Peaceful changes in Belarus are possible: even the officials want changes.
Coordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign Dzmitry Bandarenka and Editor-in-Chief of Charter97.org Natallia Radzina became guests of the program “Prime: Muzhdabaev” on the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR (you can subscribe to the channel). Ayder Muzhdabaev is the host.
The website Charter97.org provides a shorthand report of the conversation.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Good evening! This is Prime on ATR. This is the time when we are talking about the most important topics with the most, in our opinion, interesting people. Our today's guests are not known politicians in Ukraine and not some showbiz characters, but, for me, these people are very important and very interesting. They are people from Belarus. This is Natallia Radzina, the Editor-in-Chief of the website Charter'97, which is the largest and most popular Belarusian opposition website. And this is Dzmitry Bandarenka, the leader of the European Belarus civil campaign. Did I say this right? I am always corrected by honest Belarusians, because in Belarus, when someone mispronounces the name of the country, it is an occupant word, it’s like a marker. It’s the same as when someone says “on Ukraine”. And all the Belarusians I know here who fought for Ukraine live, work, run away from the Lukashenka regime, insist on the name “Belarus”. Does it sound this way in Belarusian?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: It was like this in the Soviet times: Byelorussia- in Russian, Belarus – in Belarusian.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: The name is important, but I would like to talk about the essence of what is happening in this country. This country is much closer to us than North Korea, but the regime is similar. This is such a northern “North Korea”, if I may call it so. Do you agree with this definition?
Natallia Radzina: It’s a European “North Korea”. In any case, we are moving towards it with a huge pace. Today’s Russia, in the actual fact, is the product also of Lukashenka. Because it was Lukashenka who brought up Putin. All these repressive laws, the pressure on the opposition., the demolition of the freedom of speech – it all started from Belarus. And I believe Putin tried this scenario on the not so big Belarus first, considering the fact that Lukashenka has always been Putin’s marionette.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Putin learned how to skate from Lukashenka. It’s notable that Lukashenka started skating first, Putin did it later.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: This is true. I used to think that Putin’s “Godfather” was Berlusconi, who explained to him what it meant to be a cool macho and not to give a thing about the others, but now I think you are right, as, when did Lukashenka came to power?
Natallia Radzina: In 1994. 24 years ago.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: This is much earlier than Vladimir Putin emerged wherever in politics.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: The word “vertical” appeared in Belarus first. It wasn’t in use in Russia.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: The power vertical?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Yes. I was in the US in 2000, in the Congress. Everyone said back then: “Who is Mr. Putin?” And so I replied, “the same dictator as Lukashenka”. No one seemed to like it back then. But we saw it at once. Very quickly. Literally in a year or a year and a half he took certain words, certain customs. I don’t know, maybe there is some “Anenerbe” among the dictators, because ice, skates, metal. First Lukashenka, then Putin. Both look very ridiculous on ice skates.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Do you think Lukashenka got offended when he lost the title of the “Europe’s last dictator”? I believe Putin tore this flag away from old fruit Lukashenka.
Natallia Radzina: I do not think that he was very hurt. The fact is that Lukashenka took advantage of the situation, took advantage of the war of Russia against Ukraine in order to get out of the international isolation. And the fact that Petro Poroshenko offered to hold talks in Minsk, played into Lukashenka's favor.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Do you think it was Poroshenko who offered this, not Lukashenka himself?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: In fact, it was Putin’s decision.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: It’s just, it doesn’t happen this way usually. In diplomacy, in politics it is not accepted that a man says: “I want to hold talks in Burma”. This should be asked first.
Natallia Radzina: Nevertheless, they came to a consensus. Both Putin and Poroshenko. Lukashenka, I repeat, came out of international isolation thanks to this, although it is quite clear that no real negotiations are taking place in Minsk. In general, there is a legalization of these terrorists, militants from the Donbas. It occurs directly in Minsk, since they are participants in these negotiations. But Belarusians suffered most from this, as Western politicians began to travel to Minsk. They started greeting Lukashenka, shake hands with him...
Ayder Muzhdabaev: And there have been nothing like this for some five years? Since 2009?
