22 November 2017, Wednesday, 10:03

Jauhen Afnahel: We Must Save the Country Together

A new leader of the opposition tells about the March of Angry Belarusians 2.0 and other things.

Coordinator of European Belarus Jauhen Afnahel took part in the Belsat Talk of the Weekend program. During the conversation he recalled the action of February 2017 - the first March of Angry Belarusians, told about plans and tasks the opposition sets, and whether people were ready to defend their interests. Charter97.org cites a verbatim report.

- Let's explain us first the format of future event. There was the first March of Angry Belarusians. What is the difference between the upcoming and the previous Marches? How did the decision to assemble people again appear?

- At one time the Belarusian National Congress accurately predicted an increase in protest sentiments, predicted social riots, and we decided to hold a street action "March of Angry Belarusians" in February.

- In 2017? The end of winter, the beginning of spring.

- That was the beginning of 2017. And it was the catalyst for protests throughout the country. People came to protests in all regions. For the first time thousands of people came out in the cities where there were never any mass actions at all. That was probably the most numerous protest since the Peterstroika.

- Mass media wrote that these were the most massive protests since 2010.

- There have been no such protests at all since 2010.

- What was the main reason for people to protest? What was the reason?

- I think that it was caused by impoverishment of people, decline in salaries, dismissals, unemployment. Decree No.3 "On Spongers" became a true catalyst. Why is it decided to hold this action again? Because all these problems are not solved. We see that salaries of 300-400 rubles are already good in the country. I'm not talking about Minsk, I'm talking about the regions. We see that pensioners are paid 150 rubles. We see that people cannot find a job even in district centers, to say nothing of small settlements. That is, all problems that caused people to the streets at the beginning of the year have not been resolved so far and have even worsened.

- That is, when we talk about the March of Angry Belarusians 2.0, we largely remember, first of all, a set of social problems. Can we enumerate them? Will the March be "Against"?

against the increase in prices, against decline in salaries, against the reduction of pensions. I would rather say the reasons why it would take place. It will stand for raise of salaries and pensions, for an opportunity to find a decent work for every Belarusian.

- Does it mean that it aims at a package of social transformations and not at politically- grounded demands?

- In the spring protests started as social ones. But in the course of time people who first came to action got aware of policital nature of social changes. So the March of Angry Belarusians 2.0 will be held under social slogans.

But this is not the last action. We will continue taking the streets. I think that sooner or later a question of free elections will be posed again. The Belarusian National Congress carries out the For Free Elections campaign.

- Jauhen, can we now name people who have already supported or are going to join the BNC? When we're talking about the BNC, whom do we mean from political forces of today's Belarus? Who does support us?

- We have political national structures. But, first of all, I would like to say that regional leaders, people who headed people in the spring, are with us. These are BNC coordinators in regional centers, in district centers. These are new leaders that emerged during these protests. If we enumerate them, there will be dozens of them.

- I understand that you are planning to start in Minsk, and then go back to the regions. So you are coordinated with the regions?

- Let's talk about the action of October 21, we'll see how it goes and draw conclusions. We saw that the March of Angry Belarusians became such a catalyst on February 17. Let's see what happens now. According to our feelings, the situation in the regions is much worse than in Minsk.

- Is there a difference between in Minsk needs and in those of, conditionally speaking, Rahachou, Brahin, Vileika?

- I think that both Minsk and Rahachou are one country and everyone wants to have a decent life, well-paid job, "to be called people", everyone, finally, wants to choose power.

- By your leave, I would express skepticism." There has been recently held the congress of the Belarusian Popular Front; and one of the regional delegates Vadzim Bolbas said a simple thing that one should not hope for a new revolutionary situation to appear. People do not live as well as they'd like to, but they are well fed and calm. What can make a difference? Look, West-2017 exercises everyone was frightened with were held in a calm atmosphere, there were some concessions granted to individual entrepreneurs, a list of opportunities was expanded. In principle, everything contributes to decay of the protest wave. Generally speaking, summer was a quite time. Why should people after the winter and spring of 2017 when the tax authorities really came with these little letters to houses participate in this action now?

- I would like to recall what was said before the first March. Then the same politicians, I will not call them by names, but the same politicians, the same forces, some journalists, unfortunately, also said that 100 people would appear and there was no protest wave, no revolutionary situation. Even in the morning of February 17 it was said, and then thousands of people appeared. These politicians probably do not get the people's sentiments. How can they be called politicians then?

- To organizers' credit I would say that both Lukashenka and his officials said that no one would appear there.

- Well, I'm interested neither in Lukashenka nor his officials.

- I mean that the state was as much surprised as the society. That is, everyone was surprised.

- I do not think it was a surprise to the society. Because there were protest moods and the revolution situation is acute now.

- Should something be a hit in the international arena? Does anyone follow us? It there a feeling that no one cares about the fate of Belarus anymore? Lukashenka is again invited to summits. Is there any hope that "foreigners will help us"? Of course, not with tanks and sanctions, but at least with the hand of solidarity?

- I would like to cite Ukraine as the example. Ukraine was given lendded a willing hand as soon as it started fighting on its own, after the occupation of the Crimea and the Donbass.

- Exactly!

- And the same thing is with Belarus - if we, the Belarusians, fight, I am sure that there will be help rendered, solidarity and support. But we must fight, and we are the ones to decide the fate of the country. We are the ones to do it, there is no one to lay hope on but us.

