The main principle of Charter-97 is the unity in action.
Andrei Sannikov, one of the founders of “Charter-97” and the leader of the civil campaign „European Belarus”, recalled the creation of “Charter-97” civil initiative and the website Charter97.org:
- In 1996, I resigned from the post of Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus on the eve of an illegal referendum that allowed Lukashenka to usurp power. I understood that the referendum would push the country into the abyss, so it was important for me to leave on the eve, in order to try to influence the course of events. My statement of resignation was silenced, and only after I threatened to make a scandal, the resignation was accepted.
I saw from the inside that the most brutish instincts broke through to power, and that mean times are ahead of us. It was necessary to resist them. At the same time, I had an invaluable experience of participating in the revival of an independent Belarusian state moving along the path of democracy. That's why I was sure and I am sure until now that Belarus has a different future, and the current regime is just a mistake.
I left without any plans, but almost immediately I became acquainted with the vice-speaker of the dispersed by Lukashenka Supreme Council Gennady Karpenko, with whom we began to create a shadow government.
After the resignation, I tried to better understand the situation and organized a debating club at home. One of the regular participants and the driving force of the club was Peter Martsev, then the publisher of the most popular independent newspapers in Belarus – “Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta” (eng. „Belorussian Business Newspaper”) and “Imia” (eng. „Name”). Among the participants were Viktor Ivashkevich, one of the leaders of the Belarusian Popular Front, artist and journalist Nikolai Khalezin , philosopher Vladimir Matskevich , who then was publishing interesting articles on the topic of further development of Belarus, journalist Leonid Mindlin, several of my friends. Then the club was joined by Dmitry Bondarenko, the director of radio „101.2”, head of the Foundation for the Defense of the Independent Press. We met once a week, sometimes more often, and discussed what to do in this situation. There the idea of “Charter-97” appeared.
It was clear that in the Belarusian society there are no mechanisms that were necessary for changes, first of all, there were no human rights protection mechanisms. In 1996, after the referendum, there started repressions against journalists and opposition politicians, moreover, first political prisoners were detained. But there was no mobilization of society to protect human rights, to help and release political prisoners. And it worried us very much. There was still no understanding that there was a united front of democratic forces. All these issues gradually led to the realization that it is necessary to create a broad movement. Since representatives of different parties participated in these discussions, we hoped that the parties would understand the benefits of such a broad movement and would go on to make “Charter-97” the main driving force for democratic reforms in Belarus.
Therefore, we launched „Charter-97” civil initiative, participation in which was taken by the representatives of the two major forces in the Belarusian politics: Alexander Dobrovolsky, from the United Civil Party, and Viktor Ivashkevich, from the Belarusian Popular Front as well as well-known human rights activists and civil society leaders of the time. In November, we prepared a text, which proclaimed the intention of the citizens of Belarus to fight for their rights and freedoms, for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in the country.
A strong impulse to launch this initiative was the kidnapping of the journalist of the newspaper „Name” Oleg Bebenin, who was taken by the security services to the forest and threatened. The journalist of ORT Pavel Sheremet was in jail at that time. We realized: we must do something. At first we relied on independent journalists and independent publications. I believe that this was the right approach, because there was still another journalism beyond the control of the authorities, there were still authorities among journalists, and practically all of them responded and supported this initiative. That's how „Charter-97” appeared.
I liked the idea and the name. Sometimes there are reproaches that it was possible to choose something more Belarusian for the name of the initiative. But this should have been a broad movement of solidarity - by analogy with Poland, of course. And “Charter-97” is named in honor of the 20th anniversary of the “Charter-77”, which arose in Czechoslovakia as an instrument of civil society. Such name immediately put the Belarusians in the European context.
It was necessary to show that we are not Russia, and I liked both these components - the solidarity movement and the name „Charter”, as a reference not only to the Czechoslovak Charter-77, but also to the Magna Carta, which laid down the principles of the rule of law and human rights in Europe. Therefore, I gladly joined, supported and collected signatures to support this initiative.
