The system is visibly falling into pieces.
18 years ago, on October 17, 1999, the Freedom March took place in Minsk. This was the biggest and probably the most vivid street action in the history of the Belarusian Resistance in late 1990s.
Coordinator of the “European Belarus” civil campaign Dzmitry Bandarenka has told the website charter97.org how it happened and what the historical meaning of the Freedom March-1 for the protests in the contemporary Belarus is.
— You were one of the organizers of the Freedom March-1. I think, the younger generation of Belarusians will find it interesting to learn how it really happened back then, on October 17, 1999.
— In my opinion, it is necessary to tell in what historical conditions the Freedom March was held. It was 1999, which started quite optimistic: this year, five years of Lukashenka's first presidential term expired, and the opposition insisted that this was exactly the way it should end, and new elections were to be held in accordance with the Constitution.
Many strong opposition politiicans decided to hold popular election. They created the Elections Commission, headed by Viktar Hanchar, and there were two candidates – former PM of Belarus Mikhail Chyhir and leader of the Belarusian Popular Front Zianon Pazniak, who had already left the country by then.
It is worth mentioning that the Coordinative Rada of the Democratic Forces (CRDF) acted then. It included the United Civil Party, the Social Democratic Party (People’s Assembly), the steering committee of the initiative Charter’97, the Belarusian Popular Front and other organizations. That is, the opposition was united then.
Moreover, in 1999, the then opposition was decisive about delivering an all-out battle to Lukashenka, who already started feeling like a dictator. We know that he had changed the Constitution at the illegitimate referendum in 1996, and created the pseudo-parliament — the so-called “house of representatives”. At the same time, the Belarusian Supreme Council of the 13th convocation acted and was widely recognized as a legitimate authority.
Lukashenka was frightened by the opposition's determination and, as further events showed, he then ordered his political competitors to be eliminated directly. Mikhail Chyhir, deputies Andrei Klimau and Uladzimir Kudzinau were jailed. At the same time, in the spring of 1999, Henadz Karpenka unexpectedly died at the age of 49, General Yury Zakharanka disappeared, and at the beginning of the year the fascists from RNU attacked Andrei Sannikov.
Nevertheless, the campaign of alternative elections of the president of Belarus was held in summer 1999, and the question what to do next emerged after it.
Mikalai Khalezin and I met with Viktar Hanchar in July 1999 and he said he had prepared a legal opinion on the illegality of Lukashenka's stay in power, because in 1996 a coup d'état was carried out. In the autumn of 1999, Viktar planned to hold a meeting of the legitimate Supreme Council of the 13th convocation and asked us whether the civil initiative Charter’97 could organize a mass protest, mobilize people in support of the session of the legitimate parliament. And then this date was set — October 17.
I would like to note that we planned to hold the Freedom March in autumn, it was my idea, and everything just coincided. Some businessmen-patriots who had financially supported the organization of the March joined its preparation. Cooperation was established within the framework of the CRDF with the politicians of the then "new wave", who started playing key roles in their parties: Vintsuk Viachorka, Anatol Liabedzka and others.
As a result, a creative team emerged, which united both parties and movements as a whole, and bright individuals. The steering committee of the Charter’97 became the coordinator of the preparation of the action. A huge role was played by Aleh Biabenin, Mikalai Khalezin, Viktar Ivashkevich, who became a kind of a "motor" of this team. Viktar was then a member of the steering committee of the Charter and at the same time the head of the BPF Board. The names of many organizers of the Freedom March-1 I can not tell even today.
We were getting prepared to holding the Freedom March-1 and, in accordance with the agreements, waited for Viktar Hanchar to start acting. The latter provided financial support for the organization of this protest action. However, in mid-September 1999 it became known that the politician disappeared, together with his comrade Anatol Krasouski. The preparation to the march was at full speed, but no session of the Supreme Council could happen without Viktar Hanchar. Nevertheless, the Freedom March-1 took place exactly as it was planned — on October 17.
