Belarus Sees Irregular Flow of Migrants

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 75


Executive Summary:

  • While many Belarusians have left the country since 2020 and the initiation of Moscow’s full-scale invasion, the migration of Western fugitives to Belarus has attracted more attention due to their questionable motives and access to government secrets.
  • These fugitives give Minsk the opportunity to illustrate some important propaganda narratives against the West and about the “friendly nature” of Belarus.
  • The migration flow into and out of Belarus will be a crucial indicator for Western foreign policymakers in determining the state of Minsk’s relations with its neighbors.

A significant portion of Belarusians have fled the country since the large-scale crackdown against the post-election protests in August 2020. Until at least 2019, Belarus experienced positive net migration with other post-Soviet countries, including Russia, and even countries beyond the post-Soviet space (CIS-info, 2020; Belstat, 2020). Today, the case of certain “migrants” from the West coming to Belarus, including Polish judge Tomasz Szmydt, has garnered more attention. On May 6, Szmydt, officially on vacation from April 22 to May 10, found himself in Minsk, applying for political asylum (Fakt, May 6). He reported that this was due to his disagreement with what he called the “anti-Russian and anti-Belarusian” policies of the Polish government. Szmydt claims this orientation serves American and British interests (Belta, May 6). Since then, the Polish judge has made several statements on Belarusian and Russian television. He has asserted that “in Poland, [he] cannot speak freely,” questioned Poland’s independence, and praised Belarus as “an open country with friendly people” (Belta, May 6, 7, 8). Szmydt’s defection underlines increasingly fractious relations between Belarus and its European neighbors, which threaten to boil over as Russia continues its war against Ukraine.

Szmydt previously worked for the Regional Administrative Court in Warsaw and had access to a trove of classified information. He handled cases involving complaints about the denial of access to classified information or access to the secrets of international organizations. For example, on May 16, he was scheduled to rule on cases involving top officials in Poland’s security agencies. On June 4, he was to preside over cases concerning refusals to issue security clearances for access to classified information. According to Marek Biernacki, head of the Polish parliament’s intelligence committee, Szmydt “is invaluable for foreign intelligence services” due to his extensive knowledge of Polish government operations (WydazreniaInteria, May 8). Despite earning 2.6 times more than Poland’s average income, Szmydt owned no personal property besides a 2015 Škoda Fabia automobile. This has raised suspicions that Szmydt may have long been recruited by Belarusian or Russian intelligence and had been planning his escape for some time (CheckPress, May 9).

The judge appears to be the third Polish citizen to flee to Belarus under such circumstances. The first was Emil Czeczko, a 24-year-old Polish soldier who deserted to Belarus on December 16, 2021. After fleeing, Czeczko played a minor propaganda role in shaping media narratives about the migration crisis on the Polish–Belarusian border from the perspective of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s authorities. Czeczko was found dead in his Minsk apartment on March 17, 2022 (RBC, March 17, 2022). Marcin Mikolajek, also 24 years old, was the second Polish citizen to request asylum in Belarus and came to the country on June 9, 2022 (Polsatnews, June 9, 2022). Mikolajek enthusiastically and publicly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the District Prosecutor’s Office in Świdnica (in southwest Poland) charged him with praising the war and crimes committed against the Ukrainian population. Mikolajek, however, was not prevented from leaving the country. To be sure, Szmydt’s case is considered far more serious than the previous two cases due to the sensitive information he possesses.

Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes that these fugitives give the Belarusian government the opportunity to illustrate some important propaganda narratives. “Firstly, that there is a dictatorship in Poland and people with certain political views are persecuted there. Secondly, that ordinary Poles—from a simple soldier to an official judge—are friends of Belarus.” Shraibman claimed that “Lukashenka is right when he tries to appeal to the Poles directly, bypassing their politicians” (Zerkalo, May 8).

The three fugitives notwithstanding, the balance of migration flow decidedly favors the West over Belarus. Previously, Alyaksei Byagun, head of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Department of Citizenship and Migration, stated that, from 2021 to 2022, Belarusian emigrants exceeded 200,000. In September 2023, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Mikalai Karpiankov estimated political migration at 350,000 individuals (NewBelarus, May 8). Independent researchers also weighed in. Gennadz Korshunau, former director of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, estimates the number of registered migrants from Belarus in Poland to be 120,000. The second-largest group, about 50,000, resides in Lithuania. Around 8,000 Belarusians have moved to Germany since 2020, while 25,000 relocated to other EU members. Additionally, approximately 11,000 migrated to Georgia and 5,000 to Israel.

Migration to Russia, where wages surpass those in Belarus, may rival migration to the West. Due to the visa-free regime, however, estimating the scale of Belarusian emigration to Russia is challenging. Official figures are wide-ranging—from 174,305, as cited by the Department of Labor Migration and Social Protection of the Eurasian Economic Commission, to 430,000, according to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Main Directorate for Migration. Overall, it is reasonable to assume that emigration from Belarus to Russia is comparable in size to those Belarusians emigrating to the West. In total, the number of Belarusians who have left their home country ranges from half a million to 600,000. This has had important effects on both Belarus and its neighbors. For example, the relocation of Belarusian information technology companies to Lithuania has contributed significantly to the latter’s tax revenues. Belarus faces a shortage of over 10,000 medical workers, which is believed to be primarily due to emigration (NewBelarus, May 8).

The situation described above can be analyzed from various perspectives, including its comparison with the Cold War era. During that time, all Warsaw Pact countries imposed tight restrictions on outmigration, and defectors predominantly sought refuge in the West. Currently, neither Belarus nor Russia restrict outmigration to the same extent. Furthermore, Belarus maintains a visa-free entry regime for citizens of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, despite discouragement from their respective governments regarding travel to Belarus. The migration flow will be a crucial indicator for Western foreign policymakers as Moscow’s war against Ukraine has created a refugee crisis throughout Europe. An irregular flow of migrants into Europe could exacerbate relations between Belarus and its neighbors.