Changes in the Belarusian society are already visible.
This has been stated by the leader of the civil campaign „European Belarus” and former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov in an interview to the largest Polish portal Onet.pl. The interview was recorded on 7 February (translation by Charter97.org).
„Belarusian Roulette” - is a book of the Belarusian opposition leader Andrei Sannikov, who was the main opponent of Alexander Lukashenka in the presidential elections in Belarus in 2010. In this book, he tells the truth about the Belarusian elections and exposes a show of „mock democracy” to the world.
Presidential elections took place in Belarus on 19 December 2010. According to the official results, the winner, same as in all previous elections, was Alexander Lukashenka, who obtained about 80 percent of votes. He became president of Belarus for the fourth term. After the announcement of the official results, thousands of demonstrators against Lukashenka’s dictatorship gathered at the Independence Square in Minsk. Instead of the dialogue, authorities used force against the protesters. After the December events, hundreds of people have been tortured, prosecuted and sentenced to prison. Some members of the opposition have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
«The wound inflicted on my country on December 19, 2010, on the day of the presidential elections, has not healed to this day. But the feeling of the force hidden in the people is still alive, and it will remain until the right time comes for the forces striving for freedom.
The “last dictatorship in Europe” will one day inevitably collapse, and Europe will become free. A united and free Europe is not possible without a free Belarus, and without us it is not whole.», - writes Andrei Sannikov.
- The book begins with a dedication: „To my mother, sister and wife. With love and admiration”. In the pantheon of the most important women in your life, you did not mention one more, the one to which a large part of the book is dedicated - Belarus.
- Of course, it is dedicated to Belarus, first of all, to free and independent Belarus. To all those, who want to be free. I would not want to live in any other country except Belarus. As a diplomat, representative of the state, I was engaged in establishing contacts with other countries. When I retired, I got many offers to work abroad, but Belarus has always been the most precious for me. I must admit that Belarus for me is not only the place of birth, but also the whole universe that I spent all my life in. I understand and feel Belarus like no other country.
- I want to discuss with you exactly this phenomenon. You write in your book: „It is hard to imagine a more absurd situation - the head of the KGB confessed that the elections were rigged to the presidential candidate, accused of organizing protests against the election fraud”. How to explain this?
- We live in a monstrous absurdity, when lies of the officials become a norm, as they are fully convinced of their impunity. What is happening in Belarus has its roots in the period of the Soviet Union disrepair. After all, Belarus was a part of it. At that time, paranormal things began to happen. There was a massive appearance of such personalities as Kashpirovsky, who were trying to hypnotize people from the TV screens.
And people began to believe that a charlatan is better than a professional doctor. I think that Lukashenka is simply a continuation of those paranormal phenomena. He offers simple solutions that are not grounded upon anything. The phenomenon here is that Lukashenka is still in power in our country. But the Belarusian „communism” will soon fall, I'm completely sure of it.
The international community does not understand the importance of Belarus
«On the Ploshcha, on December 19, 2010 in Minsk, there was an uprising. It was a peaceful uprising, absolutely not adopting forceful methods on our part. It was morally pure and self-sacrificing, and the enemy without hesitation used force against peaceful citizens. Observing these events, Europe preferred not to interfere, they still hoped to re-educate the dictator. We were one-on-one with the crushing force of the tyrant Lukashenka’s animal fear in the face of his obvious loss at elections he had organized».*
- Do you regret that Europe has not made sufficient effort to ensure collapse of the Lukashenka's regime?
- No, it's not a regret. After all, we are not always able to change the course of history. I was very annoyed by the fact that the international community does not pay enough attention to Belarus. I am concerned that the world does not notice our problems. I have no complaints. All the time I am trying to talk about what is happening in Belarus over the past 25 years. It is my duty - to explain how Belarus is important for Europe today. If you look at a map, you can see that Belarus is one of the key points of European security, but the dictatorial regime will not provide this security. In general, at the moment Europe has no strategy in relation to Belarus, Russia or Ukraine. There is only a model of short-term relationships, but not a strategy.
