Recently I spent a weekend visiting my colleagues from the Ukrainian Youth Nationalist Congress. Also I participated at the Economic Forum of Young Leaders, which took place in Nowy Sącz, a small Polish town, and later together with other participants of the forum we went to the last-day events of the Economic Forum in the Polish resort of Krynica. That event is referred to as the Davos forum of the Eastern and Central Europe. And although I’d love to share my impressions from Poland, my adventures crossing the border of Belarus deserve a separate and urgent article.
But let’s start at the beginning. My colleague and I decided to return to Vilnius through Belarus. On September 14, about 11 p.m. we stopped at Novaya Guta border crossing. The procedure began as usual: their puppy sniffed the luggage lying in the trunk of the bus; we lined up to have our passports checked; and then one-by-one the passengers approached the border control officer and showed the contents of their bags. The fun begun with the luggage of my colleague Konstantinas.
He had a souvenir flag of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists party, a souvenir cup of the LNYU partners, the Youth Nationalist Congress, also their magazine, as well as several examples of the Polish Law and Justice party campaign material (newspapers, brochures, etc. — and no, this is not the infamous Lithuanian party lead by Rolandas Paksas), which we had for analytical purposes.
After seeing such literature and symbols, Belarusian border control started asking why he was carrying them. Suspiciously they kept asking him if he was planning to distribute them. The fuss about several pieces of campaign material and a couple of Ukrainian magazines looked stupid, but the Belarusian border control feared any literature or digital media as if they came from hell. While one of the border control officers was busy with Konstantinas, another one came to the next table and asked me to come forward, since looking through Konstantinas’ stuff halted the line.
Ukrainian souvenirs among my things did not make the border control happy either. After a long inspection, having found an even greater amount of possibly “extremist” literature and souvenirs (what is legal in the Western world is regarded as threat by the advocates of Belarusian totalitarianism — all in all, a mental disease of some kind), the border control announced that I would have to stay with them, while Konstantinas and the rest of the bus continued their journey back to Vilnius. Since some of the things in my bag were the same as in Konstantinas’, he was let go, because two of us meant double work. They interrogated me, looking through my confiscated things and filling in papers up until half past four. During that time the senior officer kept scolding me for bringing these things, putting myself in trouble, and giving them a hell of a lot of work.
Although they looked more like little robots doing their job than people with reason, my tone remained polite. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that someone can work for an idiotic repressive regime and not question it. The senior officer even tried to make an excuse, saying that if I brought something mocking Angela Merkel, I would have gotten in trouble even in the European Union. These people don’t understand that in our world politicians can be justly or unjustly mocked almost every day. They can’t imagine being not punished for your opinion (except, of course, for cases when you lose your job or get a fine for your public opinion about pederasts).
The younger officer’s question simply floored me: “Why do you hate Putin so much?” Since they had to fill in a bunch of documents, and there wasn’t much time for long and deep discussions, I simply answered that looking at the common history of Lithuania and Russia should be sufficient. Another excuse from the younger officer was even better. While having a smoke, he told me that he was born and raised here and thus got used to the system, so for him everything seems to be alright.
However, soon he contradicted himself, asking me why don’t I move to Germany. I can, after all. The sadness in his voice suggested that this was something he might be dreaming of, and that dream will probably never come true. Although fully aware of what type of person I am, he still couldn’t understand why I stay in Lithuania, when everywhere else any blue-collar job is paid better. This pretty much sums up their mentality.
In essence, the behavior of all the border control officers was correct, and I even liked talking to the younger one. Although he was a little older than me, I sometimes managed to put him on the psychological level where age or rank don’t matter.
So, you’re probably wondering, exactly which souvenirs made the Customs Union feel threatened? The things which threatened the security of both Belarus and Russia were two English books about holodomor and Ukraine during the World War II; the book (Ne)akivaizdus karas [(In)visible War)] by Mantas Martišius; a jumper with our colleagues’ organisation logo and slogan “Ukraine above all” (one of the slogans of Ukrainian nationalism), which I brought for my best friend; two t-shirts (for me and my girlfriend) with “Death to our enemies” (another slogan of the Ukrainian nationalism — why don’t we have something like that?) and “Better die as a wolf than live as a dog”; a vest in banderovec flag colors with the logo of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists; a small red-and-black souvenir flag with the logo of the same party; Lithuanian stickers against vatniks; and, finally, two rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s face.
