More and more people are now waking up because of what the Kremlin is doing.
It has been stated by the leader of the civil campaign “European Belarus”, the presidential candidate in the election 2010 and a former political prisoner Andrei Sannikov in an interview to the TV channel France24. We offer the shorthand report of the interview.
- Hello, and welcome to “The Interview”. He has been called Europe’s last dictator ruling the former Soviet republic of Belarus for the last twenty year. Aliaksandr Lukashenka doesn’t take kindly to opponents, many have been harassed or jailed, including my guest today Andrei Sannikov. He was sentenced to five years in jail for organizing protests over the 2010 elections. Before becoming an opposition activist and a co-founder of the human rights initiative Charter’97 Andrei Sannikov was a career diplomat specializing in nuclear arms control. Welcome to the program.
- Thank you.
- I want to start with the situation in Ukraine. Russia has come under some sanctions from the West. Of course, Belarus no stranger to such sanctions, do they actually work?
- Well, if they are serious, they do work. But if there are loopholes as in the case of Belarus, because we do have some officials under sanctions – I rather call them travel or visa bans – but still even Lukashenka managed to go to the West, to Europe for expensive vacations during the period, when sanctions were imposed against him. I think that, yes, they do work, if it is not only a travel but, but these are also economic sanctions directed at those, who support such regimes as the Lukashenka regime in Belarus.
- What about the asset freezes? Have they had any effect on officials in Belarus?
- Well, the officials claim they do not have assets, but there was a case, when one of the officials, close to Lukashenka, tried to use a credit card in New York, but it was blocked. So they do work, again, when they are imposed. I was released because of the sanctions, because of the sanctions against the bagmen of the regime – immediately after they had been introduced for the first time in our history against those people, who support Lukashenka financially, me and my friend were released from jail.
- What do you make of the sanctions imposed on Russia so far? Do you think they have any chance of being effective?
- We can judge the sanctions imposed on Russia by the activities of Russia in Ukraine. Since the activities are becoming more and more aggressive, we can clearly say that they do not work. The West is going in the right direction, but it is very slow and I think that in case of Russia sanctions have to be comprehensive including political, economic, financial and, yes, military.
- Let’s talk about the regional implications of this whole crisis. What do you think it means for all the neighboring states?
- It is not only for the neighboring states, I don’t think we are allowed narrow this problem down to the region. Of course, they are of paramount importance to the region, they are extremely important for Belarus, because what is going on today it is not only the occupation and annexation of Crimea, the aggression of Russia in Ukraine, it is a fierce defense of the dictatorial regimes that have been established in the territory of the former Soviet Union. What the Kremlin is doing today is not directed against the region only, it is directed against Europe itself, and it has to be recognized in Europe that the aim is to destroy Europe, European relations, the European Union.
- You have argued that Europe has not really taken the measure of this challenge, that Europe in fact faces the crisis of values as you have described it…
- Absolutely. I think this is the gist of the problem, because what Ukraine did in the Maydan and what Ukraine demonstrated with its heroic defending of its own future – it demonstrated the extremely important support of values. That is what it was all about in the Maydan.
Europe has to recognize that it is not geopolitics, there has to be no place for realpolitik, it is about values and the accent has shifted in this direction – to defend values and to help Ukraine defend values, values that the European Union is built upon – then it will make a difference.
- It must be very hard for you, though, when you meet Western officials or members of the European Parliament or people like that, to really persuade them along that basis that the values argument is a very difficult one to use for persuasion, isn’t it?
- You know, in words everybody makes statements about values, but in real life it is not always that they do defend values. In the case of Belarus, you know, it has been going on for too long, and, yes, there is a much frustration in regards to the European resoluteness to support values, including in Belarus. Yes, sometimes it is frustrating, but I think that more and more people are now waking up because of what the Kremlin is doing.
- And of course, as you said, very specific sanctions did help to get you released. Just tell us a little bit about your experience. You stood in the presidential election in 2010, you had the second highest percentage of the popular votes off to Aliaksandr Lukashenka, what happened after that?
