Relocation Sanctions

They will not be in power forever

Machine assist­ed translation

For a year now, the Czech Republic has had a Civil Society pro­gram in place to receive Russian and Belarusian dis­si­dents. However, the quo­ta allo­cat­ed by the gov­ern­ment was not even half used, due to orga­ni­za­tion­al and bureau­crat­ic obsta­cles, as well as a lack of resources. Gabriela Svárovská, for­mer deputy direc­tor of the Prague Center for Civil Society and co-author of a cri­tique of the pro­gram, told </emT-invari­ant why Civil Society is not effec­tive in prac­tice and what needs to be done to change the situation.

A year ago, at the ini­tia­tive of Czech non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, the Czech gov­ern­ment approved the Civil Society pro­gram. It is addressed to cit­i­zens of Russia and Belarus who face polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion in their home coun­tries. Program par­tic­i­pants can receive a long-term visa or res­i­dence per­mit in the Czech Republic. The approved annu­al quo­ta of the pro­gram is 500 peo­ple. However, accord­ing to Gabriela Svárovská, only about 170 peo­ple were accept­ed into the pro­gram. There are sev­er­al rea­sons for such a mod­est result.

Although the pro­gram was announced to be open to all, it turned out in prac­tice to be depen­dent on its ini­tia­tors — Czech non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions oper­at­ing in Russia at the time of its adop­tion. Their motive was quite clear: they were try­ing to pro­tect their col­leagues and part­ners who were under threat of polit­i­cal persecution.

Under the terms of the pro­gram, par­tic­i­pants had to prove that they had pub­licly expressed their polit­i­cal posi­tion and were now in dan­ger because of it. Since a num­ber of Czech non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions such as People in Need, the Freedom of Information Society (Společnost svo­body infor­ma­ce), and the Prague Civil Society Centre were declared unde­sir­able in Russia (col­lab­o­ra­tion with them is a crim­i­nal offense for Russian cit­i­zens), their part­ners were imme­di­ate­ly affect­ed. To col­lect the doc­u­ments required for par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pro­gram was rel­a­tive­ly uncom­pli­cat­ed for employ­ees of such orga­ni­za­tions, but the process still took about three months. Some appli­cants, espe­cial­ly those in a crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, could not with­stand the wait and left for coun­tries that issued visas more quickly.

Money was anoth­er chal­lenge on the way of polit­i­cal emi­grants from Russia and Belarus to the Czech Republic. Claiming to receive half a mil­lion Ukrainian refugees, Czech author­i­ties refused to allo­cate funds to sup­port polit­i­cal emi­grants from Russia. “If you want to take your part­ners from Russia and Belarus, we will sup­port you in this, but you must either pro­vide them finan­cial­ly your­self, or these peo­ple must find a job,” was the reac­tion of the min­istries, accord­ing to Gabriela Svárovská. So each pro­gram par­tic­i­pant had to either show a source of income in the Czech Republic or be assist­ed by a guar­an­tor, a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that super­vised them. The guar­an­tor was sup­posed to pro­vide funds to sup­port him or her, if nec­es­sary, for the dura­tion of the visa, but non­prof­its don’t have a lot of money.

The non­prof­it sec­tor also has lim­it­ed orga­ni­za­tion­al resources. There are no staff ded­i­cat­ed to col­lect­ing and pro­cess­ing doc­u­ments for hun­dreds of Russians and Belarusians. Of course, sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tions inter­est­ed in attract­ing Russian and Belarusian col­leagues could help. But, accord­ing to Gabriela Svárovská, uni­ver­si­ties, and in par­tic­u­lar the Charles University, was not the most active in this regard. It was often eas­i­er for the uni­ver­si­ty to refuse a qual­i­fied per­son with an inap­pro­pri­ate pass­port than to deal with the bureau­crat­ic system.