- In the book you emphasize the importance of the Belarusians’ sacrifices in the struggle for the freedom in Ukraine. “Hundreds of Belarusians are fighting for the freedom of Ukraine as for their own. We expect that the new democratic authorities of Ukraine will support the democratic forces in Belarus”. But that did not happen. Why?
- After the first Maidan, president of the Ukraine was Viktor Yushchenko, who immediately forgot about the Belarusian democracy and became friends with Lukashenka. We were very worried. I spoke about this in an interview before the elections of 2010, before the second Maidan in Ukraine. After the second Maidan, new President of Ukraine was Petro Poroshenko, but he also began to support Lukashenka, repeating that Europe must not isolate Belarus. It's been a horrible déjà vu.
- Did Europe turn away from Belarus?
- Personally I believe in values even more than in the geopolitical interests. However, most likely, exactly geopolitical interests are the determining factor today. Unfortunately, the genuine values are replaced by what is convenient to use as a tool in political games. Just look at which „values” are presented in Belarusian state media, in most Russian television channels and channels of the Lukashenka’s propaganda.
Furthermore, the absence of any strategy in Europe is becoming increasingly visible. Unfortunately, it uses the same tactics for many years: European leaders do not have the slightest idea of how to deal with the countries of the former Soviet Union.
- Perhaps, such behavior in relation to the countries that were part of the Soviet Union depends, first of all, on the relationship with Vladimir Putin? This relationship also works in the opposite direction: the regime of Lukashenka will exist as long as your country will be under influence of Putin.
- I would disagree with this. Let's look at it a little bit differently: let Ukraine, not Moscow, be a point of reference. If Ukraine preserves the independence and democracy, Belarus will not become the patrimony of Putin. Ukraine is very important in this situation.
First of all, relations between Europe and Russia are characterized by unpredictability. Russia – is not the best political partner. While Ukraine is indeed the future and hope of Europe. Therefore, it is important to help Ukraine today, as an independent Ukraine will guarantee freedom for the whole Central and Eastern Europe.
Europe as a guarantor of freedom
«Putin quickly traversed the path of Lukashenka, and convinced of the effectiveness and functionality of this malicious model – and also the absence of a meaningful reaction from the West – set about fulfilling his bloody plans, unleashing war in Ukraine, while aiming simultaneously at Europe...»*
- Thus, the question arises as to whether the complete independence of the Eastern European countries from Russia is possible? Example of Ukraine demonstrates that, despite the war, president Poroshenko conducts business with Putin.
- This is the biggest problem in Ukraine: they have a chance to change the situation, but they cannot get rid of the old system, which is the biggest obstacle to change. For Belarus, the best way would be to replace the present bad system and establish clear, understandable rules. These rules can be found in the West, not in the East.
Citizens of Belarus will recognize, as once Poles did, that these are they who are the most important in their country, as they are paying taxes there. This is people that chooses the government and maintains it, that is why it has the right to demand and monitor its operation. This is a kind of a social contract. That's how all democratic systems work. Unfortunately, in Russia or Belarus, the realization of all of this is still at a very low level.
- Do leaders of other European powers share your opinion that the dictatorship in Belarus is a problem not only for you, but for all Europeans?
- You have raised a very important question. Unfortunately, I have the impression that today’s Europe is most lacking a true leader. There isn't a single person who would completely understand the situation of Belarus and offer a way out. This is particularly important for the whole Europe, rather than for individual countries. There are no strong leaders who could accept a certain strategy. Just look at the war in Ukraine: for how long European leaders decide what to do in this situation, what sanctions and restrictions to impose on Russia. I have the impression that Europe today is aimed at protecting its interests, while abandoning the values that have always formed its basis. Some European leaders do not understand that values are more important than business. When sacrificing something, for example, when imposing sanctions against Russia, business is suffering. But due to these sanctions, the costs of war are avoided. And the war is much more expensive.
- Europe currently struggles with a crisis of values. Of those values, which formed once the European foundation.
- Today, there are a lot of talks about the migration crisis, Brexit and other problems that indicate the „inefficiency” of Europe. Unfortunately, most people forget that the EU has been one of the greatest successes and achievements in the world. Although, for some it is perceived as too bureaucratic, but not for Belarusians - for Belarusians it remains an example of true freedom. And it is still perceived in this way. The ability to travel without visas and passports is still something incredible for us.