I would like to note that we also had an agreement with Mikalai Statkevich that we would organize the preparation and coordination of the actions of various political forces, while Mikalai, as a military man and the founder of the Belarusian Association of the Military, would handle the movement at the March itself. His commander skills were especially important on the site from the Bangalore Square to the city center. Because Marsh first went along the route from Yakub Kolas to Bangalore Square, and then the people voted for proceeding further, and the man who directly controlled the movement of the column was Mikalai Statkevich. The Belarusian Popular Front, the guys from the White Legion and the Krai organization secured order during the movement.
I want to recall that there was an incredible atmosphere at the March: after 1996 there were no such massive actions. People wanted to return democracy and legality to Belarus. About 30 thousand people were out in the streets. Such key figures as Stanislau Shushkevich, Yury Khashchavatski, Valer Shchukin, and Yury Khadyka took part in the March.
In the end of the March, the authorities came up with a provocation, and I proved this many times. We, as organizers, insisted that the march should be peaceful, but when the police attacked the demonstrators, the moods of the people were such that they hit back against the policemen who tried to beat them.
Many songs, videos were dedicated to this march later, it left a huge amount of photo- and video-materials. Retired Colonel, BPF activist Uladzimir Karmilkin became an archivist of the Freedom March-1, he collected a unique archive of video- and photo-materials related to the action.
After the Freedom March, thousands of Belarusians joined the Resistance.
— Apart from the inspiring photo and video-shots, what was the meaning of this march for the Belarusian Resistance? What lessons can be learned from it?
— Yes, we did not achieve victory back then, because Lukashenka dared to directly eliminate his political opponents. There were more threats against Andrei Sannikov and other politicians. We took a joint decision that Andrei should go abroad for a while. Simultaneously, persistant recommendations from a number of embassies came that the first leader of the independent Belarus Stanislau Shushkevich should move to the United States as there was direct information that the authorities of Belarus planned abductions and murders of the opposition leaders.
This was the year when we no longer had Henadz Karpenka, Viktar Hanchar, Yury Zakharanka — and it didn't happen just like that.
On the other hand, the economic situation was horrible: the Russian default of the year 1998 was fresh, the people's salaries back then were about 80 dollars, while pensions were just 10 dollars. Lukashenka, in order to please Russia and get help from it, strived to establish a dictatorship and suppress everything national and Belarusian. The agreement on creating the ''union state'' with the Russian Federation was already in force, and the Freedom March-1 also became the battle for our country's independence. And the whole world saw that Belarusians were ready to defend their freedom and independence. The shots of clashes with the police and the self-defense of the Belarusian people got viral worldwide, Moscow also saw them and realized: it's better not to play the fool with Belarusians. Russia's suggestions that Belarus should merge into the Russian Federation with all six regions were turned down also in the course of the Freedom March-1. During the demonstration, the participants thereof burnt down the variant of the Russian-Belarusian ''union agreement''. This symbolic act was a part of the real struggle for the country's independence. Another lesson I'd like to note is that we should never postpone anything. We heard it later during the ''elections'': our task is to show that there is the ''single candidate'', for example, Hancharyk or Milinkevich, and we will ''nail it'' at the next election in several years. This is what we heard many times.
1999 was a hard year, but the Freedom March showed that when the government is weak, the people are ready to resist and the opposition is strong, the actions must be taken immediately, here and now, while there is such an opportunity. Because later the prices for oil grew, the dictatorship strengthened and managed to exist for many years to come. And then, in 1996-2001, it was possible to prevent creating a dictatorship in Belarus. For me, this is one of the most important lessons of the Freedom March-1.
— Which parallels can be drawn between October 1999 and October 2017? How do you assess the protest potential of Belarusians and the situation in the country 18 years ago and now?
— Then, in 1999, the opposition was structurally stronger. In its ranks there were more powerful leaders, well known to the people. Many of them were deputies of the Supreme Councils of the 12th and 13th convocations. They were known, they were regularly shown on TV. There was also a part of the opposition, which at that time resigned from the power structures — for example, Stanislau Bahdankevich, Vasil Shlyndzikau, Aliaksandr Sasnou and others. The opposition was more in numbers back then, and there was strength in this.
