It is not enough to take power, but it's necessary to bring the country to changes.
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". This was the beginning of the famous Charter'97 Belarusian Civic Initiative.
Charter97.org continues to publish interviews with people who have created the Charter'97. Today a well-known Belarusian philosopher, public activist Uladzimir Matskevich answers our questions.
- Uladzimir Uladzimiravich, 20 years ago you stood at the origins of the Charter'97 initiative. How was that?
- I remember it well enough. 10 November is the day of announcement of the Charter'97 civil initiative. And it began almost a year earlier, in December of 1996. I met with Andrei Sannikov in about 2-3 weeks after the coup d'état that took place in November, and soon we became friends.
We might have been one of the groups that did not tied ourselves into knots after that catastrophic defeat of democracy in the country and began to move on. In fact, it took almost a year before the Charter was announced. This was quite new, although I cannot say that a very fundamentally new political phenomenon in Belarus, but seriously animistic from all that existed before.
- What were peculiar features of the Charter'97? What was the reason for such an initiative?
- The thing is that the end of 1996 was marked by a very great defeat of democracy in Belarus, and the defeat, first and foremost, of the strategy followed by politicians and political parties at that time. In 1997 the initiative began to move from political parties to social structures. Such human rights movements like the Belarusian Helsinki Committee with Tatstsyana Protska in the lead, Spring-96 with Ales Byalyatski were established. Aliaksandr Patupa was the initiator of the Assembly of non-governmental organizations. That is, the initiative went from political parties to the organized civil society.
The Charter'97 was perhaps the most recent, most principled part in the adoption of this initiative. By this time, when we met Andrei Sannikov, I had already outlined the program that has been implementing so far. It included de-sovietization, Belarusization, Europeanization. It was necessary to create a social movement that would be powerful enough to meet challenges that we seemed the country and the democratic movement in the country faced. It expected the triunity "university, party, newspaper". The newspaper, in its a broad sense, as a work with the media, and so by February, Andrei Sannikov and I got Pyotr Martseu and his Belarusian Business Newspaper involved in our work.
Pyotr Martseu brought Viktar Ivashkevich and Zmitser Bandarenka. And in fact, since February 1997 these five people have been thinking, designing and promoting the Charter'97 initiative, as a broad social movement, as a party analogue. But not the ones that failed and disappointed both us and the Belarusian society. But as a prototype. And then Zmitser Bandarenka came up with the name. This year the Czechoslovak "Charter'77 has celebrated its twentieth anniversary.
Intensive democratic movements in Serbia have become the prototypes of our movement. But I failed to convince my comrades that the name "party" could not be understood literally. At that time, the parties were no longer relevant, did not comply with the current political situation. A social movement was required. At first, it was like that. And, by the way, as I recall, editor-in-chief of Charter97.org Natallia Radzina was one of the champions of the "Charter" signature collection. She collected an enormous number of signatures compared to all other volunteer members.
This phase of recruitment that began with the proclamation of the Charter created a broad-based social movement. At that time, about 120 thousand signatures under the Charter proclamation were collected. And then Andrei Sannikov found resources and the People's University was established. The newspaper line or the third component tied to the media was then shown in the same Charter'97 Internet resource which is headed by Natallia Radzina.
I used to be the Charter member during the preparatory period and then about 3-4 months after its establishment. Then I quit it. It seems to me that Zmitser Bandarenka with his mighty energy, initiative turned the prototype of Charter'77 towards the Serbian Otpor which later emerged while the establishment of the Zubr youth movement. But I still consider Charter'97 a pretty relevant and good idea and a powerful embodiment of Charter'77, at least, for some period of time.
- What is needed now to make a difference?
-I think that the strategy discussed by Andrei Sannikov and me (de-sovietization, Belarusization, Europeanization and "the university, party, newspaper" as a tool to implement this program) is still relevant. The other thing is that Lukashenka with his complete authority in the country has created the "vertical" that suppresses mice and men. This is particularly true of the years of recovery(the tenth anniversary of the Charter), that is, 2007-2008 years when the Belarusian regime benefited from a favorable international economic situation and was able to gain some economic bonuses by providing a so-called social contract. By that time, almost all the political initiatives were ruined. And the "Charter" that still had the potential, was, of course, very badly affected after 2010.
Today the situation in the country for democratic movements is extremely unfavourable: the repressive apparatus, the bribing of entire social groups by the regime, and the factor of European tolerance which has, in fact, acquiesced in the existence of the Belarusian regime. Europeans pretend that they do not notice any alternatives in the country and that they continue to invite party leaders to some of their activities, support the charity with various grants, and so on.
Herein, their help is incompetent, as most bonuses of this European help go to the regime itself, and the regime executives pretend it was their work, not the work of the European civil society or the European Union. That is, Europeans pay, the regime gets incomes and bonuses.
