The regimes of Lukashenka and Putin are similar, and they will end similarly.
Belarus is ahead of Russia in terms of the pace of a totalitarian regime development, whereas the systems established in Russia and Belarus are anomalies of the 21st century. This point of view in an interview with Charter97.org was expressed by the Deputy of the Russian opposition movement „Open Russia” Vladimir Kara-Murza.
According to him, conducted by a number of countries and politicians realpolitik is cynical and hypocritical, but at the same time, there are still enough Western politicians firmly adhering to the principles and values of Western democracy.
During the conversation the Russian oppositionist noted one interesting point. For the first time, the targeted personal sanctions of the West were tested on Lukashenka's regime, and then the same principle became the basis of the Magnitsky Act.
- Against the background of Ukraine and Russia, Belarus does not seem to be the main focus for Western countries; nevertheless, for this region it is a very important country, since, on the one hand, it is Russia's main ally, and on the other hand, it is a neighbour with whom Lithuania, Latvia, Poland support economic ties, despite the violations of human rights and the authoritarian essence of Lukashenka's regime. How do you see the situation in Belarus and the relations between Russia and Belarus?
- First of all, I must say that Belarus is ahead of us in terms of the time and pace of building a totalitarian regime. There, everything began five years earlier than in Russia. I remember how in the mid-nineties Belarusian democrats came to Moscow and breathed the air of freedom. They were invited to a television talk show, they met with deputies of the State Duma. In Russia, in the nineties, people were still breathing freely, television was not censored, parliament was a place for discussion, there was a real pluralism of opinions in the society.
And in Belarus, from 1994-95 and especially since 1996, after the so-called referendum on the new constitution, a real authoritarian regime began to be established. The parliament was destroyed, the main mass media were cleared. In the coming year, in fact, a quarter of a century will have passed since the former collective farm chairman Alexander Lukashenka came to power. I think that no one in a terrible dream could have imagined this. And after 5-6 years, the same thing started in Russia.
There is a certain paradox. Putin and Lukashenka have rather intense personal relationships, Putin does not like Lukashenka very much, while all the main features of the political regime that Putin began to establish in Russia thoroughly repeat what Lukashenka did in Belarus. And at some point, the learner began to surpass the teacher.
I remember how relatively recently there was a time when in Belarus many political prisoners were released and then there were not so many of them as earlier, but in Russia – the number of political prisoners has increased. Now, according to the human rights centre „Memorial”, in the Russian Federation there are more than 180 political and religious prisoners. This figure is already quite comparable with the late Soviet period. Also for a long time Belarus was called the last dictatorship of Europe, but from a certain time this phrase does not correspond to reality, since after Vladimir Putin came to power and established his regime in Europe, there are at least two dictatorships.
- What are Belarus for Russia and Russia for Belarus at the moment?
- Again, here we see a paradoxical moment. Relations between the leaders, or rather dictators (you need to call things by their proper names) are not very good. At the same time, we are observing the union of convenience. Maybe they are not very happy about the existence of such a dependent relationship, but both regimes with Putin coming to power are forced to support such union. In addition, there is the so-called Union State of Russia and Belarus, created in the late 1990s, and someone, perhaps, will say that formally Russia and Belarus in general are one state. But we understand that this is a profanity. From the experience of friends and colleagues I can say that the only positive meaning of this so-called union state is that it allows representatives of the opposition and civil society, to which the regimes in Russia and Belarus prohibit their exit from their countries, to use the neighbouring country for exit. Many Belarusian oppositionists, when Lukashenka forbids them to leave, go to Moscow and fly out where they need from there. And recently there are people (I personally know them and they are forbidden to leave the Russian Federation), who travel abroad through Belarus. So we have to admit that there is still some positive meaning in this so-called union state.
- Last week, journalists were detained in Belarus and their editorial offices and apartments were searched. How do you think this should be regarded?
- Unfortunately, there is nothing new and surprising here. Authoritarian regimes by definition are enemies of journalism and freedom of speech, freedom of the media. As a rule, authoritarian regimes begin with the fight against freedom of speech, because they are most of all afraid that their actions will be publicized. This is what Lukashenka's regime did in its due time. We remember the white stripes of newspapers in the mid-nineties, and then independent media were simply destroyed by the Lukashenka regime.
If we return to parallels, in Russia it happened in the first years of Putin's regime. Federal TV channels were either closed or seized by the state. What we see in both countries is attempts to finish off the last small islands of media freedom. For example, if 15-17 years ago Putin's leadership destroyed independent federal television channels, then today the Prosecutor General's Office is trying to block independent Internet sites with attendance of several tens of thousands.