- Let's take the other path: we succeeded and a lot of people appeared. Is there plan B?

- Yes, it is.

- We would like to hear it very much, because during 20 years of struggle many Belarusian actions, unfortunately, ended with nothing. People came to actions but were not offered anything specific but to lay flowers near a monument and so on.

- I will not voice the whole plan because not only our supporters watch Belsat. But how can changes be achieved in Belarus? There are should be more than one, two, three actions. Mikalai Statkevich, the leader of the BNC, voiced the plan in the spring. We must stand out many times, maybe it will take much time - there must be victorious actions. The number of participants should be enhanced as well.

- But did the same Mikalai Statkevich having participated two or three times with up to two hundred people not extinguish this mood? Wasn't the enthusiasm extinguished in parts?

- I think the opposite is true. It was indicating. When people came to actions, they were held peacefully and others could come up with an idea to join.

- Was that the strategy?

- In fact, yes.

- As a result, is Statkevich ready to offer anything but to go home in two hours if 10-15-20 thousand people appear?

- I've voiced the plan. the March of Angry Belarusians 2.0 is not the decisive action, not the last one. There should be more of them. After all, next year we are going to celebrate a 100th anniversary of the BPR; it's an outstanding date and there should be a great action on March 25. That is, the March of Angry Belarusians launched protests in February. That was our strategy, it was our idea, and it was executed. And now we have a plan and I think it will also become true.

- Well, we will follow this. You are talking about streets, protests, people on the streets. There are rather interesting processes simultaneously occur. For example, the statement of "deputy" Kanapatskaya when she offers to fight through crowdfunding, through some abstract ideas, local "elections". How do you treat such initiatives? Will you accept it or leave it?

- I would better offer to ask people first, whether they are interested in local "elections", appointed "deputies" and so on. No one is interested in it.

- You don't believe in it, do you?

- I guess I don't. I would better discuss things people are really interested in. They are interested in living standards, salaries, reasonable choice. And fair elections, and not the fuss you've just enumerated. No one cares about it.

- Regarding repressions. Are you ready to find yourself and your partners in the situation when people come to streets and then a dozen of people are fined or arrested, and so on? What are your next steps? People have fear, after all. No one wants to be in your heroic position. Are there any new ways of fighting or evasion from the situation when Statkevich takes his other days of arrest? Is there anything new to say to encourage people to go to streets? What can be done with fear?

- Hundreds people appear, only a few of them are detained.

- We saw it in the spring. There were...

- The action of March 25 put the fear of God into the authority. The authorities knew that tens of thousands of people would come. They did not know a specific amount; their analysts are ineffective. They understood it could be a decisive action. Therefore, they did so. Now they arrest or detain several people. It does not bear any threat to ordinary people, there will be no repercussions for them. Because the authority is thrown on its beam-ends. After March 25 Lukashenka barely escaped sanctions. I guess it hurt him much. There can be no second chance to him. Therefore, this is insurance for those who come to the action. Is there anything to be afraid of now? People are not abused, because the situation then can worsen.

- It is obvious that authorities drew some conclusions after March 25. What conclusions were made by action organizers? What things are not desirable on the March 2.0? Are there any lessons you learned? Or was everything done right?

- First, the authorities did not draw any conclusions. I strongly disagree here. If it had been done, they would have sat down to talk with the opposition.

- It has not occurred for long.

- If the authorities had drawn conclusions, Lukashenka and Statkevich would have had talks. These are the conclusions that can save the country. The crisis is being exacerbated, the situation is really complex. It may cause social upheavals. In case of social upheavals, everything can happen. There can be Russian tanks, Russian guns can remove Lukashenka. Not to let it happen, there is a need to sit down to talk and to decide how to save the country. As soon as it happens, I will believe that the authorities have drawn conclusions. But now they do not. There are no shifts both in political and economic situation.

- At first, when enumerating your goals you did not name talks.

- We voiced and offered it on February 17. And we are ready to do it. For now.

- Were there small attempts to probe the negotiating soil, appearance of certain officials, officials of low rank in the streets and squares of small towns? Marzalyuk appeared in Homel. Someone appeared in Slonim. Was that an attempt to douse the blaze with a cup of water?

I guess it could be compared to the situation when a person does not know what is going on and what to do with it.

- Is this an initiative at places?

- Perhaps. But people are interested in legitimate, real talks.

- When are they perceived as a full-fledged representative?

- If a "scapegoat" from power appears, no one is interested in him. .

- Do you mean the vertical?

- Yes. They are not interested in "deputies" and so on. I think that real talks are the thing they are interested in.

- Well, I guess with a particular person. Because others do not decide anything.

- Not always. The main thing is to have the authority on one side, and the opposition on the other.

- Who else except Mikalai Statkevich can sit down to talk?

- I think there are enough politicians, people, public activists who are respected in the country, who can act.

- There should be a desire on the part of the authorities.

- The authorities should decide. Because the opposition offers talks, not the authority.

- Should it just accept it?

- Yes, it will be enough for the first time. It may be too late in a while. And it jeopardizes not only the authority but the entire country.

- The objective reality for Belarus today is a low standard of living, lack of prospects and general fatigue. We will see what happens on October 21.