According to Gabriela Svárovská, non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions do not have con­tacts in acad­e­mia and are unfa­mil­iar with sci­en­tists who would like to move to the Czech Republic. Therefore, the ini­tia­tive here should come from the aca­d­e­m­ic envi­ron­ment, which main­tains con­tact with Russian and Belarusian sci­en­tists. «It is nec­es­sary for instance to find an ini­tia­tive per­son at Charles University, who will rise up, go to the min­istry and say: “I also want to be involved in this on behalf of my uni­ver­si­ty, we have a list of the spe­cif­ic per­sons. We want to coop­er­ate with them, we have com­mon projects with them.” The gov­ern­ment, the Ministry of Education could be more active. I think it’s worth to sup­port the intel­lec­tu­al Russians and Belarusians, even though it’s not mainstream.»

Nevertheless, to date, Gabriela Svárovská has vol­un­teered to help pre­pare doc­u­ments for poten­tial pro­gram par­tic­i­pants. She believes that Czech author­i­ties, edu­ca­tion­al and non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions are miss­ing the chance to host Russian and Belarusian sci­en­tists and spe­cial­ists who can be valu­able to the country.


Gabriela Svárovská’s Proposals for Civic Society Reform

  • To move the agen­da for­ward, a con­sor­tium of non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions must find a way to make the pro­gram acces­si­ble to all who need it.
  • Ministries could sim­pli­fy and speed up pro­ce­dures for review­ing doc­u­ments. Academic insti­tu­tions that are inter­est­ed in spe­cial­ists from Russia and Belarus should sup­port their desire to relo­cate to the Czech Republic.
  • A con­sor­tium of Czech non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions should agree to exchange infor­ma­tion and allo­cate resources for data ver­i­fi­ca­tion, col­lec­tion, and pro­cess­ing of documents.
  • Because of the secu­ri­ty risks to the coun­try, reform of the Citizen Society pro­gram should be led by some­one whose impec­ca­ble rep­u­ta­tion inspires trust and guar­an­tees against misuse.

In more detail, Gabriela Svárovská, Peter Havliček, and Tomáš Petříček describe the sit­u­a­tion and their pro­pos­als for improve­ment in an arti­cle pub­lished in the Deník Referendum on April 18, 2023. It is trans­lat­ed here.

Let’s support Belarusian and Russian dissidents. They are our allies in saving democracy

Democracy as a sys­tem of gov­er­nance today is under pres­sure from author­i­tar­i­an­ism around the world. Support for pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic forces in the regimes that have emerged in Russia and Belarus is now more impor­tant than ever. The Czech Republic still does not seem to under­stand this.

From the begin­ning, there were high hopes for a renew­al of the prin­ci­ples under­ly­ing for­eign and secu­ri­ty pol­i­cy with the gov­ern­ment of Petr Fiala. After years spent in the shad­ows, the Czech Republic has entered the are­na of European and world politics.

After February 24, 2022 the Czech gov­ern­ment dra­mat­i­cal­ly changed its atti­tude towards Russian and Belarusian soci­eties, includ­ing their pro-Western part that it had been ful­ly sup­port­ing for the past years. The Czech author­i­ties right­ly chose sup­port for Ukraine, its refugees, the state, the armed forces, and soci­ety as their absolute pri­or­i­ty. However, con­trary to all log­ic, they simul­ta­ne­ous­ly denied sup­port to the Russian and Belarusian oppo­si­tion, which imme­di­ate­ly after the out­break of war pro­claimed as its main polit­i­cal goal the vic­to­ry of Ukraine, the restora­tion of bor­ders with­in the frame­work of 1991 and the final defeat of the dic­ta­tor­ships of Putin and Lukashenko.

The civ­il oppo­si­tion in both coun­tries rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant numer­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al strength and is a source of infor­ma­tion and invalu­able expe­ri­ence for the Czech and inter­na­tion­al publics. An exam­ple is the most impor­tant inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism that has had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on European and U.S. sanc­tions policy.