But, on the other hand, despite the economic situation, some people still believed in Lukashenka — they claimed someone "interfered" with him. Simply put, the people were still "not full" of Lukashenka's power.
Now we can say that the organizational and structural opposition is weaker than then: many leaders were killed, left, someone died, a number of people were arrested, which does not make any person stronger. However, on the other hand: now we see unequivocal rejection of Lukashenka by the people. The main emotion for him is hatred.
It was not the case back then. Now the people have already understood what Lukashenka is, what dictatorship is, and very much wants to send him into retirement and return the country to the path of democracy. But today the price of the struggle is probably higher than then. Although 18 years ago, someone paid with their life for their desire to be free in an independent and democratic Belarus.
Also now people with the help of the Internet and social networks have the opportunity to see and know more, feel feedback. If even the dictatorship 100% owns radio and television, then there are discussions on the Internet and the opportunity to express their position. And we see that there are simply no supporters of Lukashenka on social networks. That is, he is an absolutely unpopular figure — despite all the efforts of paid bots and "cyberwars", the authorities cannot change the situation. The public opinion is unequivocally negative with regard the dictator.
— According to the classical formula, it’s the people who create the history to a greater extent . Can we say that we are closer to the revolutionary situation today that 18 years ago, given objective socio-economic reasons?
— I want to say that then, perhaps it was easier to return to a democratic system and remove Lukashenka from power than now. Because there is still the Russia factor. Then there was a transition period from the weak Yeltsin to Putin, and Putin also got involved in the Chechen war. Now Russia is more aggressive and supports the authoritarian regime in Belarus more firmly.
But I will say that for objective reasons, now the situation is more favorable for the change of power than then. Because the "economic miracle" turned out to be a miracle in quotes, and social programs failed. Pensioners, veterans, "Chernobyl victims" and many categories of people in general are on the brink of survival. Russia unleashed two wars, became an international outcast and is in a state of half-decay.
Lukashenka’s "vertical" is experiencing a complete collapse and was unable to give anything to people. To date, it is clear that it serves only itself, and all the fees from entrepreneurs, the unemployed and, as it turned out, the soldiers are only directed at maintenance of the life necessities of Drazdy and other settlements of Lukashenka's "close" rich people and officials.
— On October 21, the people will come out to the Outraged Belarusians’ March 2.0. As a veteran of the Freedom March and many other political actions and campaigns, what would you like to tell them?
— The regime is certainly weak and paradoxically it is somewhere dangerous by this. However, the main thing is that no one will make changes in the country for us, Belarusians.
Today there are leaders such as Mikalai Statkevich, Yauhen Afnahel, Maxim Viniarski, Uladzimir Niakliaeu, Pavel Seviarynets, many regional representatives of the Belarusian National Congress. They come out in the forefront, risk themselves, but they continue to struggle and are an example for the people.
The tragic events in Pechy revealed the bare essence of the Lukashenka system – the system of extortions, and demonstrated to all people how dangerous Lukashenka and his regime are. Not only freedom, but also the lives of almost all Belarusians appear under a threat: a person can go to jail, to the army and even worse conditions. Everyone can be robbed, an illegal tax inspection can be sent anytime to pull out the next payment. Lukashenka’s weakness dictates that he should put pressure on Belarusians to take the last money from the people.
But we must remember that, according to the Constitution, the people are the bearer of power in Belarus, the people have the right to protest and to replace political structures.
Many feel it. Many say that the situation is now on the brink, similar to the one that was at the times of the collapse of the USSR. And now the dictatorial system in Belarus is falling into pieces before our eyes.
Therefore, we must be decisive and believe in victory. Look at your friends and acquaintances on social networks: there are simply no supporters of Lukashenka right now. We are in the vast majority and should take the fate of the country in our hands.
And such steps towards the change of power, towards our victory are marches of protest, including the March, which will be held in Minsk on October 21.