It was a lot of fun. The laughter started as soon as they started inspecting my bag and found the rolls of toilet paper. Everyone laughed to the point of tears, from bus passengers to border control officers, including myself. This whole situation looked like an absurd comedy. I never thought that I could become a political prisoner (even if for a short time) for two rolls of toilet paper. When we sat in the office, the younger officer kept sniggering, imagining the faces of experts examining the confiscated things and reading his report.
Amusingly, I was allowed to keep my pepper spray, although the senior officer who found it said “vot eto pizdec” (I think you can guess the meaning). However, when they looked through my things and were thinking of what to do, the pepper spray was put aside, for pepper spray is nothing compared to my Ukrainian souvenirs, so I could keep it.
Before letting me go, the officers whispered among themselves, try to decide what to do with me. Although I couldn’t hear a word, everything was pretty much clear. Finally the senior officer told me that I should be shot, but his tone was completely calm, and even I found it funny. As I already mentioned, the behavior of all officers that talked to me was either sufficiently or very correct.
During the procedure of photographing and writing descriptions of my confiscated things, the party was joined by a couple more border control officers, who not only didn’t complain about additional work but were sincerely interested. Although they wrote nothing down, they kept asking for all kinds of details, like who I was, where I studied, if I was paid for what I do, who my colleagues in Ukraine were, etc. etc. All in all, I was fully interrogated. Of course I answered all of their questions, because what I do is public information, and there was no point of hiding anything.
It was very strange that when these officers inspected a book or any other souvenir, they would take it to another office and then bring it back to where I was. They did that with almost everything I had. Even stranger, after the border control officers took pictures and wrote down the descriptions of all of my things, the newly-arrived officers (the curious ones) did exactly the same thing. Is this how Lukashenko’s regime works? Doing the same operations twice in order to create jobs?
They were most interested in the maps of Ukraine in the book about holodomor and kept asking me why the maps in that book were so “strange,” I sat there thinking, “How the hell should I know? You took the book from me before I could read it.”
I was told that I should call them in 20 days, after the examination of my things is done, and, if they decide that these things do not pose threat to the Customs Union, I will be able to get them back. In case the things are acknowledged as extremist, I will be fined. That’s funny. What if I don’t pay the fine? Will they ban me from Belarus forever? They think so highly of themselves, yet no normal person with a choice would ever go to that God-forsaken country. I went there thinking that it would be more convenient, and boy I was wrong.
When the younger officer finished writing everything down and gave me a copy of the report, and the curious border control officers satisfied their curiosity, the senior officer explained to me where I should go. Then I was taken outside to freeze at the gate (because staying inside I would disrupt their work), where I spent more than an hour and a half until I was finally taken by some not very talkative vatnik from Belarus.
On the border between Belarus and Lithuania the customs officer, who checked passports and entered my details into the computer, immediately called for the senior officer and asked me if I was carrying any drugs. What, weren’t they told that we are fascists — banderovec –and not the sort of trash that get involved with drugs?
Later I was approached by someone who took my camera in order to transfer all of my photos. He told me not to worry, that we were only going to have a little chat, because he had several questions. I was asked the same questions asked by the curious border control officers from Novaya Guta, only this guy was much more consistent, his questions were more detailed, and he wrote everything down. He also sat with me and looked through all of my photos, asking about the people in them (he was interested only in the photos taken in Ukraine). In order to get me confused, he told me that we have common history, that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was actually Belarus, and we only took the name of Lithuania from them during the restoration of our state. But, when I told him that he must be mistaken, he said that he was simply joking. He also questioned me about my political views and my opinion on what should be done in order to finish the war between Russia and Ukraine. Yet, no matter how interesting the discussion was, his colleague came and told that I must be released. Then I got on the same bus, which took me to the border, and on the Lithuanian side, of course, there were no problems.
The money I spent on souvenirs mattered less than the fact that I bought them for people I respect. Moreover, some of the confiscated things were presents from dear friends. Thus their value is much higher than the monetary value indicated in the report. I will do everything in my power to get the things stolen from me back. And if I don’t get them back, I will never ever cross the border of that miserable state in my life, at least until they have a better dictator or switch to democracy. Living in the EU has had a significant impact on my mentality, because I would never have thought that you can be arrested for such nonsense, even in “backa’s” Belarus.