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Meet the NGO turning to cryptocurrencies to help desperate Belarusians

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By Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
Demonstrator is silhouetted by an old Belarusian national flag during a rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020
Demonstrator is silhouetted by an old Belarusian national flag during a rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020   -   Copyright  Credit: AP   -  

The crushing of dissent in Belarus is seemingly over, on the surface at least. 

While footage of police cracking down on protesters following the disputed reelection of leader Alexander Lukashenko may be a distant memory, away from the public eye the repression of any opposition continues, say activists.

Since July, around 270 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been shut down as Minsk seeks to stop protests from reigniting.

Bysol Foundation, an NGO that helps political prisoners, activists and striking workers, is one of those that has managed to survive. 

But day-to-day operations have become much harder since Lukashenko's administration has labelled it an extremist organisation.

“I have worked with civil society in Belarus for the last 20 years and the situation has never been worse,” Bysol founder Andrey Strizhak told Euronews. 

“As the large visible protests have stopped, the crackdowns have intensified and we see total destruction of civil society in Belarus. 

"It is simply dangerous to be on the streets, but the opposition is not dead. We, Bysol, are, for example, still here helping people. 

"But the situation is horrible.”

Fined for protesting

Police had detained Masha several times for her political activism. She was among tens of thousands of protestors who went onto the streets in August and September last year to protest Lukashenko claiming another term as president. Belarus' election commission said he won 80% of the votes, but the opposition says the vote was rigged in Lukashenko's favour.  

Then, earlier this year, she received a $2,000 fine for protesting. Unable to pay, police arrested her mother to make her cough up.

“I simply had to pay the fine to make them stop,” Masha told Euronews. “They first started to follow me, but when I couldn’t pay, they decided to arrest my mother to pressure me. They also threatened my brother but I didn’t have the money. I needed help.

"The KGB directly told my mother, who has never done anything at all, that she was arrested simply because she is my mum."

Masha, who didn’t want to provide her full name amid safety concerns, turned to different Bysol for help. 

They helped her pay the fine, enabling her mum to be released. 

Creative solutions

The crackdown means it's difficult for Bysol to keep helping people such as Masha. 

Stryzhak says it's too dangerous to transfer money via banks or bring cash across the border, forcing the NGO to get creative. 

It's turned to cryptocurrencies or digital cash. 

“I, of course, cannot say how we do it specifically,"  explained Strizhak. "We have to be careful. But we found cryptocurrencies safer than other ways of bringing money into Belarus.

“The government has blocked all the classical ways of getting money into the country, so we had to find an alternative.

“Cryptocurrencies have become part of the normal economic system and it is, therefore, an easy and safer way for us.”

Bysol raises money for its activities through crowdfunding and then sends the money into Belarus. In 2020, it claims to have paid out €2.9 million to support Belarusians. It is currently helping more than 300 families of political prisoners.

It is estimated there are around 1,000 political prisoners in Belarus, something the Belarusian government has denied. 

In a recent interview with BBC, Lukashenko admitted that police had severely beaten protestors in a prison in Minsk.

"We'll massacre all the scum that you [the West] have been financing," he said. "Oh, you're upset we've destroyed all your structures! 

"Your NGOs, whatever they are, that you've been paying for." 

'It is now a witch hunt'

Anaïs Marin is the United Nations' special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus. She tells Euronews the situation in Belarus is “catastrophic”. She says the recent crackdowns remind her of the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

“Any movement or organisation mostly works on Telegram channels now,” said Marin. “Lukashenko looks at every opponent as criminals even though they are just doing their civic duty. People involved with organisations such as Bysol are being repressed and many have left the country. The ones who remain are intimidated and are under constant threat.

“The situation in Belarus for the civil society has always been problematic, but it is now a witch hunt. Around 300 organisations have been liquidated since the summer and the crackdown now expands on to identifying individuals in private chats. The message is clear that Big Brother -- the government -- is looking everywhere.”

Marin added the crackdown meant NGOs such as Bysol had to be more careful in how they transfer and provide financial assistance to Belarusians. 

She says it is really hard to get reliable data on how many political prisoners are currently in Belarus and how the situation on the ground looks like. According to the Belarusian NGO Viasna 96, 941 people were held as political prisoners on December 22.

“It seems like the authorities will stop at nothing. We saw that with the Ryanair flight,” said Marin, referring to the diversion to Minsk of a Greece-to-Lithuania flight. Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was taken off the plane and arrested. 

Some say that the arrest of activist Alexander Feduta in Moscow and the death of Vitaly Shishov in Kyiv are examples of Lukashenko's administration reaching beyond Belarus' borders to crush opposition.

'We are trying to build trust'

Yury Ravavoi is someone else that has benefited from Bysol's help. The 28-year-old left Belarus last year because he was wanted by the authorities for his work organising strikes in Grodno, western Belarus. He is now in Poland and helping factory workers back home with Bysol's funds. 

“We use cryptocurrencies because it is the safest way to do it,” he told Euronews, “We don’t need any personal meetings or anything like that. We don’t need to carry cash.”

After the election last year, thousands of workers around Belarus went on strike but Lukashenko's administration managed to suppress them by arresting its organisers and threatening to sack workers. 

There is no such threat of strikes today, Ravavoi explains, but he and Bysol continue to support factory workers.

“We are trying to build trust between people at different factories so that they will be able to better coordinate in the future,” he said. 

“It is a way to make people feel alive,” he says, “We cannot simply give up and do nothing. We need to be better prepared for when the next possibility arises.

"In 2020, we did not trust each other and did not know what to do. Next time, we will be more prepared.”

'It is simply a prison'

Like Ravavoi, Masha has now left Belarus, but she is too scared to reveal her location. 

She says the situation in the country is deteriorating. Everyone who has ever attended a protest or supported an opposition candidate can be arrested at any time, she adds. 

Masha didn't want to leave but said it was a matter of time before she got arrested again.

“I really wanted to stay,” she says, “My biggest dream, like it is for thousands of others who have been forced to flee, is to come back home.

"I want to come home but it is impossible right now, and Belarus is no longer a real home. It is simply a prison.”

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