Natallia Radzina: After the events of 2010. When a peaceful demonstration of protest against falsified elections was dispersed in Minsk, and independent presidential candidates were arrested, sanctions were imposed against Lukashenka.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: And nothing has changed in Belarus. And the West because Lukashenka offered his bedroom for these pleasures, in fact meaningless ... I understand why Ukraine has to participate, I understand why Germany has to participate and so on. But the fact of “fertilization” does not come from these meetings, which are already quite irregular. But my question is this. Why Lukashenka? I think you said, Dzmitry, that after all this Putin had the decisive word. In fact, the West could offer any other country. Poland, Romania. But, probably, Putin would not agree.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: If we recall those events, initially there was information it will be Kazakhstan. But where else could you invite these villains? Real villains, without jokes, from “LNR” and “DNR”, and without visas. Could they enter Switzerland? With what passport? The Russian one? They have no Ukrainian passports, that’s the point. And there is another moment: Putin needs Lukashenka. It's a contraband place. A smuggling hub, as one Ukrainian analyst said.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I would like to proceed to the sanctions. I want to remind our audience that there are telephones in the studio. This is a live air. Call, ask questions. Our guests will answer. So, what were we talking about?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: It’s difficult to trade with Europe through Kazakhstan. This is the point.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Also sanctions, counter sanctions.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: It was predictable. The sanctions have already been introduced partially. And imagine, you need a place where you can smuggle.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I want to ask our director to show the video. Let's see the words of Lukashenka, then comment.
Lukashenka: If Ukraine is in NATO - it’s one situation. If Ukraine is not in NATO, but extreme nationalist tendencies prevail, with an attitude to fight with everybody - this is another situation, even more complicated. I often say to the Russians who are afraid that Ukraine will join NATO. I tell my colleague that maybe there will come times when we will rejoice that Ukraine is in NATO, and not become some kind of a gangster state, where there will be separate bandit groups and gangs. Then we will have a hard time, Russia, Belarus, and everyone else.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: This is one video of Lukashenka’s speech, where he poses such a chief commander. Let us see another video and discuss it together, you will understand why.
Lukashenka: Today, the behavior of the Russian authorities does not only surprise me, but it depresses me. If the trade between the two countries is not normalized in the near future, we will have to react. What kind of behavior is this? And do you know what is so offensive? Kazakhstan, for example, has similar problems with Belarus, the same. One phone call to Kazakhstan: everything’s settles, everything is okay. I have the impression that on the example of Belarus, once again, having taken the gas pipe, then the oil pipe, now again the food issues, they want to show someone or the whole world, to tame someone. We have a law, we have a customs agreement, tomorrow we begin to join the Eurasian Union, have entered already, it is already starting to work. What can be the obstacles to the supply of goods? We agreed. (...) For example, until now, the Russian and Belarusian sides have not provided mutual provision of the most favorable national access regimes to public procurement, and this should have been done since January 1, 2012. You journalists know well what happened on the border of Russia with Belarus in August this year, more precisely since August this year. So answer the question. Is there a real liberalization of terms of trade between us today?
(...) Such things will not remain unanswered. We just will not tolerate it. Because the intelligence services inform me that they imported from New Zealand, or from somewhere, but this is their business, they brought dry milk, there were surpluses. They begin to hold us, while they sell that milk at high prices. Therefore, they do not like cheap milk, so we will give them at a price that we consider necessary, and let them increase prices for the Russians. If the Russian people, Muscovites or Petrograders, have overeaten New Zealand milk.
(...) This is just careless attitude, I told Putin at the meeting: “If you treat my ministers this way, we will not come to you any more and we will not conduct a dialogue.” He says: “I'll figure it out, I'll sort it out, it's not normal.” Some time passes, the same. It was so that some senior officials went there and the ministers and sat in the waiting room from morning till night. And the minister, his colleague, forgot that the Belarusian minister is there. Am I supposed to look calmly at this? For us, Russians have never been strangers and will not be. These are thoughtless, uncoordinated steps that only worsen our relations. This should not be done. We need to return, we have enough problems both at home and in Russia. A whole load of problems.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: See, what a macho Belarus President Aliaksandr Lukashenka is. He’s teaching Ukraine, so that it and NATO…
Natallia Radzina: What kind of a “macho” is that?
Ayder Muzhdabaev: You will have time to comment. Let me provoke first. I am watching a video, like an ordinary viewer. I don’t go deep in this. First, this guy in uniform prohibits Ukraine to go to NATO, and then he reprimands Putin, so this means he’s such a cool state leader, don’t you dare treat him like this. Where’s the Customs Union? Buy our milk, give us preferences etc. There is an impression that he plays in both these directions. What is true and what is false? What are the real relations with Russia, with Putin, with the Eurasian Union etc?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: There is a cunning trick there. We can talk about it. But the main thing is, Moscow is the apple of his eye. I recalled an anecdote about Lukashenka, which has been told in Belarus since long ago. So, Lukashenka has come from Moscow with a new sheepskin coat. He asked his vassals to have a look at it. So he tried it on, and it only reached the waist. He said: “How come? I bought a normal coat in Moscow, what happened to it?” And they answered: “Have you forgotten you always kneel down in Moscow?” This is what the conversation is about, that a PM or a Minister sat somewhere for the whole day and no one paid attention to him. This is the essence of the allied relations.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: But Mr. Lukashenka himself seems cool. He can call Putin, reprimand him. Say something like, “Go buy my milk, my fresh Norman oysters.”