It was Russian inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists who uncov­ered the per­pe­tra­tors of the Vrbetica bomb­ings, and it is Russian jour­nal­ists who, togeth­er with their Czech col­leagues, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly pub­lish mate­ri­als about the assets of Russian oli­garchs and mafia and their con­nec­tions in the Czech Republic.

We can now take full advan­tage of our long­stand­ing rela­tions with the Russian and Belarusian civ­il and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion, inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists and free­dom fight­ers. These rela­tions have been built for thir­ty years by Czech NGOs and demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians, both those in pow­er and those in oppo­si­tion. It would seem that now, when the neo-total­i­tar­i­an regimes in both coun­tries are near­ing their end, and local democ­rats cer­tain­ly tie their fate to the vic­to­ry of Ukraine, it is time to unite.

Paradoxes of Czech foreign policy

After the failed protests against the rigged pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Belarus in the sum­mer of 2020, the Czech Republic sup­port­ed local civic activists, inde­pen­dent media, demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians, stu­dents, and schol­ars of all polit­i­cal per­sua­sions. When Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of demo­c­ra­t­ic Belarus, first came to Prague, almost every­one want­ed to take a pho­to with her.

We seemed to be well aware of the fun­da­men­tal shift that had occurred in Belarusian soci­ety. During the elec­tion, the major­i­ty of Belarusians res­olute­ly reject­ed Lukashenka’s con­tin­ued rule, to which no alter­na­tive accept­able to all had been found before Tikhanovska appeared. For months, the regime was unable to quell the protests, even using vio­lence unprece­dent­ed for Belarus at that time.

Many European politi­cians, includ­ing the then Czech Prime Minister, stat­ed that they did not rec­og­nize Lukashenko as pres­i­dent of Belarus. On the oth­er hand, the leader of the demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­si­tion, who was forced to emi­grate to Lithuania, was tak­en in by the diplo­mat­ic pro­to­col usu­al­ly applied to incum­bent statesmen.

Belarus: escape from Lukashenko’s regime at any cost

Many Belarusian democ­rats then found refuge in the Czech Republic, includ­ing those seri­ous­ly injured at demon­stra­tions and those tor­tured in police sta­tions. Czech uni­ver­si­ties com­pet­ed with one anoth­er in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of schol­ar­ships, com­pen­sat­ed by the European Commission. Belarus was «in the trend.»

The change for Belarusians after February 24 last year was extreme­ly dra­mat­ic. Although the gen­er­al pro­hi­bi­tion on issu­ing visas to Belarusian cit­i­zens was large­ly jus­ti­fied, the inabil­i­ty to apply cer­tain exemp­tions in prac­tice lacked logic.

At the same time, the Belarusian oppo­si­tion has not tak­en Lukashenko’s side — on the con­trary, it has inten­si­fied its efforts to fight the regime. The Belarusian com­pa­ny is fight­ing against Russia in Ukraine. Belarusian stu­dents in our coun­try have not coop­er­at­ed with the regime they pre­vi­ous­ly protest­ed against. However, rel­a­tives of those who were evac­u­at­ed to the Czech Republic with severe injuries sus­tained while par­tic­i­pat­ing in the protests can­not come to vis­it their loved ones even for a short time.
It is dif­fi­cult to shake off the feel­ing that in this case we are talk­ing about the appli­ca­tion of the prin­ci­ple of col­lec­tive guilt to hold­ers of Russian and Belarusian pass­ports, regard­less of their val­ues, years of activ­i­ty, and atti­tude to the war.

The civilian sector saves the situation. Not for the first time

This gen­er­al approach was only par­tial­ly revised by the Czech gov­ern­ment after the inter­ven­tion of Czech civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions. The gov­ern­ment adopt­ed the Civil Society pro­gram, which allows offer­ing visa assis­tance to a lim­it­ed num­ber of peo­ple from cer­tain categories.

In gen­er­al, the pro­gram was well designed, but the main admin­is­tra­tive bur­den and all finan­cial guar­an­tees fell on the shoul­ders of Czech civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, which can sub­mit lists of can­di­dates for long-term visas.

