The situation with freedom of speech in Belarus has become the key topic on the Polish TV channel.
Editor-in-chief of Charter97.org Natallia Radzina spoke on the popular program "Right to left, left to right" (Prawy do Lewego, Lewy do Prawego) on Polsat News 2 TV channel. Politicians, experts, analysts of Poland watch this program. Witold Yurasz, a well-known Polish journalist and analyst, a former charge d'affaires of Poland in Belarus, an ex-employee of the Polish Embassy in Moscow, runs it.
- Yes. It happened in Minsk, and the counselor of the Polish Embassy in Belarus introduced us to each other. Then you met Aleh Byabenin, the founder of the site Charter.org.
- My colleague and I represented Poland, Aleh Byabenin, Andrei Sannikov and you represented Belarus. I remember my colleague said that those people would face problems in a few months. And it happened.
A few months later Aleh Byabenin was found hung.
- He was killed, and the suicide was faked. We know it for sure. Aleh Byabenin was the founder of Charter-97, the most popular website in Belarus. In 2010 he decided to head the election headquarters of Andrei Sannikov, the presidential candidate of Belarus, the most powerful opponent of Lukashenka, who eventually found himself in prison.
- You turned to be in prison as well.
- Yes. And today I live in exile. The editorial office operates from Warsaw.
- If you let me, I'd like to recall one thing. When you were released, I said that you had to be ready to live in exile for long.
- I remember it, but I did not want to believe in it. I thought that it would end up soon. The situation in Belarus was a real case of the tail wagging the dog. The dictatorship can't survive for so long. Unfortunately, it's six years already since we have been working from Warsaw.
- Eight years.
- I do not take into consideration the period of imprisonment and house arrest. In fact, we have been working from Europe since late 2011.
- Do only "Charter-97", "Belarusian Partisan", "Belsat" represent independent media in Belarus?
- There are also Radio Racyja, Euroradio. Unfortunately, media operating in the country are almost under a full control of the authorities. And there is also a self-censorship.
- Is there any alternative to the Russian TV?
- There is almost not, except Belsat and "Charter-97", which is the most popular independent website.
- Because of lack of financing, you're lagging behind the Russian media.
- Charter-97 is the leader on the Belarusian Internet. The website is even more popular than all propaganda resources of Lukashenka combined, Charter97.org is also more popular than the Russian media, such as Sputnik, Komsomolskaya Pravda and other pro-Russian resources.
- However, Russian TV channels are more popular than Belarusian ones.
- It's true. Russian TV channels have a great impact on people. Why do Belarusians watch them? We have only public TV channels, which are out of interest of an ordinary Belarusian. No one believes anything said there. And if we talk about quality, then it falls behind the Russian one. Hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in Russian media. That is why Charter-97 makes an enormous difference. We oppose the Russian propaganda on the Internet.
- And today you face big problems. You experience access problems in Belarus.
- Charter97.org is blocked on the territory of Belarus. The decision was adopted on January 24.
- As far as I know, there is an option to bypass the blocking, but no everyone knows what to do.
- Yes, Belarusians try to bypass the blocking. One should understand what "Charter-97" means to Belarusians. It's a jolt of fresh air, a window into reality. Today Belarusians do their best to visit the site. Their knowledge of computer technologies is increasing. 70-80 year old people learn how to bypass the blocking. Other resources fail to provide with the information people need.
- What is a reason of the blocking?
- It turns out that Lukashenka has big problems; he is afraid of losing power. Belarusians hate him, his popularity hits all-time low. The economic situation is a disaster, many people live in poverty. At any time, a riot may erupt. Therefore, he has decided to destroy all independent media on the territory of Belarus.
- I think that you will not like what I am going to say. I stand for freedom of speech and against any blockings. But today I have called leaders of the Belarusian opposition and they have said: Natallia Radzina and Charter-97 are radicals. They constantly criticize us, they say that if we do not live in exile, it means that we have sold out to the KGB. We will not strongly protest against the blocking of the site. I will keep names in secret. But I received similar answers from several people. It turns out that the Belarusian opposition is not loyal to itself. It seems to me that harted in your rows is even greater than that to Lukashenka.
- The issue is quite extensive. I will try to answer in parts. First of all, Сharter97.org is the site for the whole country. Every month 2 million Belarusians read us. The population of Belarus is 9 million. No politician, including Lukashenka, can boast of it.
A large-scale campaign in support of the site has been launched: letters, graffiti on the streets, information dissemination on how to bypass the blocking, pickets in support of Сharter97.org. There were a rally in New York, rallies in European cities. Almost all the Belarusian opposition and human rights organizations supported the website.
As for the state of the Belarusian opposition, I would like to draw attention to the fact that many opposition leaders gone missing or were killed. I mean vice-speakers of the Supreme Council Viktar Hanchar and Henadz Karpenka, the former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka. Several journalists were killed, including my friends Aleh Byabenin, Veranika Charkasava, Dzmitry Zavadski and Pavel Sheremet.
- But Sheremet was killed in Ukraine.
- This murder may have a Belarusian trace. Does it mean that the Belarusian opposition is weak? Poland also experienced different times. For example, let's take the 70-80's.
Solidarity is very important. One should understand what Belarusians suffer now.
