Today the Charter'97 celebrates its 20th anniversary.
The international coordinator of the Charter'97, the leader of the European Belarus civil campaign Andrei Sannikov tells the way the civic initiative was created, the way it affected the situation in Belarus and what it is going to do.
- Andrei Alehavich, let's remember what preceded the creation of the Charter'97. In 1996, on the eve of a coup d'état, you resigned from the post of Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus. Why did you do that? After all, during the Hitler times only one diplomat resigned.
- I have a witness, Valyantsin Holubeu, a deputy of the Supreme Council. Right after my appointment I said I would not stay in the Foreign Ministry for long. From the very first days when Lukashenka came to power, it was clear what he wanted, that he would destroy everything I considered my work: normal relations with neighbors, with the West, with the whole world, an independent democratic state of Belarus.
Two years that I spent in the chair of one of the Foreign Ministry leaders became a dilemma: to continue (there were a lot of ventures that I wanted to accomplish and trust no one including relations with the USA) or to quit, because the climate was getting worse and worse.
I left in 1996 before the referendum trying to somehow prevent the coup that Lukashenka conceived and then realized. It was necessary to leave to signal to others. Probably, it was then possible to change something. After all, Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir later also resigned and agreed for the government to resign, but, unfortunately, the government was occupied by cowards including the then Foreign Minister.
- In one of your interviews you said that after the resignation you were happy, although you did not have any "backup plan". Why happy? Usually people especially officials are afraid of uncertainty.
- I did not want to be hypocritical and understood that if I did not resign at that moment, I would have to destroy myself. After all, those who did not dare take such a step and stayed challenged a tragedy. They were decent people, and today they are looking for small excuses in order to somehow cover their big betrayal.
Yes, it was a complete happiness, I was free from that burden. I had long been looking forward to have a moment when I could get a break from this whirl. In the first years of our independence there was a hard wok performed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After resignation I let myself relax and just do nothing for a few days.
These couple of days of loneliness meant a lot to me. Probably, each person needs such a peculiar ecological pressure chamber, where he can relax. So it happened to me.
- Did it make you rush into a battle? To go to the opposition?
- Yes. Something needed to be done. Before my resignation, I did not try to negotiate with someone about further work. For some reason, it was important for me to stop it at once not building a safety net for the future. Well, and then it was necessary to make some choice, to do something.
I began to receive offers, attractive enough, profitable enough, but it was not interesting for me, I still wanted to continue working for my country. Cooperation with Henadz Karpenka who then created the shadow opposition organ was my first step. He wanted to call it the National Committee, I suggested calling it the People's Government. And we did it. We began to cooperate and until his death we remained close friends and colleagues. Until his very strange death.
I tried to find people who thought and understood what could be done. And I found them.
- How did you come up wuth the idea of the Charter?
- In fact, there were a lot of ideas. There were a lot of interesting people in my apartment: Pyotr Martseu, Uladzimir Matskevich, Viktar Ivashkevich, Zmitser Bandarenka, Mikalai Khalezin and many others. We constantly discussed what can be done. These conversations breeded up the idea of the Charter'97.
It was clear that many things in the opposition were wrong, other methods and approaches were required. The story with the journalist of Imya newspaper, Aleh Bebenin, who was taken to a forest by special services and played the execution with influenced the decision. People do not understand how terrible it is. "Well, he was taken to a forest and given a scare." It was the execution imitation which was later practiced with other journalists.
It was Aleh who became one of the roots of the Charter, its founder, my close friend and a bright figure of the Belarusian Resistance.
Things happened to him, perhaps, were the impetus to act, it bore the idea to mobilize the society through journalists.
Yes, we discussed the idea of the Charter'97 in our company, but journalists created it as an initiative. We needed to find a key figure of the initiative and I think we were right to decide thatthey were journalists. Of course, independent journalism was completely different then, it suffered severe repressions along with politicians precisely because it was really independent.
- Belarus takes a dim view of creation of new organizations and initiatives. But when the Charter was established in 1997, there something incredible was happening. The initiative got support of 100 of the most famous Belarusians, 100 thousand citizens of the country, the entire independent media, almost all political structures. How was it done?
We hit in the nerve. Indeed, the document was signed by outstanding people. I am proud of collecting signatures, for example, of Svetlana Alexievich, of our other famous intellectuals and creative people.
There were many other initiatives, but they faded out as quickly as they were born, no one now can recall most of them. Indeed, we hit in the nerve, but still people who not only signed the Charter document, but also actively joined the activity played a significant role. The activity was various. Good articled appeared. One of the best article in support of the Charter'97 was written by Yury Drakokhrust. It was "Stand in Freedom".