Natallia Radzina: Was it easy for you to listen to Lukashenka? We watched three reports.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: You and I have different impressions. I haven’t heard him for a long time. I didn’t grew up with his accordion songs.
Natallia Radzina: Whereas, my professional duties include listening to his press-conferences with the journalists for 5-6 hours sometimes.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Is he like Fidel Castro? Never speaks less than 6 hours?
Natallia Radzina: Sometimes it’s 6 hours, or 7 hours, non-stop. Herein, the journalists
cannot go anywhere, even to the toilet, everyone is just sitting there.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Is he wearing a diaper in such case?
Natallia Radzina: He is. How is it possible to drink tea, water and not to go anywhere?
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Мaybe he is a fairy or something?
Natallia Radzina: For me, the outcome of all these press-conferences – he’s not totally adequate. He’s hesitating, it’s very difficult to catch what he is trying to say.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Does he use alcohol?
Natallia Radzina: Who knows?
Ayder Muzhdabaev: He’s like a fairy tale character. No one knows anything about him.
Natallia Radzina: Maybe. Nothing should be ruled out. He lives behind a high fence. Everyone is saying he sometimes hides in the wardrobe, this rumour is 20 years old.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: In what sense?
Natallia Radzina: He has panic attacks for his life, for losing power when mass opposition rallies take place, when Andrei Sannikov won his presidential election in 2010. That is, they say, during these periods he hides.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: You mean, this is not a joke? He really goes into a wardrobe?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: We don’t know for sure, that’s what people say.
Natallia Radzina: He gets into some small dark place.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: What else do I see? After prison, after 2010, I was lucky to study at the University of Warsaw on postgraduate course. We had the subject “Manipulation in the media and information warfare.” There was a very talented Polish Professor Jerzy Targalsky. One of the methods of information warfare is hiding 5 messages, each of which logically contradicts each other, in one message. Zhirinovsky has this, he also had messages that contradict logically. And everything is built in such a way that everyone will find something for themselves. You showed some parts of Lukashenka's speech, and they will write in certain Ukrainian press: here, Lukashenka is against the Russians. And the Russians will quote him: “Russia is our sister, we are nowhere without it.”
Ayder Muzhdabaev: So, every sister has a gift. Including the West.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Yes, this is classical for the informational war. Professionals work here.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: No offense, but how a kolkhoz man could have such talents in neurolinguistics?
Natallia Radzina: He’s a political animal. There is such a definition. He meets it fully.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: You mean, he has some sort of a dictatorial talent?
Natallia Radzina: A sort of, yes. He is not totally talent-less.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: The Gaddafi psychology, some complexes in childhood. And all this comes out at a certain point.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I believe Mr. Lukashenka definitely hides in the wardrobe when he hears the word “Gaddafi”.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: He doesn’t. In general, Lukashenka is a “black mark”. He was friends with Milosevic - Milosevic was imprisoned and died. He was friends with Saddam, good friends - Saddam was hanged. This is clearly a stress for him. The situation with Chavez: in the Lukashenka circle they say that he was poisoned by the Americans. And it really turns out that the people with whom he meets find either real death, or political death, on eway or another, these people leave.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: And he’s alive, healthy and sound. But in the political sense.
Natallia Radzina: He’s not politically healthy – 80-90 % of Belarusians hate him.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: We’ll continue from this moment, remind me later. Now we have a phone call. Hello, you are on air. Please introduce yourself, who you are, where you come from.
Phone call: Good evening! Igor Stepanovich, Kyiv. I am glad to see such honorable and good guests, and the host. In general, such concentration of smart people on a square meter is always good. And I have the following question. I just want to add to the fact that you gave a characterization of Lukashenka, in that sense, I remember how exactly he crumbled before our president of Ukraine: “What's wrong, Petro? I! We! Yes, I will rip to shreds anyone who is against you.” It sometimes looks a little ridiculous. But seriously, I will say that somehow I listened attentively to his conversation. He has an excellent analysis of the situation. He knows everything to the last detail. This is not some kind of superb delovar, it's really a big and very shrewd comrade. I'm interested in something else. You all rightly said about him, but how do you feel? The fact that he is getting old is understandable, and what you notice is logical. But how is the regime itself today, the very system created by Lukashenka, without exaggeration, how does it feel today? What processes do you see: is everything the same as before, or is something changing? Thank you!
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Thank you for asking. In fact, the viewer asked a question for me. And you, Natallia, just wanted to say this. 80-90% of Belarusians hate Lukashenka. Explain, please, motivate. We do not see this. We see that the Belarusians love their “batka”, do many people really call him so?
