25 April 2019, Thursday, 19:52
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Mikalai Statkevich: What Will Western Politicians Do When Belarusians Uprise?

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MIKALAI STATKEVICH
PHOTO: AP

80 % of Belarusian citizens are decisive in their desire for changes.

Belarusians see the world through the eyes of the Russian television, and by persecuting independent media, the Belarusian authorities ''clean the space for the propaganda by themselves.'' Regardless of that, there will be no second Crimea in Belarus. One of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition Mikalai Statkevich says so. According to him, the society is split by the issues of geopolitical orientation, language, and a social aspect. Statkevich is convinced that the authorities have exhausted all the resources and are turning Belarus into ''Russia's subsidized annex", while most Belarusians support changes. "We are ready to befriend with all our neighbors, and consider their interests. However, we demand they should reckon with our rights. Including the right for freedom. I remind, our nation has a 500-year tradition of guerrilla wars. There will be no second Crimea here. Rather, they will have to face the second Afghanistan," he says. Statkevich is one of the leaders of the Belarusian National Congress, Chairman of the ''People's Assembly'' party. He lives in Minsk, but holds protest actions not only in the capital, but also in the regions. Lithuanian portal DELFI talked to the Belarusian opposition politician, who told what his country might expect, given its major threat of losing independence.

- Regardless of your state in the country, and the general situation, does your life go as usual?

- Of course, it is necessary to rejouce every day in life. For me, ordinary things are enough for joy – close people, friends, nature.

- What is the environment in which the Belarusian opposition leader lives today?

- The regime strikes its blows against leaders in the first place. In total, I have spent 8 years behind bars. 5 of them went in prison after the presidential election in 2010. Mostly in the closed prison. A year and a half - in the solitary cell. Since the moment of release there have been numerous administrative arrests. The authorities are trying to make me silent. The official threats to start another crininal case, as well as anonymous threats with murder have become a routine. They also play mean tricks. For instance, I am prohibited to drive a car by the court, because I don't pay fines for the organization of protest actions. After yet another demonstration the authorities announced the upcoming demolition of the house I lived in. On the eve of some other protest, they climbed over the fence to the backyard of my house, ripped the tires of my wife's car. Before the next action, they broke the windscreen. They can unexpectedly arrest me in the street and then lie to my family for several days that they have no idea where I am. In 2017, I fled from the external surveillance and hid in my friends' apartment, to avoid preventive arrest and to make it to the key protest action of the year on March 25. They followed me, detained and held in the KGB jail for three days. Then they brought me to the woods, let go and then denied they held me in custody at all, for a long time.

- You have been holding protest actions in the center of Minsk and in the regions. How do you take the people passing by?

- When I walked free in 2015, I saw that the political landscape had become like a cemetery. While I was in jail, there has been not a single opposition protest action in the centers of Belarusian cities. To reduce the degree of fear in the society, and bring back public protect to politics, I started organizing protest actions in the center of Minsk. It was vitally important to win back the space of freedom. Because, when there are no real elections, the only effective mechanism of public influence on the authorities is mass protest. Last year we had quite massive actions with many participants. We organized the first action of protest against the ''decree on parasites'', when the unemployed were taxed. 5000 people gathered for that first non-sanctioned event. The city hasn't seen anything like this since the moment of the presidential election in 2010. The protest was caught up by the regions, and we managed to abolish that tax.

- If we compare the moods of the people in the protest years in the 90s and now, how would it look like?

- In the 90s, when Lukashenka wanted to hand over our independence to get the main post in the Kremlin, dozens of thousands people took on to the streets. There were brutal clashes with the police. Back then, we managed to defend the country. However, at that moment I had such a feeling: there were dozens of thousands people behind my back, but we all made a minority in the country. As of today, the opposite thing is happening so far: several hundred or thousand people gather to protest, and millions watch live coverage and support us, the people who haven't made up their mind to come out to the streets yet. I feel this support all the time. For example, when I come to a small provincial town, somebody will surely recognize me, and come up to say thank you. The people in their desperate situation took the time to memorize me. This is responsibility which obliges me to do many things.

