Belarusian bloggers Olga and Andrey Pauk arrived in Lithuania three weeks ago. Although the well-known activist family had to flee the “military dictatorship”, they believe that democracy will eventually prevail in Belarus.
Olga is a teacher and Sergey is a musician. They come from a small town Akciabrski in Gomel Region, southern Belarus. Since 2011, they have been running the YouTube channel Rudabelskaya Pakazukha (Rudabel Show-off) aimed at unmasking inefficiencies in the local government.
According to Sergey, the channel started as a political satire shedding light on manipulations, lies, and propaganda of the Belarusian media. At first, they used music to spread the message and later started doing investigative stories.
Their first investigative report covered a children’s hospital in Akciabrski where “conditions were worse than in prison”. The couple said that sharing the story required courage, because talking about social issues was a taboo in Belarus.
“Many people think that Belarus is a social paradise. Even in Lithuania, we met people who thought that everything was alright in Belarus. We invite them to watch videos on our channel to see what the reality is,” Olga said.
Their first investigation was a success, as it prompted the local government to act and renovate the hospital. According to the bloggers, Rudabelskaya Pakazukha contributed to fighting “Soviet mentality” that was still dominant in government institutions in Akciabrski and across Belarus.
According to Olga, she herself could not work as a teacher in Belarusian schools because she was “ideologically suspect”.
“Smart people are not welcome [in Belarus]. You must be part of the crowd, and if you are smart, you are barred from the system,” Sergey said. “During years in Belarus, we achieved less than during three weeks in Lithuania, as our skills and knowledge are valued here.”
When it launched, the channel was a unique phenomenon in Belarus. The word about Rudabelskaya Pakazukha quickly spread across Belarus, and many more activists started copying the format.
However, the Belarusian government’s crackdown on the opposition after the August presidential election made it too dangerous for the Pauk family and their two young kids to stay in the country.
According to the bloggers, the first hateful articles in state-owned newspapers started targeting them five years ago. They wrote that the channel had “selfish interests to create conflicts and upset order in the region”. Attacks have intensified this year.
“The system no longer has resources to justify their inefficiency, so they escalate sanctions. They no longer hide that they are criminals that usurped the government,” Sergey said.
Two days before the August 9 presidential election, the police arrested the man and remanded him in custody. Sergey was released 10 days later, but missed the election as well as the start of the protests that broke out in its wake.
Later, the family left to take a break in Egypt. On their connecting flight back via Kyiv, they decided not to return to Belarus.
“I already had a court summons, but I did not go. Our contacts in the Coordination Council also told us that coming back to Belarus was unsafe because the country was turning into a military dictatorship. […] I did not want my kids to see me being arrested at the airport,” Olga explained.
The family reached out to human rights NGOs in Vilnius and the Lithuanian Embassy in Ukraine. They got a visa to stay in Lithuania until the end of this year. The elder of their two children started school in Vilnius this autumn.
Olga herself enrolled in a master’s programme at Vytautas Magnus University, while Sergey joined the team running the YouTube channel of Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who also fled to Vilnius after the election.
“Vilnius is the political capital of Belarus. International institutions do not operate in our country, so our political life is in exile,” Olga said.
Nevertheless, the bloggers hoped that democracy would eventually prevail over autocracy in Belarus.
“This is the tendency. In the modern world, autocracy no longer has prospects,” Sergey opined. “Alexander Lukashenko has nothing to offer except fear – but even this is not working anymore.”