Natallia Radzina: No, no one calls him like this, since ling ago.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I am speaking in terms of stereotypes. No one knows the real situation in Belarus, without jokes. I am asking to explain. What is going on?
Natallia Radzina: Lukashenka has been destroying all freedoms and rights of people during these 24 years. How did he hold power? First, he destroyed all independent media.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Your Charter’97 in the first place.
Natallia Radzina: We were the last, because we worked in the Internet. And first of all he took up television, completely all the television went under the control of the state, then the radio stations, then he closed most independent newspapers and then began to destroy freedom of speech in the Internet. Why did the Charter have to move to Warsaw in 2011? Because they killed the founder of the website Aleh Biabenin, all the journalists were arrested, I was sent to prison ...
Ayder Muzhdabaev: She ran away nearly through China. I will tell the viewers about it. Dzmitry served 1,5 years in jail, Natallia – 1,5 months. It’s not a joke, all these prison breaks. It was real, like in a partisan war.
Natallia Radzina: And Lukashenka holds the power basically by force. Because we have only police officers, imagine that, per 100 thousand people 7 times more than it was in the Soviet Union.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: And you can imagine how many agents, correspondingly.
Natallia Radzina: But there was a definite social contract with the population. The opposition was destroyed, the same as politically active people, but the common people were told: do not go into politics, we will pay you, some average standard of living, you will somehow live. Now in the country there is a serious economic crisis. Why did it happen? This money that Lukashenka paid to the Belarusians, something was built there, something was done somehow, it was at the expense of Russia. Because the economy was not reformed. Lukashenka as a businessman remains on the level of the chairman of the collective farm. Much worse even. He has never worked anywhere more than two years, he knows nothing, can do nothing.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: This is what his wife said.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I know. Besides, what’s up with the wife?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: He says quite openly – we are not divorced, but live separately.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Under political motives?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: He doesn’t explain anything. He’s a “macho” in this situation, he doesn’t care about morality. He likes to prance around in the churches, but never crosses himself.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: He also likes to hang out with young girls.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: And he had his son Mikalai with another woman and, in general, this is very strange, he took the boy, his mother is alive, but she does not see her son.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: This little Kolya?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: He’s grown. Returning to the current situation, I agree with Natallia, this figure 80-90%, we just know all the population strata.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: That is, it’s not some elite, not the patriotic Belarusians who speak Belarusian, but the broad circles are dissatisfied with him?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Last year there were protests around the country, there were nothing like this even in the perestroika times.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: What protests? I haven’t heard.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: This was about the first version of the law on the so-called social parasites, when they wanted to impose extra tax on the unemployed.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Haven’t they abolished it? Was it an idea, something to scare people?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: They abolished it because of the protests. This picture in the studio – it was taken in the peak of protests. This is the action of March 25, 2017.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: So, these are the social parasites that represent such a huge power, that against it… That’s what website it is needed to launch – Belarusian Parasite.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: 1000 people were arrested in Belarus. The leaders were arrested the week before.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: What is this parasitic law anyway? Does it provide for some taxes? Like the tax for childlessness once? Or does it provide for criminal terms, like for social parasitism at the times of the USSR?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: I want to warn the Belarusians living in Ukraine, perhaps they will hear. All those who work abroad are considered parasites automatically, special commissions on parasites are created, they are called “troikas”. They will immediately enlist people who work abroad as parasites, and during the quarter Belarusians who work abroad will have to prove to these commissions that they are working. Not just “I live in Ukraine and that's why everything”. No, a person must bring a certificate or electronically inform from thier place of work in Ukraine, from a particular enterprise, that they are working. In America, a Belarusian cannot just marry a millionaire. She must bring a certificate, otherwise live without the certificate in America, and her family, if registered somewhere in Belarus, will pay 5 times more for communal services. And now they want to get a database, imagine?
Ayder Muzhdabaev: To milk money from the people? Do I get it right?
Natallia Radzina: First, to milk money from the people. Secondly, to intimidate absolutely everyone. Because, a colossal collection of information is going on legally. This means, everyone gets under the state’s control.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Yet another reason to number everyone.
Natallia Radzina: Yes, everyone will be numbered. They will know where everyone is working. They will know all sources of revenues.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Do you have relatives abroad? There will be certificates where the relatives work.
Natallia Radzina: I am also a parasite, according to the Belarusian law. I am supposed to write where I work, what salary I have, and this information will go not only to the KGB and the MIA, to these commissions. It will also go to other organizations. For example, the pro-Lukashenka Republican Youth Union.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: It will also go to such an organization as the FSB.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I understood. This is a great story. I did not know. I now want to show another, happy Belarus, we have the same journalistic standards, there must be different opinions. There is citizen Lukashenka who says that the standard of living of Belarusians should be normal, European and generally classy. Let's see this wonderful man.