- You recalled in one interview how the people were deciding whether ''to let Lukashenka to power or not''. What options will Belarusians have to choose among now, in case of necessity?

- Lukashenka understood everything in 2017, when his former electorate took on to the squares of small towns. Without any permits, which are never granted anyway. They came out and addressed him. The words they used were mostly foul, and when the addressee heard them, he finally realized just how much the country hated him. He will lose elections even to a clown, given that they let only clowns to run for president now.

I don't like being called an oppositionist. It's Lukashenka who is in the opposition to the majority of the Belarusian people. After 2010, the authorities decided not to let real rivals to their fake elections, because even fake elections inevitably lead to the politization of the society. And the real opposition could take advantage of this opportunity, organize a mass protest to achieve fair elections and win.

Now the authorities once again conduct the mop-up operation to wipe away Сейчас власть в real candidates from the political field. In the first place, this concerns the Belarusian National Congress (BNC), which includes the ''People's Assembly'' party headed by myself. Contrary to the Constitution, they prohibit me to run for president due to ''prior conviction''. Recently, they have fabricated a criminal case against trade union leader Henadz Fiadynich, who is also a member of the BNC board. The authorities are ready to admit only pseudo-oppositionists, fully dependent on them, to the presidential elections. Their mission is to publicly admit Lukashenka's victory and to block the mass protest action against the results of the fake elections. The society will have to struggle for an opportunity of participation of real opponents of the regime in the election, as well as for the recognition of their victory.

PHOTO: AFP

- Can we talk about the dialogue inside the country, and with the West?

- At least, with the West it appears to be happening. Of course, this is a one-sided dialogue, because we have seen no concessions from the side of the regime. It's only the West that makes concessions. When Western politicians claim that the opposition should maintain a dialogue with the authorities, I agree. However, our authorities are not ready for a real dialogue. They will go for it when hundreds of thousands flood the streets. However, then it will be difficult to save this power from the people. And now here come activists who only imitate dialogue. They ask appointment from officials, tell them something, publish pictures with them in the internet, but this does not change anything. And then they say, the authorities are holding a dialogue with the opposition. They are not the opposition, and their dialogue on the knees is not a dialogue. The authorities will hold a real dialogue only with some real force. You cannot beg for freedom.

- What about a dialogue with the EU?

- The EU, the integration into which has always been quite popular, suddenly started flirting with the dictator, contrary to own principles. I think this is happening because they fear Russia. The logic here is simple: let it be at least such buffer, than no buffer at all. Like, let it better be Lukashenka in Belarus, than Putin. However, the overwhelming majority of Belarusians no longer sees Lukashenka as an alternative. Only the patriotic forces may be an alternative to the Kremlin in Belarus, if they succeed in uniting the majority of people and leaders around their program. This is exactly what the BNC is doing now. Betting on a highly unpopular dictator only undermines the reputation of the West, its values in the eyes of the Belarusian society, thus making our struggle more complicated. The EU loses respect of Belarusians. Now the people think so: Lukashenka is our enemy, and the West bets on Lukashenka. And thus their eyes turn to the East. As of today, Putin's rating inside Belarus is several times higher than Lukashenka's. Such situation is very dangerous for the country.

- It's curious that they measure the society's interest towards the Russian president in Belarus.

- This reveals the dependence of Belarus from Russia. The regime has turned Belarus into some subsidized annex of Russia. In all spheres. Our mostly state economy is no longer capable of surviving without huge Russian subsidies. Herein, this money is wasted on the colossal state apparatus, brought up on the ideas of the integration with Russia and hatred to everything national. Does the West really reckon this regime a guarantor of our independence? What will the Western politicians do when the people uprise? Whose side will they take? The aim of our protests is to show the society that it is us, those who pose an alternative to this regime. That we are struggling for the people's interests against the dictator. If there is no our open struggle, the people will have only one hope - Moscow, which, in their opinion, could liberate them from the loathed dictator.