- “Belarus has stronger business and economics connections with the West than Russia does, and these connections only widen. I believe that it is impossible to conduct a joint business with Belarus, while Lukashenka is in power. The EU has all necessary mechanisms of pressure that can eventually secure the release of political prisoners”, - you told a few years ago in an interview to BBC.
- That's right. Today, Europe has a much greater capacity to influence the situation in Belarus, because Lukashenka needs money. Putin does not want to sponsor incompetent governors. In this situation, a condition can be set: we will give you a loan, but you have to stop political repressions. These conditions are, of course, would help to restrain the repressive apparatus of the Lukashenka’s regime. I'm not saying that rigidity is the strategy for relations with Belarus, but, of course, such a position can serve as a prerequisite for negotiations.
“Our society has a huge potential”
«I consider my main task to be the improvement of peoples lives not in the far-off future but in the shortest possible time frame. We must achieve a median-European level and living standard within 7-8 years.
In the new Belarus, the labor rights of citizens will be respected. We will no longer have the contract system.
Of course, we must revive the trade unions which under our current government turned into one of the instruments of surveillance. In the new Belarus, the trade unions will fulfill their normal task – defending the labor rights of citizens.
We will remove Lukashenka’s ideology from all the school and university programs».
- Are those views, which were expressed by you during the presidential campaign of 2010 and attracted the attention of the majority of Belarusian society, still relevant?
- Belarus is definitely ready for freedom even more than Ukraine. For a long time we lived under the regime of the dictatorship, but we remained to be an educated society, we kept our development potential. Today, people, who have been bounded and constrained for such a long time, most of all appreciate freedom and opportunity to develop. You have to remember that for many years, while Lukashenka has been ruling our country, people have ceased to believe both in their own and their state’s abilities. That's why so many people are emigrating or trying to survive, and not always acting in accordance with the law. During the presidential campaign, I met many people, and I am sure that if we can remove these restrictions, if people really feel that they can do something important for ourselves and for the state, something, which can bring real results - they will do it.
- Can the society, which is living under the dictator’s regime for twenty years, find the strength to change?
- Not everyone knows it, but the Belarusians are brilliant professionals, they are, for example, one of the best in the world in the field of IT-technologies. In recent years, the Belarusians have launched a large number of start-ups, many exciting and innovative projects. I believe that there is a huge potential in our society, realization of which requires normal conditions, in the first place - normal laws. During the election campaign, we discussed in detail what kind of reform we need, how they can be realized and how much money we need in order to put them into practice. I would also like to note that the changes are already visible in the Belarusian society. People want to do something, to change something, to help the country.
“Everything is possible in the Belarusian prison”
«From the very first hours of our detention in KGB prison we were not just tortured but the whole program of tortures was applied ».*
- “Belarusian Roulette” - is primarily a description of what happened to you after the election. Courts, unjust accusations, arrest and stay in the special-regime colony. To say that human rights do not exist in Belarusian prison means to say nothing. Have you ever thought that you would not get out from prison alive?
- Yes, I thought about it many times. Such a decision could be taken at any time. It would be enough to say that Lukashenka ordered to use the most brutal, inhuman methods against political prisoners. It needs to be understood that when you are in a Belarusian prison - everything is possible: for example, you can easily become a victim of an „accident”.
- You write that you are relatively very lucky, because some opposition politicians in Belarus disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Do you think that you, as the main opponent and at the same time a well-known figure, were needed for Lukashenka? Needed as a living example of the „human face of the regime”?
- I find it difficult to answer this question. I think that I was a problem for Lukashenka, because I really could win the election. Later, Lukashenka managed to suppress mass protests. It was a moment when Lukashenka’s regime could do anything with me, and it would not lead to any protest or disturbances. The time I spent in prison was the worst time in my life. Lukashenka sought to completely destroy the opposition. Some of the leaders, of course, remained at liberty, but they failed to take the necessary decisions. My closest associates also were in high-security prisons. For example, Zmitser Bandarenka.
- You procrastinated until the last minute with the writing of a mercy petitions. Your solution was changed with their attempt to poison you. Did you think that if you had done it a bit later it could be already too late?