Lukashenka: Steal, dig out, find anything, but $ 500 must be fulfilled. (...) By 2015, we should bring the salary to $ 1000 in the equivalent. (...) It is necessary to pull people to this $ 500. (...) As I demanded, we overcame the threshold of $ 500 of the average wage in the country. (...) A person does not need a salary increase, if prices do not increase. We raise prices, the state. (...) And I would very much like, especially in this period, that we have a higher salary.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: This sounds like a caring father. And you say low level of life. What is the real salary? Did he achieve what he wanted?
Natallia Radzina: No, he didn’t, he keeps promising this notorious $500 salary for five years.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Not 5, 8.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Why in dollars then? So that not to say euro?
Natallia Radzina: Because Belarusians keep their savings in dollars. No one believes in the ruble.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: There have been four denominations.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I’ve mentioned euro, because Europe is nearby. Why dollar?
Natallia Radzina: It’s a sort of a custom. The trust in the US currency.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: The premises rent rate of private entrepreneurs, traders is attached to the euro. They say, this is to the dollar, this is to the ruble, and the premises rent rate is attached to the euro. Best regards for both America and the EU.
Natallia Radzina: The pensions now are $ 80-100. Up to $ 100. Just imagine, salaries in the regions 150-200 $ - this is already very good. In Minsk - 300-400 $. Of course, someone, and especially those who work for a Russian business, have more money. But in general, salaries in Belarus are very low, and prices are much higher even than in Ukraine. Belarusians go to buy everything in Ukraine: food and clothing. The Brest and Homel regions, and even routes have been set up from Minsk, the people go all night to shop in Chernihiv.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: It is really important for us that we can talk not about entertaining, but about serious topics that interest serious people. Today, our subject is Belarus. I remind you that we have Natallia Radzina, the Editor-in-Chief of the opposition website Charter'97; and Dzmitry Bandarenka from the European Belarus civil campaign in our studio today. Before the break, Natallia was saying that Belarusians go to Ukraine to shop. You said they even go to Poland from Brest, yes? I just forgot to tell our viewers that both our today's guests were forced to leave Belarus in terrible ways, really with a threat to life, health, security and freedom. Now they are in Poland, they continiue their social and political activities. Do you see it all? Is it cheaper in Poland?
Natallia Radzina: It’s cheaper in Ukraine than in Poland, but it’s cheaper in Poland than in Belarus.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Does Poland really have lower prices than Belarus?
Natallia Radzina: Yes. The essentials, food products, meat for instance, is thrice cheaper in Poland than in Belarus. However, they closed the Belarusian borders, set up phytosanitary control and don’t let bringing anything in.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: As far as I remember, they also limited the number of enters-departures to-and-fro Poland.
Natallia Radzina: This was mostly related to the petrol which taken out.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: The sum, the weight – no more than 5 kilos. It’s prohibited to bring in. If it was the other way round – they would have permitted. And this very limitation when a person brings something from abroad – this is dangerous, as they cause damage to the domestic agriculture by doing this.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: By the way, one of the key myths, I am saying this without any assessments, but in general the belief about Belarus is that it has a very cool agriculture, natural products. I remember many shops called “Belarusian Products” here, in Kyiv, in Moscow. There have been many such shops before, even before the war. And there's cheese, butter, sausage, all this stuff. Is it true or not that the agricultural products are so clean?
Natallia Radzina: I just recalled my recent conversation with one Belarusian journalist who works in Kyiv today, but she is from Homel and often crosses the border and she said an amazing thing. She has seen this for several years, that when you cross the border of Ukraine with Belarus, there are always special people in the trains who look like ordinary Belarusians and who immediately start praising Belarus. Look, we left this Ukraine and the fields are sown, look how Lukashenka put everything in order, so not like Ukraine. Do you understand? The same concerns the myths about the Belarusian products. Belarusians are now talking about the extremely low quality of domestic products.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Most of the products go to Russia. There they demand quality and, like in the Soviet times, the best goes to Moscow. Belarusians are able to work, work a lot, work hard. For example, statistics show that the number of rural residents has significantly decreased during the reign of Lukashenka.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Did they leave for big cities? Or to Russia, for seasonal works?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: To larger towns, the villages are being enlarged, but most importantly: young people have no prospects, they are leaving. Eastern Belarus, they all leave to work in Russia, because Belarusians seem happy to work even in the relatively poor, especially in recent times, Pskov, Smolensk, Bryansk. Who feels more confident, more educated, IT-pros, entrepreneurs, register enterprises in the border area, but leave for Moscow, because the money there is incomparable. It cannot be said that the quality of Belarusian goods is poor, note, it is recently been washed, but there is also a paradox. Economists say that Belarusians trade at a loss.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Stop, stop, stop! How could it be so?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Yes, they need gross output, because loans are constantly being taken and never returned.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Those loans, probably, come from Vladimir Vladimirovich.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Different. When Lukashenka gave, what Russia wanted in the early 2000s, Belarus' foreign debt was 0. Now total external state debt, plus banks and enterprises (and the absolute majority of banks and enterprises are state-owned) is 40 billion dollars.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I believe the entire economy doesn’t cost that much, I mean the budget.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: They take loans, invest in agriculture. And collective farms, state farms or, as they are now called, joint-stock companies, do not return, and the products go to Russia for the cost lower than the production one.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: And now we have approached an interesting moment. I believe that all these loans will be paid by the Russian Federation, because Lukashenka has no money of his own, all the money comes from Moscow one way or another.
