Today the whole nation stands against Lukashenka.
Leader of the European Belarus civil campaign Andrei Sannikov said that in his interview to Polish "Gazecie Wyborczej" (translation – Charter97.org).
– For the first time in many years, the Belarusians have started to take to the streets. The reason for this is the tax on "parasitism", an attempt to synthesize socialism and capitalism. Is anything changing in Belarus? Poles have not heard such kind of news from your country for a long time.
"Poles, like nobody else, understand that the events, taking place in the neighboring country, have a direct impact on them – both the good and the bad ones. Today Belarus is important not only because protests broke out. Belarus can become a buffer state for Russian troops. In 2009, before the annexation of the Crimea and the Donbas operation, large-scale exercises West-2009 were conducted on our territory. At the exercises, Russia practiced a nuclear strike against Warsaw and a tank breakthrough to Kaliningrad via Suwalki. Now another exercises will be held, after the events in the Crimea and Donbas, when we know what the Russian army is capable of. This fall, the West-2017 exercises will be held on the territory of Belarus. About 100 thousand soldiers are to take part in them. Some NATO experts have already stated that they are offensive maneuvers. And this means an increase in tension in the region.
In Belarus itself, the situation has changed radically. The situation in the country is revolutionary. I was taught what it is according to Marxism-Leninism. Grandpa Lenin said that this is a situation, where "the lower classes do not want, and the upper classes cannot." Belarus has been experiencing a decline in production for the third consecutive year. According to official data, our GDP gets down by 3.9% each year, according to unofficial data, this figure is higher. This is the only state out of the countries of the former Soviet Union, where the GDP decline has been recorded for the third year in a row. There is hidden unemployment. According to official data – 6%, unofficially – much more. In the regions, people openly declare that they have nowhere to work. Wages and living standards are falling.
Lukashenka's decree was just an ostensible reason. When the first protests broke out on February 17, slogans "Basta!", "Go away!", "Resignation!" emerged immediately. Spontaneous protests started. Lukashenka immediately halted the decree, but protests go on. In Hrodna, a pensioner expressed regret to independent journalists for voting for Lukashenka.
In 2010, there were demonstrations as well, but then there was an election campaign. I myself repeatedly called for them. Now people take to the streets themselves. At the moment, more than 100 people have been detained in the country (the interview was recorded before March 15). They are sentenced to fines and arrests for up to 15 days.
The next rally will take place on Freedom Day on March 25 in Minsk, and the next day – in other cities of Belarus. In my opinion, at least 20 thousand people will take to the streets in Minsk. The main organizer is the Belarusian National Congress and its leader Mikalai Statkevich. I think that Lukashenka's 23-year-old soap opera is coming to an end.
– What exactly are people discontented with?
– The state of the economy. Six years ago there were protests, but they were strangled. Once they used to talk about the Belarusian "economic miracle." At present, there is no money in the budget, they are trying to squeeze them out of people by all means, including this tax on "parasitism". Lukashenka controls the entire economy, arms exports, upon which Belarus is among the top 20 exporters in the world. But no reforms have been carried out, and the regime has gone bankrupt.
A former best friend, the Kremlin, after the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions and the fall in oil and gas prices, is not able to support Lukashenka as before. Putin is the chairman of the cooperative society of post-Soviet dictators. Belarus is very important for him. Putin seeks to gain control over the economy – the ownership in key sectors. He supports Lukashenka's regime in exchange. In 2013 Lukashenka gave him "Beltransgaz" on the sly, but he is still haggling over the price of other enterprises and does not pay for gas and oil at the Russian price.
Now the Kremlin wants to snatch control of potash deposits, get a share in the defense industry complex – a large Minsk enterprise producing tractors for the transportation of rockets – and chemical plants. Russia wants to take complete control over the Belarusian economy. Lukashenka knows about this, but also knows that if everything is given away – there will be no need in him.
– Do you assume that Russia can be behind the protests?
– No, this is popular unrest. It may happen that Russia will want to use it. At the moment, the Kremlin is waiting for what will happen out of these protests. But Putin does not treat Belarus as an independent state. In Poland, he can act through his agents of influence, through the Polish media, as Russian special services operate in independent countries, because Poland is an independent country, and he knows it. Belarus for him is a part of Russia. To work in Belarus through agents is beneath his dignity, he operates here by other methods.
– Can these protests lead to change?
– They can. The civil campaign in which I participate is called "European Belarus". Belarus cannot exist without Europe. And Europe now, unfortunately, is friends with Lukashenka, it has canceled sanctions against his regime. Not because Europe loves him – it just does not understand the situation. We warned our European colleagues that a wave of protests would rise. They did not want to listen. I know that the West has its own problems, but Belarus is currently a problem of the European security. Because of the threat from Russia. This is a real and big threat.
– What will happen now?
– We, the opposition, suggest a dialogue and elections. As it happened in Poland. A round table. This will be the best way out of the current situation, and for Lukashenka as well. It requires internal pressure and support of Europe. The protests themselves are not enough, but if Europe sets strict conditions for negotiations and elections, before talking about aid and credits, if to pose the question this way – Lukashenka will succumb. He has no money. And it will be difficult for Russia to intervene. But if there are only protests and growing repressions – the number of arrests will increase, nothing else. It will not save the economy, and Russia can intervene, using, for example, the Donbas scenario. This scenario is beneficial only for Russia.
– What is the state of the democratic opposition?
– It's hard for us. Lukashenka has long been trying to destroy us. Part of the opposition is controlled by special services. But now the support of the opposition is growing. The most important figure is Mikalai Statkevich, the leader of the Belarusian National Congress. He is a brave man, he spent a total of eight years in prison. And he has not broken down. There are new leaders, too. The youth stopped a construction in Kurapaty. New various independent initiatives are born. The activity of bloggers is high. Some "veterans" of the opposition, such as former President Stanislau Shushkevich, who is over 80 years old, are also active.
– Would you like to return back home?
– Against this background, I would go straight to prison. The government television says that I am one of the main instigators of demonstrations and the enemy of the state. But I will definitely return, I hope that this will happen very soon.
I'm sure this year will be a watershed. Maybe things will not go for the better, but not for long. Today the whole nation stands against Lukashenka. There are no demonstrations in his support, because he is afraid to organize them, so that they do not turn into a demonstration against him. Until recently, people were afraid to give interviews for Belsat or Radio Svaboda. Now they say: "I'm not afraid, I will say what I think. Down with Lukashenka!".
We are full of hope. Our country is not as big as Poland, and it is relatively easy to reform, using the experience of neighboring countries.
* Andrei Sannikov is a former Belarusian diplomat, and now a leader of the opposition, a participant in the 2010 presidential election. In 2011, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for organizing protests against Lukashenka. He was let out early in 2012. Currently, he is in exile in Poland and the UK.