Actual economic sanctions should replace symbolic measures in the struggle against Lukashenka’s regime.
Marek Butko, deputy chairperson of the Polish Freedom and Democracy Foundation, former first secretary of the Polish Embassy in Minsk, said about it in an interview to charter97.org.
— Marek, you left your diplomatic career and became one of the directors of the Freedom and Democracy Foundation in Warsaw. Belarus is high on its agenda. Could you give a brief report on the work done?
— First of all, since 2007 we have been working with a program Center of Documentation and Support of Victims of Political Repressions in Belarus. During this time, we have helped almost 500 people.
We have collected extensive data about those who actually steer the repressive machine, and about those who perform the repressions. These people have no clue what detailed information we possess. We will share the information with new democratic powers in Belarus. These documents will be used to put every person involved in the repressions against their fellow countrymen in front of judges.
Moreover, we search for funds for the TV-channel Belsat, and we are proud of the fact that due to our efforts the share of these funds in the channel’s budget is growing. We even helped to found the Belarusian House in Warsaw. The Belarusian House had been located in our office, before they got their premises. From time to time we help political refugees from Belarus with some minor problems that in fact are difficult for them to solve on their own. We publish a significant number of issues of the newspapers of the independent Union of Poles in Belarus Magazyn Polski and Głos znad Niemna, prohibited by Lukashenka’s regime. We have a couple of media-projects in Ukraine, and we do our best to support the human rights struggle in Cuba.
— On May 18, 2005, when you were an employee of the Embassy in Minsk, the Belarusian powers announced you persona non grata and you were forced to leave Belarus. How did they explain this decision, and what do you think the actual reasons of your deportation were?
— My deportation from Belarus shows that the KGB and Lukashenka’s regime ”recognized” my activity in some way. As an Embassy employee I was facing a choice: to keep a low profile, to visit diplomatic parties and get my monthly paycheck, or to do something. And I chose the second option, although I know that for many officials in our Foreign Ministry I am everything what a diplomat should not be. I was deported from Minsk “for having interfered with the interior affairs of the Republic of Belarus”, although I still don’t understand what it means. In fact, Western diplomats have been forced to leave Belarus before and after my deportation. So my story is not unique.
In those times people from the KGB lost control over the Union of Poles in Belarus, and it made them mad. It was right after the Union elected a new democratic independent leadership headed by Angelika Borys. Special services had to explain their mistakes to Lukashenka, so they said that the elections were a conspiracy of the Polish government. And where there’s a conspiracy, there’s the foe that should be punished. They chose me for that role, although I was never involved with the Union of Poles.
If I had had the opportunity to finish my job in the Embassy on time, I would have returned to Poland and got back to being a journalist. But I thought, “you want a war – you’ll get a war”, and acted accordingly. And that is why I keep on working with human rights in Belarus. Today I work for an NGO with no diplomatic limitations.
— After graduation you worked at the Polish Foreign Ministry with issues related to Russia. When and how did you first become interested in Belarus?
— I am half Polish, half Belarusian. My father was born in Vilnius, my mother comes from Baranavichy, and I spent a couple of years in Belarus when I was a child. In 1939, my father was deported to Siberia, he spent several years in Soviet jails, he worked in taiga cutting wood, and then he returned to Poland with the unit of Tadeusz Kościuszko. In Stalin times, my mother graduated from a medical university. She was the only one of three hundred students who refused to join the komsomol. I have always been proud of that. So one can say that I was fostered with repulsion against the soviet system.
But I developed a real interest in Belarus in 2000-2005, when I worked in the Polish Embassy in Minsk. I met with Belarusian intellectuals and democrats. I read Belarusian literature, books on the Belarusian history. And then I realized that I must help these courageous people because this country deserves freedom. I realized that Lukashenka is a butcher of any freedom and any human values. I could have probably done even more, but at least I tried, and I’m happy I did.
— What impressions do you have left after your time in Belarus?
— As I’ve already said, I see myself as a Pole, but I have such strong bounds with Belarus, I have always thought of Belarus as of my second home. Who knows, if Belarus had been a free and friendly neighbor to Poland, maybe I could move there. Anyway, I spent 8-9 years in Belarus on the total. I have lots of close friends there. Unfortunately, some of them are in prison, some had to emigrate. I think of those who are left in Belarus with respect and worry, because I know what the bandit soviet system can do to people.
Frankly, sometimes I feel that Belarusians are spiritually much closer to me that some of my fellow countrymen. I used to think that Poles are a courageous and brave nation craving for freedom, ready to sacrifice everything for it. With time I realized that it is not entirely true, that people are the same everywhere, here and there great people ready to help others are born side by side with scoundrels who can trade their mother for comfort and a sweet life.
In Poland in different times there were people employed by the regime and people who were passive laymen, but there were even those who were ready to give their lives for freedom. And the fact that “the entire nation” won in 1989 in Poland, is just a stereotype. A small but most active part of the society won, the people who in the hard times of the martial law didn’t give up and didn’t abandon the Solidarity. They became neither successful businessmen, nor influential politicians. Some of them are poor.