- I did not think about that. I knew that I could make two decisions: either to commit suicide or to hold my beliefs. Suicide meant the end of the struggle for independence of Belarus. This was exactly what Lukashenka needed. I could not do it.
It never thought that we had lost as a society. I always thought about what we needed to do to continue the struggle, to protect the family and loved ones. Perhaps, Lukashenka managed to split the opposition, but he failed to destroy the desire to protect the most important value - freedom.
- Are you afraid that, in spite of your powerful book, the West does not believe that it's all happening in Belarus?
- It is the first time when someone asks me about it. Everyone I spoke with believes and knows that such things are still happening. These methods can be compared with those used in the Soviet camps. Of course, the reverse side of the coin is the fact that some politicians do not want to hear about these things. They are well aware that this is happening, but this is an inconvenient truth for them. Pragmatism and logic often exclude issues related to human suffering, especially since we live in the twenty-first century.
- For me, this book is a cry of despair and a cry for help.
- Of course. That's what I'm trying to signify by saying that such things are still happening in Belarus. And we would like to see the appropriate response.
What is freedom?
«I got out of the colony on April 14, 2012. Lukashenka was still there, as before. Belarus still awaited better times.
I came home, still smelling of prison, still not returned, but no longer in un-freedom. I was happy to come home at night; I really didn’t want my five-year-old son Danik to see me, with that smell. The rapid transition from a barrack with 30 people to my own apartment provoked the strange sensation of a return to a past that had ceased to be mine».*
- After the release from prison, you decided to leave the country. You got political asylum in Britain.
- This did not happen so quickly. Immediately after the release from prison, we have continued to express our opposition to the Lukashenka’s regime. At a press conference called after our liberation, we have described the conditions we had and how we were treated. It was obviously not to the liking of the dictator, who publicly threatened to put us behind bars again.
For a long time I thought about what to do in this situation. Of course, I did not want to abandon these political matters, I did not want to give up the fight for independence and human rights in Belarus. I know that we have attracted a great number of people during the election campaign. Of course, I wondered what else I can do to help.
Before I found myself in prison, I had been actively meeting with people, participating in events, but in 2012, all this became impossible. I feared, above all, that the people who supported me could have problems.
Many people advised me to go abroad, saying that this might be the best solution. At first, I went to Vilnius, then to the UK. I was also in Poland and Ukraine. During this time, I have been meeting a lot with my friends, with various politicians, we have been talking about the situation in Belarus.
- After receiving political asylum, did you lose the hope and possibility of returning to your homeland?
- I want to come back and I will come back, but in my case, return to Belarus today is a return to prison. I am still a citizen of my country, I did not give up citizenship, I still feel a part of it. I want to continue to work for the benefit of our independence, which I would not be able to do in Belarus. For example, I would not be able to publish this book in Belarus. It certainly got there, but illegally. It is interesting that the book was released in Russia as well, and its print run sold out immediately.
There is no such a notion as „elections” in Belarus
«So, it would seem that the Ploshcha of 2010 in Minsk was the last romantic action against the adventurism and dictatorship that has taken root throughout much of the territory of the former USSR. At the Ukrainian Maidan of 2013-2014, people were murdered, and the defenders of freedom were forced to cross the line of non-violence».*
- In October 2015, next presidential election were held. After receiving 85% of votes, Alexander Lukashenka again wins.
- Firstly, let's not use the word „elections” or „election results” because they do not exist in Belarus. If you look at what happened immediately after the „elections”, it was actually the same thing that I wrote in my book about. Lukashenka again got what he wanted. For everyone it was clear that the events of October 2015 just reaffirmed, that we are dealing with the usual farce rather than with democratic elections. Even independent observers could not help to note that.
In addition, these „elections” were unique, because there were no opposition candidates. Apart from Lukashenka there were alternative candidates, but they were just figureheads. Do not pay attention to the results presented by the Belarusian Central Election Commission. I know that attendance at the presidential election of 2015 did not reach even 40 percent. People just did not want to participate in this useless performance once again. They simply ignored this „election”.
- What are the current demands of the opposition? Can we talk about the opposition at all - after all, most of the major opponents of Lukashenka are either abroad or no longer alive?
