17 August 2017, Thursday, 4:56

Andrei Sannikov: West Must Support Belarusian Democratic Opposition

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Exiled Belarusian pro-democracy opposition leader, Andrei Sannikov, was a leading contender in the 2010 Belarusian Presidential elections.

He was beaten and arrested after participating in a post-election pro-democracy protest and was sentenced to five years in prison by the Lukashenka regime. He was released in 2012 and continues to advocate for democracy and human rights in Belarus in exile.

As Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenka fights to maintain his grip on power through domestic repression and by playing the Kremlin against the West, serious cracks are emerging.

Worries about the threat of Kremlin sponsored regime change in Minsk are rising as is domestic rage about the economy and lack of democracy and freedom.

In this UpNorth interview, Belarusian Andrei Sannikov talks about he developing situation in Belarus and the need for Western states to step up their support for the Belarusian pro-democracy movement.

- Over the past weeks, we’ve seen a return to street protests in Minsk and Brest. What issues are driving the growing protests and who is behind them? Is this an organized movement or is it  spontaneous?

- The protests were triggered by Lukashenka’s decree #3 on taxation of “social parasites”, according to which those who declare less than 183 days of work per year have to pay the equivalent of $180 as compensation for lost taxes, more than average monthly salary in the regions. However this was just a pretext.

The real reason, is that Belarusians are fed up with Lukashenka, his inept officials and his dictatorship.  23 years of this Latin American soap opera is just too much.

The first real mass protest was organized in Minsk on February 17 by the Belarusian National Congress, an oppositional coalition. The influential web-site Charter97.org played a critically important role in mobilizing people.  After that first protest many others followed, some of them were spontaneous, which demonstrates the degree and level of indignation. A major demonstration is scheduled to be held in Minsk on March 25, Belarusian Freedom Day, which is sacred for Belarusians but is not recognized by the current regime.

Ad for March 25 Belarusian Freedom Day Protest

- What changes are these protestors calling for?

- From the very first rally, which was called “March of the Outraged Belarusians” protesters demanded not only the end of the notorious decree but also resignation of Lukashenka.

The most popular slogans today are “Go Away!” and “Basta!” You may say that there is a tactical goal to stop decree #3, and a strategic one  – which is to start positive democratic changes in the country.

Relations have soured between Vladimir Putin and Aleksander Lukashenka and concerns about a Kremlin sponsored regime change have grown

- Alexander Lukashenka has been walking a very fine line between appeasing Putin and keeping a narrow line open to the West. Now some analysts have suggested that Belarus could be at risk falling into Putin’s crosshairs in the coming months and years. Is there reason for concern?

- There is a very serious reason of concern and not only for us in Belarus but for the whole Europe because any move by the Kremlin against Belarusian independence will be a continuation and expansion of Russia’s war in Europe that started with Ukraine.

Such a move will threaten first all of our neighbors: Poland and Baltic states.

The forthcoming major  military exercise “Zapad-2017″, according to security experts, is of an offensive, not defensive, nature. This is where Europe and NATO have to act to stop this exercise which inevitably will lead to an aggravation of the situation in the region and growing tension.

In other words the West must understand that protecting Belarusian independence means protecting Europe and each and every individual European state. At the same time, support of our independence doesn’t mean supporting the dictatorship. Vice versa, the only way to really ensure our independence and European security is by dismantling the current repressive regime and to implement real democratic reforms.

- The situation is extremely complicated for Belarusian pro-democracy activists. How can the democratic opposition promote positive change yet ensure that Putin does not seize on the current opportunity for his own benefit?

- You know, somehow we continue to be hostages of  “Russia first” policy. Belarus and what is happening in Belarus have been ignored for quite a long time and continue to be overshadowed by other events in the region.

Initially “Russia first” applied to Belarus, meaning that the West was hoping for irreversible democratic changes in our eastern neighbor and that democracy was supposed to come to us from the East.

Today, “Russia first” means that opportunities for democratic changes in Belarus are checked against the aggressive behavior of Russia. Instead of clearly seeing that there is a revolutionary situation in Belarus, we hear the argument that change “might provoke Kremlin”. That’s absurd. The fate of Belarus will be decided by the people of Belarus who are protesting today against the oppression, and no geopolitical reasoning can justify shortsightedness of those who deny this right to the people and try to preserve the regime.

Protestors Minsk 2017
Photo: TUT.by

- What must Western nations do to help protect and promote human rights and democracy in Belarus?

- Do exactly this: protect and promote human rights and democracy.  And don’t support the outgoing dictatorial regime.

I can predict that Lukashenka will now initiate a slander campaign against opposition leaders and activists and will try to intimidate them to stop the protests. However it will be difficult for him to unleash repressions on the same scale as before if he is not supported by the West with credits or “realpolitik games”. Please keep this in mind and react strongly to any human rights violation.

Believe me, we don’t want any violence, chaos in Belarus, nor we don’t want any Russian world or Russian tanks on our territory. There is a time-tested way out of this critical situation – a free and fair election, which is what opposition in Belarus supports and is demanding. These demands have to be heard and supported in the West as well.

Somehow this simple fact is not yet recognized by our counterparts in Europe. Some still hope to educate Lukashenka, some try to protect their business interests connected with the regime, some try to please the Kremlin. This will lead us nowhere.

Rescuing Lukashenka’s regime, for example with credits, would be equal to Russian occupation of Belarus, because he will never accept any democratic conditions for the relations with Europe and will inevitably make a deal with Putin. That deal will have a very strong military component in it to make the territory of Belarus, if not the spring-board for further aggression into Europe, then certainly into a permanent threat.

So it’s really in the best interests of the West to rely on democratic forces and democratic changes in Belarus and do everything to support it.

- There is deep concern among Western security analysts that the 100km wide Suwalki Gap between Belarus and the Russian occupied enclave of Kaliningrad might be a target of future Russian aggression in order to cut the Baltic States off from the rest of the alliance. Is there reason for concern and what can be done to reduce or eliminate this concern?

- Of course there are reasons for concern.

It is good that Suwalki gap has entered the security narrative but one more geopolitical point is missing – Smolensk Gate (territory between Dnieper and West Dvina rivers). I would say that security concerns over Suwalki gap have to be addressed by ensuring the security of the  Smolensk Gate to prevent Russian tanks and the Russian army from using this gate to enter Belarus and go further. And here the strategic importance of Belarus becomes very clear and visible.

And again, no dictatorial regime can ensure this protection whereas democratic changes and the negotiated neutrality of Belarus can suit all sides involved.

The Suwalki Gap, between Poland and Lithuania, is a growing concern for NATO partners as it exposes the Baltic States to potential isolation should they be cut off due to military action by Russia