5 June 2020, Friday, 6:15
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Can the Belarusian Opposition Unite?

Can the Belarusian Opposition Unite?

This topic has been discussed by the Editor -in-chief of charter97.org Natallia Radzina and a politician - Zmitser Bandarenka.

The current Belarusian situation is critical both in the economic and political sphere. Belarusians today face new challenges.

Below there are responses of the Editor-in-chief Natallia Radzina, and the coordinator of the civil campaign "European Belarus", Zmitser Bandarenka, that have been interviewed by the journalist of the charter97.org Uladzislau Zhizhemsky.

- Belarusian authorities are consistently saying that 2016 will be difficult for them. In your opinion, what will this year be like for the Belarusian opposition?

Natallia Radzina: Difficult times for the government opens up opportunities for the opposition. However, so far we can observe only failure of the opposition leaders to agree among themselves. This is a big mistake. The opposition should unite, since Belarusian independence and democracy at stake.

I hope that our discussion will help to overcome the existing situation.

Zmitser Bandarenka: The year will be very dynamic. It will be difficult, because now Belarusian democrats have to provide answers and solutions to the problems faced by the Belarusians.

However, at the same time this year can become a chance for a big change, as the current crisis on the dictatorial regime has never been so severe: such a significant fall in GDP and a catastrophic economic situation has been only during the collapse of the USSR. I would not like this year to be a year of missed opportunities for the Belarusian opposition.

- The economy has always been a weak point of dictatorships. Will Lukashenka's regime survive such a crisis?

Natallia Radzina: I do not see any ways out for Lukashenka. The economic situation in the country is catastrophic: we increasingly feel all negative effects of the lack of reforms over the past two decades, the absolute attachment to Russia and dependency on Russian subsidies, cheap oil, gas and “free” credits.

Today we are well aware of what is happening: every day we read news on the country's massive unemployment, plummeting wages (according to the latest data, the average salary even does not reach $ 200), incredibly rising prices, and records of the GDP drop (current GDP fall sets a new record over the 15-years term).

In such a situation Lukashenka will not be rescued by those occasional handouts it receives from Russia (like the latest loan of $ 2 billion from the Eurasia Foundation). Experts say that new loans will be used to pay off old debts. Lukashenka absolutely has no choices in this situation. There is only one way out for him - real reforms in the country, respectively a round table with the opposition, access of the opposition to television and free elections. Otherwise, he simply loses the power and, probably, his life too. This is a fate of all dictators who did not begin credible and sincere dialogues with the opposition and did not look for any compromises and solutions.

I advise Lukashenka to learn from Pinochet, Jaruzelski and Mečiar, who had the courage to start political reforms and hold free elections.

Zmitser Bandarenka: I would still like to talk about the democratic forces. The Belarusian opposition had a series of successful and effective campaigns and actions: boycott "election" campaign at various levels, the Freedom March, Chernobyl Way, Jeans Revolution in 2006, protests and crackdown at October Square in 2010. It is often heard: "In 2006 or 2010 the GDP and wages grew, but the Belarusians will demonstrate against when there is a strong crisis and poverty."

Right now is exactly the time when such a strong crisis and poverty has come and affected all categories of citizens. However, against the backdrop of the fall of the standard of living we do not see any effective, strong, deliberate actions of the opposition. While, in fact, it is the opposition with its strong actions with which most citizens pin their hopes for changes for the better. However, the opposition is either silent or simply declares: "We have created the "Centre-Right Bloc." While the other party says: "We do not want to deal with the Bangalore." More precisely, this means: "We are willing to deal with businessmen, but not with politicians”. This is not the message that Belarusians want to hear right now.

- Spring political actions were like a "Barometer" of the state of the Belarusian opposition. How do you assess the actions of "Spring 2016"?

Zmitser Bandarenka: There was no "Spring 2016". We can greet the courage of Belarusian entrepreneurs, as well as political activists and ordinary Belarusian citizens, who dared to go out to the streets and protest. However, the scale of these protests has nothing to do with the scale of the crisis that Belarus suffers.

Independence of the country is at stake today. In fact, there is a huge probability of the social explosion, mentioned by Natallia, the result of which can be misused by the Kremlin.

At the same time, some Western politicians say, that taking into consideration the current geopolitical situation, they are ready to cooperate with Lukashenka. He once has not recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and has provided a platform for negotiation of the Donbas; while, as we know, the main problem in Europe today is the Syrian refugees.

However, ordinary Belarusians absolutely do not care about the geopolitical situation in the world. People are simply angry; and, in fact, it is really hard for them to survive: salaries are catastrophically falling, prices for utilities are growing (prices for most goods in stores are several times higher than in neighbouring Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine), the unemployed today are taxed on parasitism, with unemployment benefits of $ 15. Belarusians patience is not unlimited.