„Charter 97” was signed by writers and poets Vasil Bykov, Rygor Baradulin, Svetlana Aleksievich, Gennady Buravkin, Neil Gilevich, Valentin Taras, Olga Ipatova, Lyavon Borshchevsky, Semyon Bukchin, Alexander Potupa, Carlos Sherman; politicians Stanislav Shushkevich, Gennady Karpenko, Yury Zakharenko, Viktor Ivashkevich, Mikhail Chigir, Nikolai Statkevich, Valentin Golubev, Mecheslav Grib, Vintsuk Vyachorka, Alexander Sosnov, Vyacheslav Sivichik, Lyudmira Gryaznova, Pavel Kozlovsky, Alexander Dobrovolsky, Semyon Domash, Pavel Sevyarynets, Mikhail Marynich; human rights activists Ales Bialiatski, Gennady Grushevy, Harry Pogonyaylo, Tatiana Protko, Valery Shchukin; musicians Lyavon Volsky, Kasya Kamotskaya, Viktor Shalkevich; journalists Pavel Sheremet, Zhanna Litvina, Pavel Zhuk, Iryna Khalip, Olga Korotkevich, Nikolai Khalezin; film directors Yuri Khaschevatsky, Leonid Mindlin, Vladimir Khalip, Victor Dashuk; artist Ales Marochkin, historian Vladimir Orlov, political scientists Vladimir Rovdo and Viktor Chernov and many others.
First, we had the task of collecting the signatures of the 100 most famous people of Belarus - it was done very quickly. By the way, the leaders of virtually all political forces signed „Charter-97”. And then the multiplier effect began – people form this list started collecting signatures, journalists began to sign to the editorial offices of newspapers and collect signatures themselves. I remember that when I went abroad, Belarusians who were temporarily staying or living abroad asked me to sign them as well.
There was even a kind of excitement: „I want to sign, I want my signature to be there”. The signatures were kept by the editors of the independent press. It was not a collection of signatures to which we are now accustomed (for example, under a political campaign), it was an expression of will to change the situation. When we collected 100,000 signatures, it became clear that we must act.
First of all, we began to engage in human rights activities. We gathered people from human rights organizations and representatives of parties and called for them to protect the rights of everyone, because there was already a tendency to treat political prisoners on the basis of the party they belonged to: they were going to protect the rights of only members of particular parties, Social Democrats, BPF members, UCP members. No, we said, this way we can perish one by one, here serious human rights protection is needed, so that the entire society is mobilized and people would be able to see that party membership and even non-partisanship is not important, that everyone who suffered from this regime would be protected.
It was already clear at that time what kind of a regime was being established in Belarus. There were first political prisoners, first political cases. We acted quickly, without delays, without any special discussions – we outlined a plan of action, appealed to the international community, helped families, went to Belarusian and international media. And, frankly, we found an effective mechanism that works until now.
Today, the special services are trying to destroy this mechanism and bring discord among human rights activists. One can hear: these prisoners can be considered political prisoners, and these prisoners can not be. But the general principle, which was laid, proved its effectiveness. Today this method is very dangerous for the regime and it must be preserved. Therefore, one should not pay attention to the attempts of some controlled human rights organizations in Belarus to play political games. People who suffer for the idea and for their views should be declared political prisoners, no matter what.
Then we took up information work. „Charter-97” issued newsletters on human rights. International activity began: we had to tell the world that such an initiative appeared in Belarus, that it unites democratic forces. We had to inform the world that in Belarus there was a seizure of power by the dictatorial regime.
Then there was activity on the organization of rallies. „Charter-97” was engaged in it from the first days and paid much attention to it. There were a lot of rallies. I well remember one of the first campaigns. On July 3, 1998, Dmitry Bondarenko and Oleg Bebenin, accompanied by Valery Shchukin as a journalist, went to the center of Minsk with a huge banner extended through the entire Independence Avenue „Freedom to Political Prisoners”.
There was a risk of being arrested and beaten, because it happened on a Lukashenka’s national holiday, he himself called this day „Independence Day” and announced that it would be the main holiday of Belarus. In my opinion, it was the first time when such a mass event was timed to this day. This action has no analogues as an example of personal courage, as an example of how much can be done, no matter what the risks are.
But in general, all significant protest actions that took place in Belarus from 1997 to 2010 were initiated by „Charter-97”. For example, thousands at „March of Freedom” protests, protests against falsifications of presidential and parliamentary elections. „Charter” was a powerhouse of such activities. Because our main principle is unity in action.