Another prob­lem con­cerns, for exam­ple, Russian jour­nal­ists work­ing remote­ly in inde­pen­dent media, whose edi­to­r­i­al offices are scat­tered all over Europe. Some of them had to emi­grate ear­li­er, while oth­ers left only when laws pro­hibit­ing truth­ful report­ing on the war between Russia and Ukraine under threat of impris­on­ment began to take effect in Russia. A hand­ful of dare­dev­ils still remain in Russia and oper­ate vir­tu­al­ly ille­gal­ly. They, too, will prob­a­bly need asy­lum if the sit­u­a­tion does not change soon.

They can­not set­tle in Prague unless they them­selves set up an orga­ni­za­tion here that could employ them. It is not main­ly a ques­tion of mon­ey: most of these media out­lets are finan­cial­ly self-suf­fi­cient, they have their own donors and sup­port­ers, and they have tens of mil­lions of read­ers in Russia.

The main prob­lem is the tim­ing of deci­sions and unrea­son­able demands on peo­ple who sud­den­ly find them­selves in exile and, instead of con­tin­u­ing to work and pro­vide their read­ers in Russia with much-need­ed infor­ma­tion, have to fill out paper­work, col­lect doc­u­ments show­ing that crim­i­nal charges are actu­al­ly being brought against them, meet with lawyers, and wait for weeks or months for the reac­tion of Czech author­i­ties. At the same time it is not a prob­lem to check their views and activ­i­ties in our Internet age and with our knowl­edge of the environment.

Many Russian and Belarusian sci­en­tists and stu­dents, espe­cial­ly those who have pub­licly spo­ken out against the war, have found them­selves in a crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, but their for­mal data do not meet the strict require­ments of the visa law. At the same time, Russian hock­ey play­ers were able to come and play in the NHL games in Prague with­out any problems.

The absur­di­ty of the sit­u­a­tion reached its cli­max with the intro­duc­tion of a ban on all cit­i­zens of the Russian Federation enter­ing our coun­try, includ­ing the few tens a day who could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly fly in from third coun­tries, for exam­ple to Vaclav Havel International Airport. Given that the neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, Germany, Austria and Slovakia have not joined the restric­tion, main­tain­ing com­mon open bor­ders with­in the Schengen area, the advis­abil­i­ty of the Czech mea­sure may be ques­tioned. It is ─ a point­less ges­ture, but it is detri­men­tal to the country.

In Prague, once a cen­ter of free Russian and Belarusian crit­i­cal think­ing, media work, and civic activism, exist­ing or planned projects and events have either been post­poned indef­i­nite­ly, or have grad­u­al­ly begun to move to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, main­ly Germany and Poland.

Bureaucracy and prob­lems relat­ed to the legal­iza­tion of res­i­dence have forced many sci­en­tists, jour­nal­ists, artists, activists, and well-known fig­ures to head else­where. A num­ber of activ­i­ties that could influ­ence the pan-European debate about the future after the fall of the two Eastern European dic­ta­tor­ships have found a place for imple­men­ta­tion out­side of the not so hos­pitable Czech land.

We have something to be inspired by

The Czech Republic has a his­tor­i­cal basis on which it could draw — that of Russian Aid Action, which attract­ed some of the best Russian minds and tal­ents of its time to Czechoslovakia dur­ing the inter­war period.

For a new Russian and Belarusian aid action to suc­ceed, it is nec­es­sary to mobi­lize the polit­i­cal will and prac­ti­cal will­ing­ness to help peo­ple who are being repressed because of their oppo­si­tion to the regime. This could con­tribute to a poten­tial revi­sion of rela­tions with Russia in the future.

Specific prob­lems that the gov­ern­ment needs to address now are inflex­i­ble visa reg­u­la­tions, the exces­sive­ly long and bureau­crat­ic process involved in grant­i­ng visas even for short stays, and the finan­cial guar­an­tees required by the state from the non­prof­it sector.