I would like to remind that the first mass protest in the Soviet Union, when hundreds of thousands of people took out to the streets, began in Minsk in April 1991. Such situation is possible now too. One gets the impression that the Belarusian opposition has no influence on the current situation and does not provide any exit scenarios or solutions. For the last six years, there has not been organized any truly mass action in Belarus. Cabals of opposition leaders are not interesting to anyone.

I often tell Western journalists and experts about the courage and heroism of the Belarusian opposition: about the imprisonment, tortures and inquisitions, which they have to go through. However, this absolutely does not absolve the opposition leaders from the responsibility for the situation in the country. In order to change something - we have to be strong. In order to be strong – we have to unite and only then we can count on the support of our people and the support of the democratic world. The way political leaders are explaining their unwillingness to unite – does not satisfy anyone.

Natallia Radzina: There was an impression, that both at the winter and spring opposition action, whether it was business actions of Freedom Day, the people themselves went out. No labels, no campaign posters or flyers were spread by the opposition, as it was in the "best years". There is the willingness to take to the streets in the most active segment of the society. People organized themselves, took a white-red-white flags, ribbons, painted posters and came out to the squares.

I should note here that the most creative poster on Freedom Day was a poster with the words that "BNR (Belarusian People's Republic) has arisen without the permission of Minsk executive committee." When I saw all the action from the beginning to the end in an online mode, I had the feeling that the opposition leaders came there as if they were wedding generals. They did not prepare, did not even bring a sound amplifying equipment – they came there just to show off in front of video cameras, take pictures and leave.

In the West, they say that the Lukashenko regime in Belarus has been allegedly "softened". Well, yes, now people are not being massively arrested and punished. Hence, if we are not arrested, then let us take the advantage of it – we should distribute stickers and leaflets, organize the dissemination of information about actions, create volunteer networks, configure relief fund for the payment of fines. Now is right the time for such steps.

It is critical to use this period right now, as it can be very short. While Lukashenka is weak, while he is asking for money, waiting for a loan from the IMF and meeting with European officials, the opposition should act and become truly massive. Unfortunately, this is not happening.

- Belarus will held "parliamentary elections" in autumn. What should the opposition do in connection with this campaign?

Natallia Radzina: Recently in Brussels on the Euronest I managed to talk with some of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition. In particular, I talked to the two most powerful, in my opinion, politicians in Belarus - Mikalai Statkevich and Anatoly Lyabedzka.

I discussed with them the the fact that unification of the opposition at the eve of the parliamentary election campaign is necessary and that without the unification, given the situation - we will lose our country. I did not get the impression that Nikolai and Anatoly are willing to compromise.

I had to play a role of a "referee" between the two politicians, who are not able to agree on basic things, though, in general, they are on the same side and are exposed to the same pressure from the authorities. I think that if they do not tame their ambitions, parliamentary campaign will not bring any good results.

Why is a parliamentary campaign carried out? What politicians are going to talk about when they declare: vote for our "Centre-Right Bloc" or be with our "Centre-Left Bloc"? That is funny.

We must show our people that the opposition is strong, united, that behind it there are millions of ordinary citizens, that the opposition has a plan for a change of the government and reforms in the interests of the majority of the population.

Why should we go to the parliamentary elections? In order to help a couple of people to get access to the “Chamber of Representatives”? That still does not change the situation. We already had the experience when the deputies of the "Chamber" began to raise their heads and offer some real things.

Think of the fraction “Republic” with the generals Valery Fralou, Uladimir Parfyanovich and Syarhei Skrabets. Their attempts to change the system through the Lukashenka's representative body were unsuccessful. The same thing awaits any opposition activists that can appear there in a situation without political reforms. Therefore, it is important to think not only of the parliamentary election campaign, but also about the overall strategy for the near future.

Zmitser Bandarenka: Indeed, even the civil initiative "European Belarus" is ready to participate in the election campaign, but only with one purpose - to protect the interests of people in crisis and organize truly massive protests.

However, what joint action could be discussed here, when even Statkevich and Lyabedzka cannot agree on common strategy? Moreover, we should not forget that there are several more opposition parties and movements.

I would like to mention here that at the beginning of this year, Andrei Sannikov suggested that the leaders of the Belarusian political parties and organizations meet in Warsaw in order to analyse the situation in the country and to develop a joint action plan.

Anatoly Lyabedzka, Mikalai Statkevich, and a number of other politicians from "center-right bloc" and from organizing committee of the Congress of Democratic Forces have given their consent to the visit. However, some some people from both sides disrupted the meeting and it did not take place.

If the opposition goes to "election" as it wants to go - under different flags - it will end disastrously.