Natallia Radzina: Most of the loans, often non-returned, were given to him by Russia.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Eurobonds were issued under huge interest rates.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I will turn to the most interesting topic for me, I wanted to talk about Ukrainian-Belarusian relations, but a little later, since we started, that there is no economy and everything is at a loss, and it is tied to the Russian Federation. How much does he depend on Putin economically? And how much politically? At present moment.
Natallia Radzina: It’s all interconnected here. As he is extremely dependent economically, he’s also dependent politically.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: He who serves and treats a lady has her being willing and ready.
Natallia Radzina: What is the “Lukashenka phenomenon”? There is no phenomenon, there is no talented manager, this is nothing. There is a satrap, who was placed in Belarus, who existed and exists for Russian money. Lukashenka is the same project of the Kremlin, in general, they decided to leave Belarus in the sphere of their influence there.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: How come the Kremlin? He’s beet at power long before Yeltsin started thinking about it.
Natallia Radzina: What are you talking about, the KGB of the USSR was still alive and all this was going on. And there is a lot of evidence that during Lukashenka's election campaign, the Russians also worked for him, that's why he won these elections and all this time he did everything he did - he gave up the national interests of Russia.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: In principle, these subsidies - this is a purchase. They give money, so that he would give it out to Belarusians.
Natallia Radzina: And he doesn’t, he has stolen everything. We have degraded to the situation when people are turned into beggars. You’ve heard about the level of our pensions and wages. Pensioners today simply do not survive for this money.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: By the level of pensions and salaries, can we say that in general Belarusians are poorer than Ukrainians and Russians? I do not even mention Poles.
Natallia Radzina: In general, yes.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Not poorer than Ukrainians, in absolute figures, but they do not want to talk about purchasing power here. And now this Belarusian propaganda has become very difficult to defeat, because after the Maidan, after the war began, the image of Ukraine was only in black colors: everything is terrible, everything is scary. And now Belarusians go to Ukraine freely, they come to Kyiv, they go to Odesa, to the Odesa region to rest and they say: listen, it’s the war here, but they live better than we do. I do not know if it will please the mayor of Kyiv, but for us the prices for the metro are simply ridiculous.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: They’ve raised recently.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: But remained ridiculous.
Natallia Radzina: I thought it was a joke when I saw the price.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: See, the regime is economically broke, the economy functions badly, the business works badly, and here comes Russia with a breast, the “motherland”, which breastfeeds this baby…
Dzmitry Bandarenka: We still have our geopolitical situation.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I understand that he is taking advantage of this, playing cunningly, such a “sly fox”. But I had a feeling about two years ago that, in principle, if they wanted to continue the conquests in the framework of the ‘’restoration of the empire”, it’s better not to go there yet, but Belarus is something that can be annexed without blood, because Belarusians will not shoot at Russians. To which extent is the Belarusian elite infected, how much is the society ill with this love for Russia and how much this scenario of annexation, in any form, is real? I would like a serious response from the both of you.
Natallia Radzina: As a journalist I will say that today, of course, the main problem, in addition to political censorship, is the Russian propaganda. I said that Lukashenka seized television, destroyed independent newspapers, but Belarusians did not read his newspapers or watch his television. Because for two decades it became clear that they lie shamelessly. When these pictures of paradise life are shown in Belarus, and they see how they live. Therefore, they do not watch Belarusian TV channels, they watch Russian TV channels, and there are at least 9 of them in Belarus.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Is it good or bad for Lukashenka and for Belarus?