- You cited Poland as the example. Do you think that communism of Poland surrendered due to those who cooperated with the authorities? Many people hated me for my position, but it is clear today that there are more moderate forces among the Belarusian opposition. May they be right? In the spring of 2017, Belsat and Charter-97 used to say: "It's about to begin, people are protesting." Several thousand people took part in rallies.
- The struggle between romantics and positivists occurs both in Belarus and in other countries of the world. But only teamwork makes a difference. All opposition groups are important. Every person who is ready to devote his strength, freedom and life to the Motherland is significant. Furtunately, there are enough of them in Belarus now.
- After the war in Ukraine, many western politicians have decided that Lukashenka is better than Vladimir Putin. We will negotiate. What about the opposition? Well, we will support it, so that it keeps existing, but not so hard to let it do something.
- Unfortunately, we witness the phenomenon of "realpolitik" in relation to Lukashenka's regime. Of course, we think that this is wrong. Lukashenka can not be an ally for the West. We see that under conditions of the war in Ukraine, Lukashenka is a puppet of the Kremlin. Russian money keeps the dictatorship afloat, and all his curtsies towards Poland and the West are nothing more than a game.
Today only democratic forces can be a real partner of the West in Belarus. Only free and independent Belarus will be the guarantor of the security of countries of Europe and Ukraine.
- Do people who disagree with you believe that the person appointed by Moscow, not the democratic opposition, is the guarantor?
- I can say that if you (in the West) do not support the democratic opposition, sooner or later harsh protests will begin and they will sweep Lukashenka aside. Russia can take advantage of it. Think about it, this is a quite possible scenario.
- If something happens, it will be arguable. You know that I'm pretty skeptic about what's going on, maybe I'm wrong. Do you think the West will support the Belarusian opposition?
- The West must act today. One does not need to remember this when the situation starts to get out of control. Today one needs to work for some result in future.
- The Poles believe that they are experts in issues considering Eastern Europe. I believe that we are not. We have succeeded only with few things in the east over 25 years. What do you think of "reset" in the Poland-Belarus relations?
- I am grateful to Poland for support of independent Belarusian media. It's the most important thing. I'd like to refrain from assessment of the policy of the state which welcomed me, and granted political asylum for me and our journalists. I think that I should be loyal to every Polish government.
In this situation, I am very grateful for clear thinking and assistance to Belarusian independent media despite some rapprochement with Lukashenka. I think that this is a very sound policy. And Poland has already made it clear that Lukashenka can't be an ally. And if it is not, then it will make it clear soon. I have no doubt about it.
Let's remember exercises "West-2017", when the attack on Poland and the Baltic countries was practiced. It perfectly shows the ability of Lukashenka to be an ally.
- I doubt that someone relies on Lukashenka. There was some hope that Belarus would not turn into the part of the Russian Federation.
- Today Lukashenka is fully controlled by the Kremlin. The KGB and the Belarusian army are also under Russian control.
- It can be a long talk, but I'd like to focus on independent media. In Moscow I met Pavel Sheremet, who died in Kyiv in the summer of 2016. I met Anna Palitkouskaya, after a while she was shot dead. Today Yulia Latykina, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) lives in exile. Could you say that there is freedom of speech in Russia and Ukraine?
- Russia follows in Belarus' footsteps. The Russian regime has always adopted methods of the Lukashenka regime. Belarus plays the role of a testing ground for repressions and political assassinations. Putin has watched the reaction of the population and the West. And he's realized that political assassinations and repressions in Belarus face no serious reaction. There were some statements, symbolic sanctions, but no serious actions were taken.
And Putin has launched a similar policy in Russia. Today Russia reaches the point Belarus has been into for a long time. The same can be said about independent media. I see that democratic websites are being blocked, I see censorship which is imposed against these still operating media. Belarus has already experienced it.
- Should the West fight for democracy and human rights? Some people believe that human rights and democracy mean the same. I can't agree. Democracy means that Lukashenka automatically loses power. Not a good option for him. Is it worth fighting for a softer totalitarianism? Then there is a following scenario: we work with the regime, but there is one request - do not put people in jails, do not block independent websites. These conditions will let you remain in power.
- Does it mean substitution? The other day the vice-president of the US National Democratic Institute stated that it was a great mistake. The liberalization of dictatorships is impossible and they are not subject to influence only by "soft power", because the dictatorship wants to retain power. Therefore, dictators do not take reforms.
- And dictators, who are no longer as strong as before, still think about their future. For example, as it was with General Jaruzelski and his inner circle. They decided that it was better to agree, but only with security guarantees. Will Natallia Radzina give such guarantees to Lukashenka?
- I would. In addition, he was offered a similar scenario, the opposition invited him to sit down at the negotiating table. It would help to get rid of the stalemate, when people hate him, and on the other hand, there is a threat from Russia. It would have been possible to hold free elections. But Lukashenka only increased repressions. I see that Lukashenka is not General Jaruzelski, who was the patriot of his country and a Pole. He thought not only about his fate, but also about the fate of his country. Lukashenka does not care about his country. He can't live without power.
- You repeat that people hate Lukashenka, and I studied the data of sociological surveys.
- No sociological surveys are possible under the dictatorship.
- You have no any data either.
- I have statistics of the site "Charter-97" and 2.5 million readers a month. The site of Charter97.org is more popular than all state media in Belarus. And it proves that no one is interested in Lukashenka in Belarus.