Belarus, too, has its heroes. For example, Ales Bialatski and others who choose prison over being subdued by the regime and over betrayal of their ideals. These people are the consciousness of the nation, and it is due to them that the people of Belarus have the right to be called a great nation. History values their deeds highly. It is a pity though that they and their families have to pay such a price for freedom.
— What actions, in your opinion, should the EU take in order to make Lukashenka release and rehabilitate all the political prisoners?
— For many years I have been saying the same thing: we need real economic sanctions, including trade embargo, instead of symbolic measures. Just likethe Soviet Union, Lukashenka understands only the language of force. There are no other ways. All intentions to make the dictator more “human” are a mere fantasy of European bureaucrats who try to pretend that they have ideas and solutions. Often their common interests with the regime and their fear to anger Russia affect the process. Their ideas have frequently resulted in the European politics being compromised, but that it bureaucracy’s nature, always making the same mistake.
If Lukashenka at least once could feel the danger of real sanctions, they could be avoided. He plays a hero because he knows perfectly well – the threats of the EU to the regime are not to be scared of.
Of course, we should support independent media such as charter97.org, Belsat or Radio Racja, we should help the repressed Belarusians, but it is not enough. We need a strong political and economic factor of pressure, not on the people of Belarus, as Lukashenka tries to persuade them, but on himself, on the system he has created. This is a stupid soviet system that is the enemy of the Belarusian culture, that destroys the Belarusian nation spiritually and physically.
— Before the events of December 19, 2010, you said in an interview that the EU doesn’t provide democratic forces in Belarus with real support. Has the situation changed since then?
— After December 19, 2010, when Lukashenka’s brutal actions shocked everyone, the European politics regarding Belarus became more rigid, but with time everything turned back to bureaucracy.
Let’s look at that realistically. Almost all more or less significant initiatives of support the democratic forces in Belarus have been financed from the Polish budget: Belsat, Radio Racja, help for the victims of repressions, the Kalinowski Scholarship Program, and so on. Besides us, the actual help comes from Sweden, a bit from Lithuania; the European Union gives funds to support the European Humanitarian University. The rest is a fiction, plain talks of European bureaucrats with nothing specific. What “European assistance” are we talking about?
— The Freedom and Democracy Foundation supports the Union of Poles in Belarus that Lukashenka doesn’t recognized. Recently Mecislaw Jaskiewicz has been elected its chairperson. He said that he was going to demand that the organization is recognized officially. Is the recognition possible, and is it in general needed in the current situation?
— I’ve known Mecislaw for a long time; he is a person of principles. I’m amazed at his passion and courage. If he says that he’s about to do something, he will do it. I admire such people as Angelika Borys, Angelika Orekhvo, Andrzej Poczobut, and in front of many other activists of the Union of Poles in Belarus. Because of these people I am proud to be a Pole myself. I hope that the powers will finally realize that repressions against the Poles in Belarus have always given and will always give reverse results. The stronger the repressions are, the stronger the resistance becomes.
But the Union of Poles is not a political organization, and the Polish people in Belarus want to have the rights a national minority has in any normal country. They want to be able to go to Polish schools, to keep their traditions alive. Nobody in Poland thinks of getting the Grodna region back, and the Polish minority respects democratic values, it poses no threat to Belarus’ sovereignty. On the contrary, multiculturalism is one of the biggest treasures that history has given this part of Europe, and we should use it instead of pushing the Poles of Belarus into the politics with repressions. The Union of Poles in Belarus, legal or not, will still be there and work as usual.
— Can you give your evaluation to the Belarusian independent media as a journalist? Are they effective? The pro-government Belarusian media constantly report on some kind of amazing financial support of the independent journalist from the West. Is this support so big?
— I never start any discussions with the Belarusian propaganda out of principle. I don’t see these uneducated slaves as decent partners for a discussion.
Radio Svaboda or The Voice of America that broadcast in Poland in the communist times were supported by the U.S. government. I am very grateful to these Americans for it was them who saved us from the soviet propaganda and who provided the people with true facts. These broadcasts kept the national spirit alive and called to act. Today independent media play this role for Belarus. They work from abroad, and they are an oasis of democracy. Lukashenka hates them because he cannot make them be quiet despite the KGB ‘s attempts to control the Internet and to intimidate the journalists.
But it’s not only the journalists’ enthusiasm that can make a radio program or a webpage attractive for as many listeners and users. Means for modernization, equipment, production of the programs are needed. In my view the needs in this sphere are three times higher than the resources. If Europe really gave these funds, Lukashenka’s propaganda would be trembling with fear.
— What was your opinion of the article published in the Belarusian state press after the protest rally on December 19, 2010, that accused Europe and you personally of basically financing terrorists who were trying to seize the power with violence?
— As I said before, I don’t engage in debates with the Belarusian propaganda. I’m not interested in its opinion. When I was working in Belarus, in my job I had to read crazy scribbles of Yakubovich, Zimouski or Charginets. This reading was, as a matter of fact, pretty tiresome. Not enough that they lie – they get paid for that, that’s their pity role. But their primitive style and the total absence of any talent give no desire at all to read their works. Such mediocre persons could actually have a career only in the soviet system. In a normal country they wouldn’t be allowed even to edit a wall newspaper with culinary recipes.