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Meet the Belarusians fighting for Ukraine to keep hopes alive of change at home

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By Stefan Weichert
Vadim Prokopiev speaks to Euronews in Kyiv
Vadim Prokopiev speaks to Euronews in Kyiv   -   Copyright  Credit: Stefan Weichert

Despite only having a very small number of fighters under his command in Ukraine, Vadim Prokopiev has big ambitions. 

Leading a group of more than 100 volunteers from Belarus, he wants to help repel Russian forces and then turn his attention to home. 

"The fight for freedom in Belarus starts now in Ukraine," said Prokopiev, 50, a radical figure in the broad movement opposing Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko is Belarus' only president and has been in office since 1994. Two years ago, he claimed victory in an election that his critics say was rigged in his favour. It sparked huge street protests, but a crackdown eventually quelled the dissent over the following months. 

“If you go to Minsk now, it will look like business as usual even though people live in something like a concentration camp,” said Prokopiev, who used to be a restaurateur. “It is like nothing happened in 2020. 

"People expect leadership with some power, and that power can only be built here in Ukraine. I see no other chance.”

Prokopiev leads the Pohonia Battalion, whose fighters receive training in Poland before crossing into Ukraine and serving in the country's army.  

The ultimate ambition is that the battalion grows to form the basis of a professional army that could play a role in ousting Lukashenko.

“If Ukraine loses against Russia, then the freedom of Belarus stands no chance,” Prokopiev, leader of the Pohonia Battalion, told Euronews in Kyiv.

“I represent a new idea of how to achieve freedom,” he added. 

Credit: AP
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, former candidate for Belarus' presidential elections arrives for a news conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.Credit: AP

'Stupid and naive, we lost a lot of time'

Fleshing out this claim, Prokopiev said a different approach was needed to that of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who went head-to-head with Lukashenko in the August 2020 election after her blogger husband was jailed just days after announcing his candidacy. She fled to Lithuania immediately after the election and has consistently called for demonstrations to be peaceful.

Prokopiev believes that was a mistake. He said acting peacefully didn’t convince Lukashenko to step down and just gave him time to consolidate his power.

“I think that we lost a lot of time," said Prokopiev. "It was a stupid and naive idea of the Belarussian opposition that we could just try not to disturb the Kremlin… [by saying] we are neutral to Russia

“Tsikhanouskaya played a role in uniting people, but now, we need a new strategy to face the Russian imperialistic ambitions. If not, they will never stop.

“I have come here to Ukraine with my group because I see a window of opportunity. The Ukrainians showed that we can fight Russia and that they know how to fight them with strength… We (Prokopiev and his people) have a plan. We have leadership. We have everything and just need to build a little strength here and in Poland.”

Tsikhanouskaya, who has brought the issue of Belarus before a host of world leaders, would dispute her strategy was an error. Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, she launched a bid earlier in the Ukraine war to stop Belarusians from being drawn into the conflict

"We insisted and continue to insist on peaceful changes to democracy," Franak Viačorka, senior advisor to Tsikhanouskaya, told Euronews. "Peaceful changes are more sustainable, and back in 2020, it was the only way. Moreover, we continue to insist on dialogue which must lead to free and fair elections. We are ready for dialogue, [Lukashenko's] regime is not ready for it. 

"It responded to our calls for dialogue with violence, but does it mean that the people should become violent and use the same methods as the regime?

"[The] idea of violent resistance did not resonate among Belarusian people at all. People who participated in protests in 2020, celebrated their majority, they overcame fear, and to expect them to take arms would be immature. 

"Moreover, the escalation could lead that Russian troops would have entered Belarus to save Lukashenko, and we tried to avoid it, emphasising the non-geopolitical nature of our revolution."

Credit: Pohonia Battalion
Volunteers train in Poland before being sent to Ukraine to fight against Russian forcesCredit: Pohonia Battalion

Prokopiev 'can afford to be less polite'

Artyom Shraibman is a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on the political situation in Belarus. 

He told Euronews that Prokopiev is well-known among the more radical movement, calling for taking up arms against the Belarussian leadership. 

“He is quite listened to, respected [among the more radical movement]," said Shraibman. "He is one of the more popular advocates for armed resistance. He is against Tsikhanouskaya for being too appeasing and accommodating.”

Shraibman says Prokopiev got popular via his YouTube channel and that he has been advocating for harsher measures in Belarus for a long time. But the difference between Prokopiev and Tsikhanouskaya might not be as big as one thinks.

“I would say that the war has made Tsikhanouskaya and Prokopiev closer to each other. They both support volunteer battalions in Ukraine and partisan activity inside Belarus,” says Shraibman, arguing that Tsikhanouskaya's position as the opposition leader makes the difference.

“Tsikhanouskaya, unlike Prokopiev, has to deal with international leaders. Have to keep some respect for more peaceful and political instruments, while he can afford not to be this polite,” says Shraibman, who recalls one time at a conference in Poland, where Prokopiev’s call for arms made a number of US diplomats leave the room.

“It is what Tsikhanouskaya would get if she also took this position,” says Shraibman. 

Credit: AP Photo
In this Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020 file photo, demonstrators carry a huge historical flag of Belarus as thousands gather for a protest at the Independence Square in Minsk, BelarusCredit: AP Photo

Belarus protests 'will be very different next time'

Back in Ukraine, Prokopiev told Euronews he is working to convince the "elite" in Belarus to back him over incumbent Lukashenko. 

“We need to offer the elite to stay neutral, at least, or offer those with a bloody hand from 2020 some kind of deal to reevaluate themselves. So when the time comes, they will support us,” says Prokopiev, adding that success can only be achieved with massive civil protests and clear leadership, which can convince the elites to switch sides.

“We also have to understand that we are not only fighting Lukashenko and his limited resources with the KGB. We are fighting the union of Russia and Belarus. So, we need to learn how to fight because we need to fight for our freedom.”

Small victories for the Belarussian opposition both within the country and in Ukraine against Russia will eventually get people to get back on the streets and protest in Belarus, Prokopiev believes. After this, Prokopiev's men could play a role in supporting a subsequent revolution, he added. 

“Our society has changed a lot since 2020. We lost hope and the trust that freedom can be achieved, but we will regain that. 

"And when we do, the next protests will be very different.”