International activity was launched. We informed our partners and foreign countries about the Charter. We held a kind of raid on embassies in Minsk, started traveling abroad. It was clear to me that no matter how brilliant the document was, we needed violent activity. I realized that the Charter required our knowledge, hard work and resolution of challenges we set for ourselves.
- The Charter'97 dealt almost with everything: organization of protest actions, including the largest ones like Marches of Freedom, creation of the volunteer network on distribution of independent press, distribution of independent press, print of newspapers and leaflets, establishment of the People's University, assistance to the formation of the Zubr youth movement, active international activity. What are you most proud of?
- Of everything. It was really a violent activity. It is worth being proud of. The Charter was simultaneously presented in Minsk, Warsaw, Kyiv and Moscow. Now, probably, it is very hard to imagine, but we represented the Charter at a very serious press conference in the Russian Duma, where the leading media was present. It was organized by Konstantin Borovoi. It was a bitter cold, December. We with Viktar Ivashkevich and Aliaksandr Dabravolski came to the Duma and had a good conversation. It was 1997, I recall you. Russia was different then, there were people open to talks.
And such a violent activity of the Charter'97 is the merit of people who believed in it. We managed to make a big step towards the opposition unification, but then not everyone wanted to follow a common plan and strategy, to correspond to the high level of the Charter.
As soon as 100 thousand signatures were collected, the question arose: "What's next?" It was impossible to ignore such a large number of people, these were real signatures, which were kept in newspaper editorial offices, in apartments and it was impossible to let people's voices remain unheard.
We worked in the mode of everyday brainstorming. New ideas and new directions appeared. For example, the same human rights protection that only emerged in Belarus was also taken by party "apartments." It was not admittable, and the Charter'97 became a pioneer. When the first political prisoners appeared, we began to gather people who could somehow influence their release (journalists, party representatives, people who cared) and say that this was a common thing, no political prisoner should remain without attention and support. His party affiliation does not matter. If we leave people at the mercy of this regime, then we are worthless. We have laid down this principle, this is the merit of the Charter.
By the way, I want to remind you that we received a serious monetary award from the European Union and the United States in early 1998. It was spent on assistance to victims of repressions and independent journalists. No one has done this before. There were some individuals who got some awards, but they did not know anything what happened to them.
We were pioneers including the creation of the site. Charter97.org is the oldest website in Belarus. We issued a human rights bulletin in three languages, newspapers, leaflets. We held actions. It is mostly the merit of Zmitser Bandarenka, Mikalai Khalezin, Viktar Ivashkevich. As an employee of the Foreign Ministry who saw an international component with a possibility to put pressure on the Lukashenka's regime, at first I did not quite understand the usefulness of actions. But then I realized it. There cannot be any democratic Belarus in the world if people do not protest.
The Charter was the one to prepare the most significant actions. The people in the organizing committee of the initiative and who cooperated with us formed a rather wide circle. They were not only opposition leaders and activists, they were creative individuals , artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians. I realized what the action preparation really meant.
It's amazing that Belarus still does not realize that under the dictatorial regime, under a total control of press, the protest action will not happen by itself. In the 90s we had an independent press and did not have an Internet shelter where you can hide. Printed words, leaflets, stickers, posters did their job. Now there is no understanding that each action costs both material, financial, and human resources. It must be prepared and organized, as it used to be.
- How did the Charter manage to get across the information about what was happening in Belarus to the West and force it to take action against the dictatorial regime?
- We thought about this a lot even before the proclamation of the Charter. I did a mental tally of the plan, and the we decided what to do. International activity was a very active element of the Charter.
It happened that I held the first presentation of the Charter in India. It was amazing. I have not told about it before. I was invited to Gandhi international congress in India, where the world political elite gathered. It discussed various problems that were not really related to the problems of democracy in the world, but I still used that time to present the Charter, and it received a very serious response. First, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the murdered Rajiv Gandhi, who was then the leader of the Indian National Congress and was an influential political figure, was the president of that international congress. She was listened to.
I have always admired Indian philosophers, thinkers, intellectuals. And at the Congress I witnessed how seriously and deeply they understand their own and world problems. It was a real feast of a global discussion of the state of the world. I am very glad that I managed to present the Belarusian element there, it was welcomed, and till now I have friends among participants of that Congress.