Natallia Radzina: This is bad for the country and for Lukashenka as well, but he already drove himself into this trap, when he destroyed the opposition, destroyed independent journalists, destroyed national history, the Belarusian language and, in general, when he destroyed Belarusians' sense of national identity. And today, when the Charter was blocked, the largest independent website, in general Belarusians left for the Russian Internet, we see it on the charts.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Or maybe they think, as some people thought in the occupied regions of Ukraine, that Putin will come, and now he comes. And they said in the Crimea, that pensions will be huge, salaries will be huge, but it was a lie. Now there’s nothing of this, they deceived people. But maybe, such a belief that “we are fed up with our Batka, but if this big rich Putin comes, maybe it will be better” exists?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: At the entrance here, in this building, there is a painting hanging on the wall - a cage with a bird and Islamic symbols. I understand that this painting is about the Crimea. I saw a stork in this bird, which sits in a very small cage. And I realized that this is our common feeling, and the common symbol - a stork (although I like bison more, of course). And we playfully talk, evaluate, I am not interested in Lukashenka, he is a fool, we can really lose our independence, just as today the Crimea is occupied, and your question is very serious and maybe the big countries think, I see the Western press putting it, like, Ukraine is there somewhere far away, but for the Ukrainians this is a real war, for the Crimeans, for you. You lost your homeland, you are fighting today.
We are on the verge. The West will understand this a little, later. But the Crimea, Transdniestria, Donbas and here, if Belarus is already fully finished - this changes the whole structure of security. But you understand the Ukrainian pain and problems better than anyone else, you understand the Crimean problems more than anyone, and today we are trying to talk both in the West and in Ukraine: look, a huge danger. This is a fool, then he will be forgotten, they will put someone new, as well as instead of Plotnitsky, but the country will already be completely under a different name, and this is a threat to Ukraine.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I want to ask you right now, without any interrupting with unnecessary questions, Dzmitry, to describe the possible scenario of the annexation of Belarus. How this can happen with the country.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: The most dangerous scenario is a referendum. As Natallia said, the majority of the population of Belarus hate the dictator, and we often argue with Polish political scientists and journalists, and recently one of the leading analysts on Russia and Belarus Adam Eberhardt wrote an article with this title “Will Russia absorb Belarus?” And he says that yes, Lukashenka is unpopular, but people think about individual survival, and not about their homeland.
And he noted that Putin is popular in Belarus. And this is the situation: propaganda created a black image of Ukraine, but since Lukashenka has almost no real international contacts, especially the ones which include meeting with a red carpet, the Belarusian television shows how he embraces the president of Ukraine Poroshenko. And this electorate, which is non-nationally oriented, sees that Lukashenka is meeting with the Ukrainian “junta leader”.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Is anything gets divaricated in their brains?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: And now they: “Yeah, he does not pay us pensions, he's meeting with this guy.” And further. Sometimes rare birds arrive, some European commissioner Khan, and the Belarusian propaganda for his electorate has already made a horror story from the West, that they support the “Ukrainian junta”.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I want you to get back to the referendum. How can it happen?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: That’s what I was saying. And then Europeans come and somehow one could hope for them, but they again meet with ours, who does not pay a salary, a reptile who now wants to load us with taxes and there is no hope for Europe. Putin, then, will help, he is strong, television is beautiful, good - that's the base for a referendum.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: And who can declare this referendum hypothetically? How can this happen technically? Troops? This should be a riot of troops. The troops obey Lukashenka. The KGB will submit to Lukashenka.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: And I do not want to think for them. Simply if the situation is such that a significant part of the Belarusian people, unfortunately, believes that the Crimea is Russian, it is nuances for political technologists. And the situation is terrible. Natallia says that it is necessary to have communication channels for the Belarusian opposition, Belarusians have the right to honest information.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: This is true, but it remains hard to win over the Belarusian propaganda.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: It needs to be done though. Poland does it, for example. Radio Racyja is working in Poland, broadcasting for the Western Belarus.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: I got it, this is all our information affairs. I want to go back to the specifics. Roughly speaking: Putin decides to expand his empire by merging, so to speak, joining, there can be no joining, but “reunification”, as they once said about Ukraine.
Natallia Radzina: We already have the “union state”.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: You do, you have. What needs to be switched? It is needed to put Lukashenka away, intimidate him, force him to agree for this “mes-alliance” and formalize it with some referendum. Can it happen this way?