- Well, I would even add to that, because votes are not counted in Belarus, and it was clear not only to me, but, I think, to almost everyone in Belarus that there should have been a second round of elections, and then Lukashenka would have stood no chance. The experience is that if you challenge a dictator, you definitely have to be aware of the risks that are involved. But still there was quite an active campaign by alternative candidates, opposition candidates. I say “alternative”, because not all of them were in the opposition. I think that it was visible that in no way Lukashenka could have won the support needed to become reelected. But he got so scared that – again it was visible –people were against him he got so scared that he brutally dispersed the very peaceful demonstration with much violence and put almost every opposition candidate in jail and about a thousand people in total.
- Do you think the opposition bears some responsibility for the situation in Ukraine by not being able to come to a unified approach?
- It does not have to be unified to fight a dictatorship. Sometimes it is much better to be decentralized as was demonstrated by the presidential campaign of 2010. But of course, there is not only one guilty party in any situation, but you have to bear in mind that we have had this ruthless dictatorship, most ruthless dictatorship in Europe, for twenty years already, and opposition leaders were killed.
That is why I am calling on Europe all the time to react immediately and strongly. We had those people, who were a real alternative to Lukashenka and very popular killed in 1999. These cases are still not investigated. The only document that was produced by the Council of Europe was produced in 2004, but still there are some measures to be taken.
- So there have been verbal condemnations from Europe, but not much else…
- It was not only verbal – I have mentioned this report by the Council of Europe, which is quite a solid basis to go on further, to follow up on this report. I think what Bill Browder did with the Magnitsky case is extremely important, because, if we are talking about sanctions, they are kind of an act of will, they are imposed, when there is a conflict, and then they are lifted, when there is no conflict, but it does not make people not guilty for the crimes they committed, so we need legislation.
- Just to come back to my earlier point about having a united opposition or not – isn’t it a problem, when you have some opposition people saying “we have to boycott elections” and others saying “no, we have to take part and have our voice heard even in difficult circumstances”?
- We did have an example when we were united boycotting elections in 2000 – the parliamentary elections – we did have single candidates, when opposition rallying behind one person, basically, in 2001 and 2006.
But it is a dictatorship, sometimes there is a conceptual misunderstanding - the West, the democratic world expects that some democratic institution would work in the situation like Belarus. No, they will not. And the most important democratic institute is election, which was only free and fair in 1994 in Belarus, when Lukashenka was elected in the result of a protest vote. But this democratic institution has been ruined. He immediately destroyed it. That is why do not expect a legally understandable behavior in countries under dictatorship.
- So how is a change going to happen? I mean, the opposition, obviously, hasn’t managed to force out Lukashenka in twenty years, Europe is not able to do very much. What is the answer?
- I think, if we wish well for Belarus, we have to concentrate on getting rid of the dictatorship. Now with the situation being open by the Russian aggression against Ukraine we have to see not only the tragedy and the conflict, but also the possibilities. Much depends now on the West. You said it correctly, you nailed the problem – it is about the values. Let us all spare no effort to support these values, and then everything will be possible in Ukraine, in Belarus and eventually in Russia.
- Just one final question. Don’t you think that even if Lukashenka goes, which one day, obviously, must happen, Belarus is a borderland between Russian and the West, it is up for grabs like Ukraine, isn’t that a basic trait that is going to continue?
- I do not accept this logic. We have to do something about this approach that one country can decide the fate of the other. If the West is prepared to live with the aggressive imperialistic Russia that considers Ukraine, Belarus and other countries of the former Soviet Union their satellites or even their territories, then there is no future for Europe also, and it has to be recognized.
I want to decide my own destiny. When Lukashenka is gone, it will be a good time to move in a different direction than under a dictatorship and totalitarianism.
- So ultimately a question of European values will have to end it there. Thank you so much for being a guest on the program.