There was one of the fantastic ones and adventurous initiatives of the Charter in Brussels. We opened an alternative Belarusian embassy there, and somehow we did not even think about the name. Newspapers gave it the name. I met Gerd Gröne who was the head of the Brussels-based non-governmental organization although he himself is German. We agreed that his organization would represent interests of the Charter. Then we decided to open a representation office of the Charter in Brussels, found funding, sent a representative of the Charter there, and a formal opening took place.
I'd like to point out our first representative abroad, in Brussels, unfortunately, without mentioning his name even today. His business trip abroad took place in incredibly difficult domestic conditions, with miserable financing, but things he did within six months are worth of golden pages of the true history of the Belarusian diplomacy.
I say "adventurous" initiative because I did not expect such a result. Seven years after the opening of the office, the KGB and FSS sources wrote that I lived in Brussels and head an alternative embassy of Belarus, although all that event took place in one day and, since there was no time I quickly left for Minsk. But when our representative arrived in Brussels, it caused an unprecedented wave of resolutions and attention to Belarus not hit until now although some working groups are being created, someone is leading them. But everything basically is made to build ties with Lukashenka, to ensure some mercantile interests.
And then there was a real alternative embassy of Belarus which was open to all political forces and helped many people and which disseminated unbiased information about the situation in Belarus.
The MEPs had nothing to do but adopt resolutions in a row. And very tough resolutions that helped articulate the attitude towards the regime. At an early stage it was very dangerous that the West would close its eyes to all human rights violations in Belarus, and perceive Lukashenka's regime as a minor "dislocation" of the post-Soviet existence of a young state that one could close his eyes to.
No! Only efforts of the Charter stimulated a strict attitude to the Lukashenka's regime appeared as well as an assessment he will never get rid of. Never! Whatever he does, he will not change it.
- The unification of democratic forces of Belarus was one of the objectives of the Charter'97. It failed on the initiative level, and then, according to your idea, the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces was created. But now you head the European Belarus civil campaign. Why did you have to abandon the idea of a general structure?
- Yes, there was an idea of uniting all forces. And we succeeded at some stage. Again, because all the leaders of active centers in Belarus signed the Charter. Why did it fail? Because they were afraid that it required the activity that differed. Because they started building their little clubs having decided that it would be more comfortable and safe in their small parties. Because they decided that personal ambitions of some leaders did not allow them to comply with a common brand.
But this is not the power of the Charter, it is not about only mechanical unification of the entire opposition. The main principle of the Charter is the unification in action. Some ideological or other discrepancies are not important, but people who united in actions directed against the dictatorship. And this is the power.
The Charter never had a leaderism, there was no atmosphere that satisfied someone's personal ambitions. We were able to offer the ideas that were perceived by everyone. Sometimes it was made with lack of reluctance, as, for example, with Marches of Freedom. Sometimes they faced great resistance. Sometimes we proposed an idea, such as the boycott of the "elections" of 2000, which later became a common idea of the whole opposition, although there were some dissenters.
A new wave of politicians is also an idea that arose inside the belly of the Charter. This wave made Vintsuk Vyachorka and Anatol Lyabedzka leaders of the parties, helped to reveal the leadership qualities of Mikalai Statkevich at the national level. Those people were not members of the organizing committee of the Charter, but, nevertheless, the Charter helped them to take positions on the political field in Belarus.
I have never liked to grabbed for anything or say things I had not achieved. I always liked to talk about my friends who achieved something, especially if I took part in it. And this principle of uniting in action for the sake of the country with the involvement of all initiatives that can do anything without personal ambitions, still exists.
I am glad that these traditions laid down by founders of the Charter are now being implemented by Charter97.org website, that the editorial board of the site took responsibility, and still takes a stand and upholds principles that were declared 20 years ago.
- 20 years have passed. A lot of things have been done, and you and members of the Charter team have been through many challenges. But does the story of the Charter'97 continue?
- Yes, of course. The Charter became an outstanding phenomenon as soon as it was proclaimed, and over the years it has achieved a lot. the Charter'97 made the history, and it is not possible to imagine Belarus without it.
I will voice my favorite phrase: "Probably, we cannot always win, but without us it is simply impossible to win".
When I signed the Charter document, I took it as an obligation. It is still not fulfilled. We promised to bring Belarus to democracy, and we will do it.
On 10 November 1997 the Charter'97 was published. It stated that the Belarusians "are not willing to tolerate arbitrariness, the violation of laws, crimes against all people and individuals committed by the authorities, and are ready to fight together for their rights and freedoms, the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in the country". The document was the starting point in the history of the initiative. 100 of the most famous politicians in the country, public and cultural figures, journalists were the first to sign it. Later the document was signed by more than 100 000 citizens of Belarus.