Natallia Radzina: Yes. He can be both taken away or intimidated. There is all the necessary leverage for this. Plus, you certainly don’t think someone will defend Lukashenka, I mean the Belarusian military generals or the Belarusian KGB. No one will. Everyone is well aware of who Lukashenka is and due to what he still remains at power. If Lukashenka gives an order to the Belarusian generals to protect him from Putin, they will shoot him dead first. Because the Belarusian army remains a part of the Russian one, and the commands come from Moscow in the actual fact.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: As for the KGB. In Belarus, it’s called the KGB, right? There, all traditions have been restored, the only KGB, even Russia doesn’t have it, but here it’s the KGB. There was one case recently, or rather long ago. Pavlo Hryb, a Ukrainian guy, communicates with a girl on Facebook, leaves for Belarus, disappears and finds himself in a Krasnodar prison. What does it mean? Why did it happen? Why do you think this happened?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: The same because our friend, the leader of the anarchist movement in Belarus Ihar Alinevich was arrested in Moscow and delivered to the KGB in Minsk. This is one structure.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Which means, it’s being ruled not even by Lukashenka, but from Moscow?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Joint sessions of the KGB and the FSB are held regularly.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: You mean, they have common database, common goals, common missions? Common borders? That is, roughly speaking, Ukrainian politically active people should better refrain from going to Belarus at all, right? As they can – hop – and find themselves somewhere in Krasnoyarsk, or Krasnodar, or wherever.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Or disappear.
Natallia Radzina: I'm sure the Belarusian secret services have lists of Ukrainians who, if they suddenly appear at the territory of Belarus, will be immediately arrested and transferred to Russia.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Some think that Belarus is a peaceful country, unlike Russia, that it’s okay to travel there. However, has Belarus already been annexed at the level of the secret services?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: I would like to say something more positive. You see, today for Putin Belarus is such a door to Europe, but it's made of glass. After the war with Ukraine, if earlier 70% of cargo went through Belarus to Europe, now it’s 90%. And Putin understands the threat to transit. He understands that there will be Western sanctions. Referendum or not, will the economy stand? And the second, they understand that there are two million Belarusians who know the real state of affairs, and there are several hundred thousand people ready to fight. There are no weapons. But what will happen? This is what keeps Putin away from these decisions.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: It's great that you said it. Because there is such a question, a very important one. You say that 80%, I believe you studied the whole thing and live it, dislike or hate the current dictator Lukashenka. The question is simple: why is there no resistance, even a large-scale peaceful one? What can happen if, hypothetically, the events unfold according to the scenario of accession to Russia?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Belarus as a country today is similar to Poland in the 1980s, to Hungary. That is, we were a union republic, and they were satellites. So they became fully free countries. We were a union republic, but became a country. But we are really stuck in the late 1980s. On March 25, 2017, 10,000 internal troops, police, riot police, SOBR, and so on were brought to Minsk. And around there were about 30 thousand Belarusians, the authorities did not want to show that the Belarusians had gathered. A thousand people were arrested in a week. For comparison, in Ukraine it would have been 5 thousand people.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Can Belarus raise at a certain point?
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Yes. I meet in Ukraine with peaceful volunteers, and with military volunteers, and with the officers of the Ukrainian army. And many people say: there was a Belarusian fighting beside me. Belarusians are respected. It's reliability, it's courage.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Ukrainians love Belarusians - this is normal and correct. Belarus did not attack Ukraine, and so on. And many, indeed, died. And one of the first victims was a Belarusian guy, everyone remembers this, any person in Ukraine knows it. But let's say, hypothetically, on the basis of some events there suddenly happens a sharp coming out to the street. So, they people will come out, and the riot police could not cope, the SOBR does not cope. It seems to me that, I do not know your opinion, that in this case, the introduction of troops to help the brotherly people of Belarus, as they did in Prague, as they did in the Crimea, in the Donbas, may result in an instant annexation.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: People will come out, and we will negotiate with the authorities. Because the whole environment of Lukashenka, like in the countries of Eastern Europe, wants changes, it wants to legalize capital, it wants to live normally. We will talk with them. Why is everything happening happily in Armenia? Because the elites also wanted certain changes.
And when there are negotiations between the authorities and the opposition, we will invite the Russians, and we will invite the Europeans to talk.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: No one invites Russians, they will come on tanks by themselves.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: It can be different. In this situation, we will do everything so that there was a dialogue.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: That is, you are preparing for this riot, which will finally ripen in the population, and it’s unclear what happens next.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Not necessarily a riot, it could be an absolutely legal, permitted, maybe initiated by the authorities action.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Not in the bad sense.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: Because the authorities also want changes.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Okay, the last question then. Very briefly, it’s time to say goodbye. Is today’s Belarus, or rather, “Lukashenka’s Byelorussia”, it seems more correct to say so, a good neighbor of Ukraine, or a military rival of Ukraine and the ally of Putin? Very briefly, please.
Natallia Radzina: Belarus under Lukashenka’s rule is a territory which is dangerous for Ukraine.
Dzmitry Bandarenka: The Belarusian people is a friend of Ukraine, the regime is the enemy.
Ayder Muzhdabaev: Briefly and clearly. Thank you Natallia, thank you Dzmitry. In my opinion, we had very interesting guests. I have not heard anything about Belarus for a long time, and I am very grateful to our guests and to you for your attention. Watch ATR. All the best!