- The things you are saying, the opposition has been talking about all the time and for quite a while. Lukashenka is there, there are no elections, the EU is losing values, the threat of independence from the East. Has anything changed?

- I remember the 90s. The supporters of independence among the inhabitants of Belarus made 27%. That is, in an independent state, less than a third of citizens were supporters of the independence of this state. It was a terrible figure. Then we tried to keep independence at any cost. We understood that even with the anti-national regime, life in our state would allow the nation to strengthen. Now more than 90 percent of the population stand for independence, whether it is in an alliance with Russia or not. The nation has formed. This is the most important achievement. The attitude to our history, the Belarusian language has changed. Lukashenka has been trying to destroy the Belarusian language for 20 years. The Russian-speaking majority now has an understanding that it is necessary to preserve language and culture. The attitude to power in general has also changed. People want democracy, economic reforms - this is a different country that deserves other government, normal government, real elections and a decent life. This different Belarus is our main success and the most important achievement. We managed to defend independence in the nineties and uphold with our struggle the values of freedom, human rights. People are now turning to face them. The country is ripe for a change of power, political and economic reforms.

- What resources have remained in this case with the current government?

- The regime has exhausted its resources. Electoral, ideological, economic. Even subsidized. This train does not go further. The Soviet industrial base, which was good 25 years ago, is outdated and worn out. Russian subsidies are not enough to compensate for the losses of large state-owned enterprises and keep a huge army of "law-enforcers". We are increasingly lagging behind the global pace of development. Entire regions are impoverished and degraded. According to sociologists, 80% want change. The regime is afraid of reforms with which it links the loss of control over the country. But if it tries to increase the size of the Russian subsidies by selling sovereignty and endangering our statehood, it will only make its end closer. Now is not the 90s. Not dozens, as then, will rise to the defense of the country, but hundreds of thousands of patriots, with the support of the overwhelming majority of the people.

- How do you see the state of power structures?

- In the power structures, especially in the officer positions, they selected those who supported the policy of Lukashenka. In particular, his ideas about the "Slavic brotherhood", integration with Russia and the joint struggle against the "damned" West. Now we are in a situation where the most popular politician among Belarusian officers is Putin. There is an example of Ukraine, where the state and the army were collapsed. But there the state gave the people weapons and they defended the country. Our power structures can take the side of the aggressor. The former ideology and rhetoric of Lukashenka after the Ukrainian events showed their danger to the existence of the country and he already dropped them, but people with such views in the structures remained. This is a big danger. The main guarantor of independence in such a situation is the Belarusian people themselves, who will not allow their state to be destroyed.

- In one interview you said that you met Lukashenka in the building of the Belarusian parliament …

- It was in ancient times. Now we have this - a model of the parliament, a model of the courts and a model of the registered opposition. Lukashenka has destroyed all democratic institutions. What is the Belarusian election? This is a colorful, well-staged performance with previously known figures and percentages. Votes are simply not counted. But it looks very similar. Election commissions consist only of people selected by the regime, who pre-sign empty protocols with "voting results". And observers are not allowed to control the counting of votes.

- What impact did Maidan have on Belarus? What new things appeared in the Belarusian reality?

- The society was intimidated. Previously, we used fake elections to mobilize people to a mass protest and try to achieve real elections. In 2014, people were afraid that this could be a pretext for external intervention, war and blood. But now we see that this fear has been overcome. The peaceful victory of the protests in Armenia also contributed to this.

- Why has Lukashenka held power for so long?

- Lukashenka sold our sovereignty to Moscow in parts in exchange for financial support. Without this tremendous support from Russia, the regime would have been long gone. He sold a strategically important gas transportation system, language, culture, independent foreign policy, television space. A free broadcast package includes 8 channels available to all. 5 of them are Russian. The negative impact of this was manifested in 2014, when two thirds of the population considered the annexation of the Crimea to be a right deed. They look at the outside world through the eyes of the Russian television. Pro-Belarusian independent media are persecuted. The authorities are trying to block the most popular Belarusian political website Charter'97.org. Journalists of the Belsat TV channel are being persecuted. The regime itself clears the spot for the Moscow propaganda. It became obvious that our society was geopolitically split. Back in the 90s, I wrote a lot about this problem, but the regime only deepened the split. It is necessary to draw conclusions. A split country is extremely vulnerable to external influences. If we do not consolidate our society, we will achieve nothing. And on the way to change we can still run into aggression, civil conflict and even the loss of statehood.