I think the society should make opposition leaders to unite. Emigration also could help the Resistance inside the country. Furthermore, independent media could help by highlighting the strong, combined and thoughtful actions of the opposition. International players could also influence the situation in Belarus in a positive way. However, if “some people” are not able to reach an agreement, nothing will work out. Hence, we can state, that these people are not leaders, and political leadership is not what they should do.

Natallia Radzina: As a Chief Editor, I can say that it is very difficult to write about the Belarusian opposition when it sorts things out.

I would like to write that there are real heroes in Belarus who are trying to find the truth and justice, who are fighting for their country, sacrificing their freedom and destiny.

In contrast, disagreements and squabbles constantly occurring between the parties are not what Belarusians want to see, and it is not what we, journalists, would like to highlight. If I were on the place of the politicians, I would think to myself for a moment. So far, unfortunately, their position looks quite depressing.

- Recently there has been a report published by Lithuanian special agencies, which discussed the active infiltration of the Belarusian "secret police" agents aiming at splitting the opposition. To what extent, in your opinion, might this have influenced the ability of the democratic leaders to unite?

Natallia Radzina: Yes, this is happening in Belarus. Of course, there are agents whose task is to spread gossips and incite people against each other. I am constantly hearing something like: “Do you know what this or that politician or journalist in Belarus is saying about you?” However, when I meet these people, it turns out that nothing like this was said or even though about me. Hence, their goal is to embroil us. Security services always work in such a way, and opposition must be aware of this.

Zmitser Bandarenka: I believe we now need to think about something else - how can we unite the opposition. Maybe we should organize a meeting of Statkevich and Lyabedzka in the editorial of one of the independent newspapers, for example, "Narodnaya Volya", and let the journalists question politicians about their plans for the near future, and about the reasons they do not want to associate.

It is necessary that Statkevich and Lyabedzka, as representatives of the two centres of the democratic forces, reach an agreement. After this, all leaders will probably unite as well.

Each of them is characterised by plenty of good factors: decent biography, number of supporters among strong international partners. These two people should shake hands, and then the united opposition will act as a common power.

- In 2010, the "European Belarus" has proposed a strong team and a strong national leader in the presidential election. A question for Dzmitryj: What will civil campaign do in the current situation?

Zmitser Bandarenka: We try to do everything possible to unite the democratic forces. Our coordinators and activists were co-organizers of the majority of street protests in recent years. We got access to the organizing committee of the Congress of Democratic Forces, and, from the beginning, we were saying that a preliminary agreement is necessary here. Only then, we can speak about the conduct of a universal democratic Congress – basing on the model of the pre-election conventions in democratic countries, when the name of the electoral bloc and strategy is already defined, and the main slogans are approved.

Today, unfortunately, the Democratic Forces Congress may become a symbol of a discord, and, therefore, it is necessary to combine the main democratic parties and movements by any means, and only then to carry out the Forum.

Today, a number of the leaders of the civil campaign "European Belarus" is in the emigration, however, we do not stay here with folded hands. We do not exclude the return to Belarus in case the situation changes. We did not leave in order to live abroad.

Sometimes we are unable to explain to our international partners, why a few persons cannot agree among themselves. We do not have arguments. There are not so many known leaders in Belarus: Shushkevich, Sevyarynets, Lyabedzka, Statkevich, Milinkevich, Fedynich, Grib, Nyaklyaeu, Dashkevich... What prevents these reputable persons to unite?

- If at this editorial roundtable you invited the opposition leaders, what would you say to them in the first place?

Natallia Radzina: I would primarily encourage them to stop mutual recriminations and claims to each other, and to understand that at stake now is not their own career, but the fate of the whole country. I would advise them to think about what they will do in a situation where there will be mass riots in Belarus.

Will they be able to lead the protests? What measures will they take if, for example, a Russian scenario of change of power occurs, when Putin simply replaces Lukashenko to another puppet, granting new loans?

Zmitser Bandarenka: I would say to our political leaders, that they bear a responsibility for the situation, and they must lead the protests, turning them onto well-organised, civilized actions such as non-violent resistance on the streets.

We have to get prepared for this. Opposition can support people in Belarus and abroad, but only in case when the leaders come together. If Belarusians are disunited, no one will help us; and then you cannot claim that you are pulling for the interests of the people - it means that your selfishness is more important for you than the level of responsibility that lies upon you.

In fact, there are no any real reasons why the opposition could not reach upon agreement. We just have to shake hands and create a common headquarters for this campaign. All claim that this is not the real "election", that it can be just used, but used not only to promote social democratic or liberal ideas. This is not what the campaign is launched for. People expect us to answer the main question: how to get rid of the dictatorship in Belarus.