“The entire Belarusian Potash Company earned 185,592 euros in 2020, and our payments to the Belaruskali strike committee amounted to more than 215,000 euros,” co-founder of the BYSOL Solidarity Foundation Andrei Strizhak wrote on his Facebook. A few days later, the IC of Belarus put him on the international wanted list. Strizhak is accused of financing extremist groups and training individuals to participate in group actions, grossly violating public order.
In the spring of 2020, Andrei Strizhak with the fund bycovid19 distributed missing protective equipment and medical equipment to hospitals, and after the presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020 and the ensuing protests, which were harshly suppressed by the security forces and law enforcement agencies, began to help the victims. Then, money began to be collected to help the dismissed, strikebreakers, and political prisoners. Recently, the website of the BYSOL foundation published statistics: from mid-August to the end of December the foundation paid out almost 3 million euros to the victims of the Belarusian regime. Where the fund gets the money from, how they are distributed and what does the cryptocurrency have to do with it, Andrew Strizhak told DW.
DW: The website of BYSOL says that the administrative part of the fund is located in the Netherlands. How did this happen?
Andrei Strizhak: We started on August 14, being in Kiev at the time. And one of our team members, Alexey Kuzminkov, was in the Netherlands at the time. In order to launch a personal fundraiser via Facebook, you need to be a resident of one of the countries that Facebook recognizes as “conditionally white” — these are the states of Northern and Western Europe, North America. Lithuania and Poland are not included in this list, while Ukraine and Belarus — even less so, because they are not even members of the EU. So the fundraiser was launched by Alexei from the Netherlands. And later, given that we need to have a legal status, we registered there as a legal entity. Most of our employees work from Lithuania, but there are also those who work remotely — mostly not from Belarus, because it's a security issue.
- You raised about 3 million euros in a few months. Where did most of the money go?
— We published statements before December 31, and it's very clear there that the bulk of the money collected has already been paid and how it's been distributed. We are currently preparing the second part of the accounts for March. The bulk of it has gone to payments to laid off people and to support various initiatives. Now we will support backyard activities, families of political prisoners, and retraining projects for laid-off people. Plus we launched a new version of the site, which will work as an aggregator of charges. The payment system will operate through cryptocurrencies.
- What are people donating most actively to?
— Before October, the bulk of the donations were for those fired or fired for political reasons, including former members of the security forces. The second phase began when the call for a national strike sounded. We provided support to the strike committees and still do. In October, we collected about 700 thousand euros together with the diasporas as part of a separate #youstrikewework campaign, most of this amount was paid somewhere at the end of January. Now the strike committee of Belaruskali is working independently, raising funds with the help of the diaspora and the HRF USA. United strike committees of Belarusian Steel Works (BSW), Naftan (Novopolotsk NPZ — Ed.) and Azot (Grodno Azot — Ed.) are still cooperating with BYSOL and collecting money through our platform.
- You've written on Facebook that the amount received by the strike of Belaruskali exceeded the annual profit of Belarusian Potash Company. Where and to whom did the money go?
— The Belaruskali Stachkom received the largest amount of payments of those collected in the campaign to help the strikers. We used the money to support the strikers. Part of it was spent on the people, who were fired for political reasons from Belaruskali, and on legal expenses of those, who tried to get their jobs back.
- What part of donations comes from Belarus and what part comes from abroad?
— I first felt the power of the Belarusian diaspora in 2017: we started with BY_help and saw that a lot of donations came from diasporas. 2020 showed the same dynamic, both during the pandemic and after the election. This convinced me that the division into Belarusians inside the country and diaspora Belarusians is rather conditional. Belarusians have become a global nation.
If we talk specifically about the amounts, it's about 50/50. And donations from Belarus are, as a rule, more massive, but they are smaller in amount. From diasporas donations are smaller in number, but they are larger. Activity of the Belarusian diaspora in Germany should be noted separately. It was organized around the NGO Razam and helped with payment of housing for the Belarusians, who left for political reasons to Ukraine.
The most active diaspora in the United States — they independently create projects. The Czech diaspora is very active. At first they helped the wounded to be treated in this country, now they work with the adaptation of medics, who were forced to leave Belarus for political reasons.
- The Belarusian Investigative Committee tried to confiscate money that people received from the foundations to pay fines, brought criminal cases against the founders of the foundations. Did it somehow affect the activity of those who donate and those who ask for help?
— The actions of the authorities that persecuted people who received help and those who helped the BY_Help campaign inside the country certainly scared many people, but I want to emphasize that the BYSOL Foundation has been working exclusively with a channel like cryptocurrencies from the very beginning. It is very difficult for the Belarusian authorities to stop these flows. People see that quite a lot of time has passed, BYSOL continues its work, help is coming in, and so a certain amount of skepticism has already gone away. Donors have switched to pinpointed, targeted donations, and that's ideal. The money goes directly, and it's even harder to trace
- How does someone who doesn't know what bitcoin is figured out the system and get help from the foundation?
— We have worked with strike teams, with laid-off workers from all sorts of backgrounds. It's not difficult for people of all backgrounds. The task of teaching people how to use cryptocurrencies was solved last year and is being successfully implemented.
- Belarusian television regularly shoots “revealing” stories about you. You were opposed by your former assistant, and there are politicians inside the country who criticize the fund. Has this affected your work and reputation?
— BYSOL is a living organization, people may have a different impression of our work, they may have some dislike for us. But in general, what the propaganda does, increases the level of trust in us. The authorities understand our danger, which means we are doing a good job. I take it easy and I can take this opportunity to thank those who are doing it. We don't pay money for it, and the name of the organization is heard on prime time on the main TV channels. Not every grandmother in Pleshchenitsy knew about us before, but now everyone does.
- What income does the fund bring to you and your staff?
— There is a separate fee, which covers the administrative costs of the team — there are many different items. We have a fairly large and nice office in Vilnius, but we do not pay anything for it — it is provided by our Lithuanian colleagues. And so practically in everything. When they talk about luxury hotels in the center of Vilnius, where we live, you have to understand that now there are lockdowns everywhere, and these hotels provide their services on different terms.
Part of our team, including myself, live in the Hilton Hotel. It is a good four-star hotel, where the average night costs 50-60 euros. We pay 500 euros a month for accommodation, that's the results of the arrangements. There are other hotels that give us the opportunity to stay for 250 euros, and some of the crew also lives there. The money we pay people for their work allows us to maintain more or less the average standard of living in Lithuania. No one gets exorbitant bonuses and preferences. The main bonus I got was the house searches of my family members.
- How do you decide who to help? There are a lot of families in the country whose relatives ended up in prison, but were not recognized as political prisoners. And they often complain that everyone has forgotten about them.
— We gather the board and decide who needs help the most. Clearly this is a subjective thing, but we are guided by what is happening in the country. We try to cover those who have not yet been recognized as political prisoners by the human rights community. Many families received a one-time aid of 500 euros, and we try to make sure that the most affected families receive monthly aid.
We have now given people most of the money we collected in August and December. We are thinking about what to change in our work. But I believe that the fund will exist for a very long time — even after the government changes. What may it look like in the future? Considering our experience in diasporas, it is a structure that will later help with the import of people, resources, and ideas to Belarus.