We see the same thing in Belarus. 20 years ago there was pressure on large independent media, today – there are practically no major independent media. And those that are left today are being pressed, finished off, and journalists are attacked using the criminal, judicial and so-called law enforcement system. What we have seen in recent days – searches, arrests and criminal cases against employees of independent media.
- Why do you think that despite the fact that for a long time nothing has changed in Belarus and repression continues, Western countries are still trying to move closer to the regime?
- As always, we see a rather cunning manoeuvring from Lukashenka – he uses this potential for rapprochement with the West as a blackmail instrument while talking with the Kremlin. There is nothing new here either, because he has been doing this for a long time. Unfortunately, sometimes the West reciprocates. We remember that despite formal sanctions, Lukashenka went to Austria to ski, to Lithuania for a visit. And there is nothing surprising here either. This is so-called realpolitik, whose adherents call it pragmatic, but in fact it is cynical and hypocritical, as it closes eyes to violations of human rights and basic democratic principles for some supposedly strategic and geopolitical purposes.
We see this from many Western leaders both towards Lukashenka and Belarus, and towards Putin's Russia, when Putin was welcomed in Western countries with open arms, despite the fact that in Russia freedom of media and political opposition were completely destroyed and political persecution began. Exactly what we see today – an old formula, created not by us: son of a bitch, but he is ours. But, fortunately, it is necessary to say that there are still quite a few politicians in the Western countries who stand on principled positions, for which values and principles are not empty words. And when we talk about the parallels between the Putin and Lukashenka regimes, it is important to note that there are also parallels in the principled policy of the West.
The principle of personal responsibility, in which international sanctions should not be just general measures in relation to the entire country and all citizens, but personal measures against specific violators of the rights of citizens and corrupt officials, was first applied to the Lukashenka’s regime. In 2004, the US Congress passed a law on supporting democracy in Belarus, which established the principle of personal sanctions and responsibility. That is, Lukashenka's regime officials involved in violations of the rights of Belarusian citizens were banned from entering the United States and owning assets there. Many years later, this principle became the basis for the „Magnitsky Act”, which was adopted in 2012 and established the personal responsibility of human rights violators from among the officials of the Putin’s regime in Russia.
So it is important to note that, despite the sad tradition of realpolitik regarding the regime of Lukashenka and Putin, there are still enough people among the representatives of the Western establishment for whom values and principles are not an empty phrases and who are ready to defend them by introducing measures of personal responsibility for those who violate the rights of citizens.
- How do you formulate relations with Belarus in your opposition movement, which should be theoretically and not under the current government?
- We are neighbours, we have a lot in common in culture, history and mentality. I am sure that the day will come when Russia and Belarus will free themselves from these dictatorships, when Europe will no longer have dictatorships, and our countries will be able to establish normal partnership relations based on mutual respect and respect for each other's interests, as it should be in normal sovereign countries. I am sure that this day will come. We do not know when this will happen and do not do predictions, but we are engaged in preparation.
As deputy chairman of the „Open Russia” movement, I will say that our main mission is to prepare the ground for changes that will inevitably come. The history of Russia and our region of Europe shows that rapid political changes can start suddenly, quickly and unexpectedly. And our task is to prepare for them. I think the same applies to colleagues from the Belarusian opposition. I have many friends and colleagues from Belarus, with whom we have been communicating for many years, and I think in this sense there is another very important point. Dictatorships cooperate among themselves and for those who oppose these dictatorships it is very important to communicate and look for common points of contact. We are trying to do it.
- What is the role of Belarus in its current quality in the space of our region?
- Unfortunately, it plays the role of some frozen semi-Soviet islet. For many years it was the last dictatorship of Europe, but I repeat that now it is not true, as there are two of them. And on the whole, this is an absolutely obvious anomaly, when in the 21st century in Europe there are two countries, the political situation in which goes against the processes that are going on around. There are political prisoners in these two countries, the media are under the supervision of the state, there are no free elections and the parliament is not a place for discussions while the same dictators are in power. In Belarus, this lasts for almost 25 years, in Russia – for almost 19 years.
I really want to hope for changes and I, as a historian, can say that nothing is eternal and there will be changes, a day will come when there will be no dictatorships in Europe. And Europe will be built on the principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. This applies both to Russia and Belarus.