Prague wearies as host to exiles from east

A proposed law would slow the flood of refugees, whose numbers are expected to triple this year.

Pavel Kirylionak pushes his numb hands inside his sweater cuffs as the first cold of autumn descends on the Old Jewish Quarter.

Most of the local street artists and vendors have been chased inside by the bleak weather and the end of tourist season, but Mr. Kirylionak, a Belarussian refugee who sells watercolors and oil paintings in a narrow cobbled street, says he will stay on through the winter. He has little choice. This is how he and his friends, the Russian and Ukrainian artists whose work he peddles, survive.

At present, Prague provides a safe, if somewhat reluctant, haven for thousands of students, artists and musicians from the former USSR, caught between economic desolation and political repression in the east and a rigid wall of European Union immigration regulations to the west. With the reelection in September of Soviet-style President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, another wave of political exiles is expected in the next few months.

Belarus, as well as Russia and Ukraine, are slowly losing part of their intelligentsia and artistic communities to Prague. Eastern art fills the city's streets and galleries, dozens of professors from the former USSR teach at Czech universities, and the Czech National Theater has several of Russia's top dancers.

The same thing has happened before. After World War I, thousands of intellectuals and artists fled Stalin's crackdowns and took refuge in what was then Czechoslovakia, while the aristocracy went to France.

"The artists from the former Soviet Union are just plain tough. They are more active in Prague than Czechs," says Martin Chylik, a Czech who owns a string of art galleries in the Old Town. "I don't care where they are from or why they are here, as long as they do good work."

But for the arrivals from the east, the welcome in Prague is not always warm.

Some of Chylik's shows of Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian art have been shut down because the Prague mayor's office alleged that some of the proceeds go to the Russian mafia. Foreign street vendors have been forced off popular tourist routes, and new "foreigners' laws" make retaining legal residency a constant struggle. Still, Kirylionak says, Prague is better than what he left behind.

"We all had good reasons for coming here," he says. "I was arrested for organizing a student demonstration against the imprisonment of other student activists in December 1999. We were all beaten. We were only allowed to use the toilet every 24 hours and we were not given food for three days. The authorities in Belarus are worse than they were in Soviet times. It is unbearable."

Kirylionak was a student of political science and law in Minsk. After his release, security forces continued to track him. A few months later, a friend who worked as an intern in the state prosecutor's office came across a new arrest warrant for Kirylionak, this time on more serious charges of political insurgency.

"I had to leave Minsk in a matter of hours, and Prague was the only place I could go without a visa," he says.

Before the recent Belarussian elections, Kirylionak held out some hope that Mr. Lukashenko's regime might fall and he would be able to go home, but Lukashenko, often labeled Europe's last dictator, won another five-year term. "Lukashenko's police have an iron grip on Belarus, and it looks like I will be here for a while yet," Kirylionak says.

But Czech politicians are signaling that Prague's days as haven for refugees are numbered. Immigration and asylum laws are tightening in accordance with EU regulations, and police are under orders to stop the influx from the east.

With a population of just 10 million, the Czech Republic receives more asylum seekers than any other post-communist country and ranks 11th in the world in asylum applications, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This year, 20,000 asylum applications are expected, triple the number last year.

Under a proposed new law to slow the flood of refugees, Kirylionak would never have been given asylum in Prague - because he passed through a third country before arriving.

Deputy Interior Minister Petr Ibl says stricter immigration laws "will curb criminal gangs, which come principally from the former Soviet Union." Czech human rights organizations argue that recent regulations are forcing both economic migrants and refugees to seek help from criminal gangs in getting across the border and obtaining fake documents.

"They come anyway," says David Tachtl, director of the Organization for Aid to Refugees in Prague. "These new laws will just force more people into illegality. In every EU country that tried this, it decreased the legal immigration but it increased the illegal immigration at the same time."

Artists and intellectual exiles are no exception. "We don't want to deal with the Russian gangs, but we have to survive somehow," says Bogdan, a Russian painter who didn't want to give his last name. "The bottom line is, if Prague becomes too difficult, we will just go someplace else."

For Kirylionak, the political situation in Belarus makes a return home unlikely. "I have no dreams anymore," he says, "I just enjoy my life and the art as best I can and don't think about the future. We are living intensely in the present here, and we don't look back."

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