and support to Belarusian civil society. Koplimaa says there are "quite a few" special representatives but they are not all based in Vilnius and titles differ. For example, France's official is based in Paris. Additionally, some countries cover Belarus from Lithuania, while the U.S. has relocated its embassy from Minsk to Vilnius.
As well as support, Estonia also contributes funding to the International Accountability Platform for Belarus, an international organization that documents the regime's crimes, and to the European Humanities University, a private, non-profit liberal arts university founded in Minsk that relocated to Lithuania in 2004.
"That is a university that is meant for most people from Belarus who want a European education," Koplimaa says. "I think that's a big part of the future."
On November 10, The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will host a conference in Tallinn along with the Belarusian democratic forces about the situation in Belarus focusing on media freedom and the role of civil society, human rights and accountability for the regime, and a vision for the future.
Editor: Marcus Turvoski