It’s worth saying that the regime acts quite cunningly. It created a whole load of the so-called SONGO (the state organized non-government organizations), that is, seized the initiative from the civil society, exposing these puppet pseudo-social organizations, created by them, as structures of a real civil society before the Europeans.
Apart from that, the regime created a number of pseudo-analytical centers, which are in fact engaged not in analytics, but in propaganda, under the guise of independent, non-formal groups and centers. This refers to Cytadel, Minsk Dialogue, and the Liberal Club, which preceded it. They could make even BISS loyal at a certain moment. All these factors work against us, against the democratic movement.
— It is obvious that the special services have establishedpractically total control over the opposition, the journalists, the civil society, the analysts...
— Not total. There can’t be any total control in our times. We need to practice an adequate attitude to this control. This is the so-called PR-control. It means they use double-tactics against those who do not obey this regime. Some of them are repressed, suppressed, like Mikalai Statkevich, Uladzimir Niakliaeu, many other people — they get jailed constantly. They are subjected to arrests, pressure etc.
As for the other part, the regime creates negative reputation for them. The whole teams of propagandists create the image for independent civil and political figures, unacceptable for the broad circles, and they simply cannot realize their initiatives, as everyone runs away from them, frightened by their non-popularity. How and to who can we prove that these images and reputations are set up artificially? We can take any famous civil or political figure, and their negative reputation will definitely overcome the positive one. This is also the work of the special services.
— Nevertheless, the economic crisis in the country is obvious. Disappointment, even hostility against the Lukashenka regime in the society is escalating. Some oppositionists offer Lukashenka a dialogue, but he only strengthens repression in response. How can it end for him?
— The problem of a dialogue or a possibility thereof with these authorities is a separate problem, and it requires a somewhat more detailed analysis and more time. So I would not talk about the dialogue now.
I'll say a little bit differently about this. What I do not share in the general views of the Charter is economic determinism. No matter how worse the situation in the country gets — it is not necessary that it will automatically lead to a social explosion or to the popularity of the opposition forces.
I was given some quite interesting data on the Russian public opinion polls. They, it would seem, do not concern the socio-political situation, but are very characteristic. The Russians joined the international sociological program to measure the happiness index. The index of happiness consists of two things: the assessment of well-being and the level and quality of life on the one hand, and a purely subjective irrational assessment of the sense of happiness on the other. So, in Russia the monitoring on this program has been conducted for a long time to evaluate the happiness index, but only in the last two or three years there has been a very interesting trend. Evaluation of the quality of life and living standards falls, goes down, and quite sharply. At the same time, the subjective feeling of happiness goes up.
No such research was held in Belarus, but I still think that a similar picture or a similar tendence would show up. Maybe, not to such a great extent as we didn’t occupy the Crimea, thus we didn’t flatter the revanchist and other forces in Belarus. However, the propagandist exitation creates some sort of an illusion of the raising mood, and the feeling of falling of the level of life, the revenues and something like this is perceived as a temporary misfortune which relates to separate people, not the whole country. Paradoxial as it may seem, some public actions steer up such attitude.
For instance, let’s recall the public upsurge that took place this spring in the fight against the decree on parasites, when suddenly people who had never taken part in political actions started to come out onto the street. They woke up. Then these protests were suppressed, but the people got the feeling of enthusiasm, recovery, some kind of solidarity. They received it and had a positive self-image. And this positive self-image compensates for the negative economic factors.
— You mean, the people gained self-respect?
— Yes. And when the people have self-respect (you used the right word indeed), this compensates the material negative, and this means they are ready to follow the illusion instead of the active work to make the situation better. Sadly, this regime is fortunate. As soon as some serious objective deterioration of the situation happens, some world catastrophe comes along. Remember the election in 2001? Hardly have the people started realizing the falsifications and the stupidity of the authorities, the September 11 happened in America, and the world tragedy and the world horror overshadowed the seemingly “petty” national misfortunes.
If we monitor the situation of the last 20 something years, then the coup d'état of 1996 divides the period of independence into two parts. What happened after is almost totalitarian control, totalitarian power, lawlessness, which was established in the country. And almost every political event has some other event before, or during, or after, and it alleviates people's readiness for some solidary actions.
— However, there are all the prerequisites for change. You listed one of them - people have self-respect. And this means that people will eventually act.
— As we are talking about the anniversary of the Charter, let us not deepen into disagreement, because I do not insist on absolute fidelity to my position. I'm just saying that I do not share attitudes toward economic determinism. But later, in the long term or with some "black swan", this factor will work. Still, it can always be interrupted by some other event, another "black swan".
Therefore, no worsening of the economic situation supersedes a long-term, organized, disciplined work. Only a long-term disciplined practice, the work can lead to the fact that at a critical moment someone will not take power, like the Bolshevists, but lead the protest movement and induce the country to change.