- Opposition in Belarus is still there and is still active. Moreover, I can confidently say that most of the people I know personally, are in the opposition to the dictatorship of Lukashenka. The question is, what can they do in this situation? Of course, we are in a difficult situation, the war is still going on in Ukraine, which also complicates the situation inside Belarus. More and more people think: “Putin attacked Ukraine, he may go even further”.
On the other hand, Lukashenka has no support, because he has nothing to offer to the society. People are getting very low wages for their hard work, prices are rising, people have to pay huge taxes.
- And what are the ideas?
- We have plenty of ideas for reforms that could lead to political transformation in Eastern Europe. We can take a lot from the experience of other European countries, in particular Poland. Your „round table” is an example of the path to freedom. Poland managed to become free and independent from Moscow. We know what happened in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany. We want to use your experience and apply it to our own land.
The opposition continues to organize protests, which are almost never covered by media abroad. There are people who want to fight for the restoration of their national identity, for the Belarusian culture, language and history. It is very important for the future of a democratic state. This shows that our society is openly opposed to the current government. A very important task now is to create a process that could be the beginning of real historical changes. Of course, our current situation is a bit more difficult, and the road to freedom will be more difficult than yours, because the former countries of the „Warsaw Pact” took advantage of the period of „Perestroika”, which opened up many possibilities. Today we are experiencing just the opposite: Putin – is the enemy of any independence, and he is willing to eliminate all his political opponents. Nevertheless, I believe that the path to freedom is still within reach. I know a lot of people in Belarus who share my opinion.
„Lech Wałęsa is a symbol of victory for us”
- You refer to the success of „Solidarity” and the round table. You need to know what is happening with a figure of Lech Wałęsa today. He is accused of collaboration with a communist system and the betrayal of ideals. Some want to erase his name from the history of Poland. Aren’t you afraid that on the way to peaceful changes, you will be forced to make some concessions and as a result become „traitors” in the eyes of future generations?
- For many people around the world, Lech Wałęsa is a symbol of transformation, a symbol of „Solidarity” and victory over communism in Poland. I had the honor to meet him personally, and not just with Wałęsa, but also with such personalities as Bronislaw Geremek, Zbigniew Bujak and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański.
No, I'm not afraid that history will judge someone. Poland is now free, and I'm not going to blame Wałęsa. If Belarus comes to a similar situation, to a „round table” - I will fully support it. Why? Because I'm more worried about the fact that Belarus is not free rather than that history may judge us. For me, the most important in my life is my freedom and the freedom of my country. I cannot imagine the return to the Soviet era even in my worst nightmares.
- Maybe Donald Trump will save Belarus?
- Unfortunately, the United States are not particularly interested in us for already a long time. For me, it was clear almost from the very beginning that the former US President Barack Obama will not be engaged in Europe, hence he will not support the independence movement in Ukraine and Belarus. Donald Trump does not express interest in the problems of Eastern Europe either. The new US president must remember that he has a lot of power, but also a great responsibility. The only danger I see is that Trump is a businessman. If the basis of his policy will be transactions with Putin, it will certainly lead to disaster. From the viewpoint of Belarus, it is, in fact, the most important issue.
- Do you see yourself today as a new president of Belarus?
- This may seem strange, but I have no personal ambitions. I am completely different from Lukashenka. His aim is a continuous, long-term governance. I know what we can do today to help our country. I know I can still count on the support of the people and my team that conducted the campaign in 2010. Nevertheless, the decision of who will be in charge of the country can be taken only on the democratic elections. I'm ready to take part if such elections are held.
Andrei Sannikov - Belarusian diplomat, politician and public figure. Since 1997, he is the international coordinator of „Charter'97” - citizens' initiative for the protection of human rights. In 2010, he took part in the presidential election as a candidate of the opposition. On December 19, 2010, during a demonstration in Minsk against electoral fraud, he was beaten and arrested. He was convicted in May 2011 and sentenced to five years in a penal colony under the article “organization of mass disorder”.
On 14 April 2012, he was released on parole.
* Excerpts from Andrei Sannikov’s book „Belarusian Roulette”, publishing house „Karta”, Warsaw, December 2016.
The interview is published with minor cuts