This pos­si­bil­i­ty will emerge in the upcom­ing debate on the prospects and reform of the Civil Society pro­gram at the gov­ern­ment lev­el. At the same time, the Czech Republic should return to more active sup­port for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, found­ed in 2011 in Prague. The impor­tance of this major civ­il forum for an exchange of views on EU-Russia rela­tions is demon­strat­ed by the fact that the Kremlin has includ­ed it in the list of so-called unde­sir­able organizations.

The expe­ri­ence of Lithuania is before our eyes: in pre­vi­ous years, it has received thou­sands of democ­ra­cy fight­ers from both coun­tries. In con­trast, the Czech Republic only sup­port­ed about 170 peo­ple as part of the Civil Society pro­gram. At the same time, Lithuania’s over­all visa pol­i­cy remains strict and prac­ti­cal­ly closed to tourists and cit­i­zens of Russia and Belarus in gen­er­al. Lithuania is par­tic­u­lar­ly tough on indi­vid­u­als who pose a threat to its nation­al security.

But Lithuania - unlike us - can dis­tin­guish the wheat from the chaff. The com­bi­na­tion of friend­li­ness and tough­ness in Lithuania is pos­si­ble due to effec­tive coor­di­na­tion of the entire state appa­ra­tus and coop­er­a­tion with non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which can con­duct reli­able checks on indi­vid­ual applicants.

Moreover, the Czech gov­ern­ment could be inspired by the exam­ples of neigh­bor­ing Germany and the Netherlands, which sup­port sci­en­tists and stu­dents in need. Their author­i­ties cre­ate the nec­es­sary infra­struc­ture for them, help with relo­ca­tion, pro­vide visas, and medi­ate employ­ment. So far, this approach, except in iso­lat­ed cas­es, has not worked at all in the Czech Republic. And even for these first few, life is com­pli­cat­ed by the con­fus­ing rules of Czech aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ties and gen­er­al bureaucracy.

At the same time, some of the emi­grat­ed sci­en­tists receive grants for their activ­i­ties from inter­na­tion­al sources and find their place in inter­na­tion­al research teams. They are also sup­port­ed by European insti­tu­tions. But not the Czech Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At the same time, it is inde­pen­dent research and sci­ence, as well as acad­e­mia in gen­er­al, that is under the threat of destruc­tion by the regimes of Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko. This is evi­denced by the inclu­sion of the Riga-based Free University among the so-called unde­sir­able orga­ni­za­tions. In Russia, asso­ci­a­tion with an unde­sir­able orga­ni­za­tion is pun­ish­able by six years in prison.

Of course, this does not mean that we have to change any­thing about our sup­port of Ukraine. But we must learn to work in sev­er­al direc­tions simul­ta­ne­ous­ly: that is, in this case, to sup­port and max­i­mize the demo­c­ra­t­ic poten­tial of the «new» Belarus and Russia.

Freedom of the media is a long-stand­ing pri­or­i­ty of Czech human rights pol­i­cy and has sur­vived more than one gov­ern­ment coali­tion. For exam­ple, European Commissioner Vera Jourová, as well as a num­ber of European insti­tu­tions, foun­da­tions, and EU mem­ber states, have been involved in sup­port­ing Belarusian, Russian, and Russian-lan­guage inde­pen­dent media. The Czech Republic can play a poten­tial­ly much greater role in this direc­tion, for exam­ple, in coop­er­a­tion with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broad­cast from Prague.

We should not remain on the side­lines and can return to cir­cles where we have been count­ed on in the past and will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to be count­ed on in the future. And if the argu­ment that we should help oth­ers is not enough, let us not for­get that the help giv­en to Russian and Belarusian free­dom fight­ers ben­e­fits us as well. After all, we want to be where the strat­e­gy for Russia with­out Putin and Belarus with­out Lukashenko will be worked out. They will not be in pow­er forever.

Original text: Pavel Havlíček, Tomáš Petříček, Gabriela Svárovská. Podpořme běloruské a ruské disiden­ty. Jsou naši­mi spo­jen­ci v záchraně demokracie