It was not interesting to turn the initiative into a party. I'm still allergic to all sorts of meetings, committees and so on, because it's boring and does not give anything. And because we have not yet gone so far from the USSR to accept some kind of normal human forms of communication and organization of our activities, and because everyone is still hypnotized by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It was not interesting for us, there were creative people in the Charter: Dmitry Bondarenko, Oleg Bebenin, Nikolai Khalezin, Yuri Khaschevatsky, Alexander Dobrovolsky, Viktor Ivashkevich, Ludmila Gryaznova. We were interested in communicating and inventing something.
We had a kind of a hearth: one can come, light something for themselves from this hearth and carry it on. There was no jealousy or greed, because there were a lot of ideas. The problem was to make them all come true. Much continues to this day - priority for the protection of political prisoners, their release and assistance to everyone. This is a necessary thing, which must occur under any dictatorship, without this it is impossible to move on. This is what has always existed in „Charter-97” and exists among those who created it and who are struggling with a dictatorship. I think this is the most important service.
As for the creation of a general opposition movement, there was an honest attempt on our part to do it. But we were convinced that it will not work out yet. Parties do not want to part with their pragmatic interests of survival in their midst. Therefore, we had to move forward as an independent force, not relying on party structures.
The very idea of „Charter-97” remained, the idea of unity in action did not disappear. Soon after the initiative was announced, the site Charter97.org appeared. This is the merit of Oleg Bebenin, which created this site, which became the pioneer of the information and opposition site in Belarus. Initially, the site covered human rights topics, then it became a full-fledged independent information website of Belarus.
Many thanks also to the editor-in-chief Natalia Radina, due to whom this site is alive today, because not everyone could go through prison, beatings, threats and forced departure from Belarus to make the site a leading Belarusian news resource that is visible all over the world. This is a huge achievement.
But again, this is the development of the ideas of „Charter-97”. You can read our short declaration. Until it is fulfilled, „Charter-97” does not have the right to reduce its activity, nor to calm down, despite any bad or even good luck.
Many of the effective initiatives emerged from the hearth of „Charter-97”. Such as „Zubr” - the most notable youth movement in the modern history of Belarus, protest campaigns, „March of Freedom”. If you look at those demonstrations or actions organized by „Charter”, you can see that the principle of non-party and unification works out. „March of Freedom”, marches „For a Better Life” united everyone and all political forces. And it was „Charter-97” that realised these ideas.
Then „Charter” initiated the idea of creating a civil campaign with political elements. In 2008, with the participation, unfortunately, of the late Viktor Ivashkevich, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Mikhail Marynich, former minister of foreign economic relations, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Latvia and the Czech Republic, former Mayor of Minsk, we launched a civil campaign called „European Belarus”, which is still active in Belarus and abroad.
In 2010, I took part in the presidential elections representing the civil campaign „European Belarus”. I had a team consisting mainly of people who started „Charter” and worked with it at different times. We were confident in our abilities, and it was clear that Lukashenka was losing namely to our team. Therefore, his nerves could not stand it. Instead of starting with us a dialogue about the country's wayout from the crisis, he applied excessive force, and our whole team was imprisoned. One of the goals of the harsh repression was the destruction of the independent site Charter97.org, which supported almost all alternative candidates, because it sustained the policy of change in Belarus. Naturally, because of all the candidates I was most involved in the creation of „Charter-97”, a lot of attention was paid to my political campaign.
„Charter-97” is the most popular and influential information resource in Belarus - now it also works from Warsaw. We are grateful to Poland for its support, but today the site is in a difficult situation. Unfortunately, independent media in Belarus cannot survive without help from outside. And not only the media. Belarus has never received the necessary assistance for the development of democracy. The West shows political „myopia”, and Poland often behaves in Brussels too timidly, sometimes agreeing with the naive, sometimes stupid policy of the European Union regarding dictator Lukashenka. The leaders of „Solidarity” could demand a principled attitude to human rights in Belarus more resolutely and base on this the policy of the European Union.
I have to continue what I started back in 1996. It is clear that now it is impossible to do this in Belarus. In Poland - I can work, I wrote a book about the events of 2010 and other things, which thanks to the publishing house „Karta” was published in Poland and four other countries.
Emigration was the most difficult decision in my life, but nevertheless I am sure that I will return to a free Belarus.
I would like to see „Charter-97” finally take its rightful place in the Museum of Freedom of Belarus, and we begin to live a normal life, forgetting not only the „patronymic of the tyrant”, but also the fact that in the history of Belarus there was such a misunderstanding as dictatorship.
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