- How to consolidate the society?

- The regime is trying to forcibly consolidate the society with the help of a huge apparatus of violence. Belarus is the European leader with regard to the number of "law-enforcers" per capita. We have 8 special services with the right of operational-investigation activity. But such a "consolidation" takes huge resources and, with decreasing Russian subsidies, it will ruin the state. In addition, the suppression of the society kills the creative initiative of the people, without which a modern competitive economy is impossible. Conscious consolidation is needed. The conditions for it are ripe. There are basic values already shared by the majority: independence, democracy, mandatory turnover of power, economic reforms. But there are questions that split society - this is a question of geopolitical orientation, language and social aspects. Here we must look for compromises. Our main goal is to build a normal country, a free, successful, rich state for our people. Based on this goal, you need to look for compromises on issues that divide the society. The compromise mechanism is democracy. Platforms for finding compromises in a democratic state are honestly elected plenipotentiary parliament, self-government bodies, and meetings of local communities.

- How to achieve such a goal?

- By liberating the creative energy of the nation and directing it to the development of the country. Use the natural motivation of people for personal enrichment and combine it with the needs of the society. The mechanisms of this combination have already been tested by our neighbors. There are both positive and negative experiences that need to be taken into account. The necessary conditions are an independent court, a guarantee of the property rights, a clear and stable taxation system, stimulation of domestic investments and exports, privatization of small and medium-sized state enterprises, reform of the management system of large state enterprises, real self-government of the regions and communities. All this will lead to a high rate of development of the country. And, given the low starting base of reforms and the private initiative being held down by the dictatorship, in the early years of reforms these rates will be explosive in nature. From the negative experience, which also must be studied.

The slogan of the world social democracy is: Freedom, Justice, Solidarity. So, without justice and solidarity, freedom cannot be sustainable. With the money received as a result of economic growth and the reduction of the huge state apparatus, it is necessary to carry out reforms in the systems of education, health care, and pensions. Finally, we need real, not symbolic, unemployment benefits. A reform of labor relations with the abolition of universal short-term labor contracts is needed. And a lot more then. We have prepared a fairly voluminous party program of reforms and are now leading an open discussion on it in the forums in order to take into account the opinions of people.

- What is the basis of your views on the relations between Belarus and NATO?

- I am sympathetic and respectful to the choice of our neighbors, who have chosen this way of ensuring their security. But for Belarus this path is now closed. Our party stands for the military neutrality of the country, the desire for which is written in the Belarusian Constitution.

- Why, in your opinion, people go to work in power structures, if they are used by the authorities to suppress the discontent of citizens? You say that Belarusians are unhappy with power.

- To be honest, not most people live consciously. In any country. Very many just drift with the current.

- What does the independence of Belarus, about the possible loss of which you have said a lot today, mean to you?

- I talked more about its defense. The image of independence for me is having own home for our people. If Belarusians keep their home, then sooner or later we will put it in order, decorate it, make it cozy and comfortable for life. If the home is taken away - nothing good will happen. The threat to our independence is now being updated again. But over the years we have become a nation. And I am sure that there will be a sufficient number of people who are ready to fight for their country in the event of aggression, with arms in their hands. Our struggle has not been in vain, now we feel the ground under our feet. Now it's time for freedom. I am confident about the free future of my country and I do not advise anyone to try to use our freedom struggle to intervene here with some little people of any colors. We are ready to befriend with all neighbors and take into account their interests. But we demand to reckon with our rights. Including our right to freedom. I remind you that our nation has a 500-year tradition of guerrilla wars. There will be no second Crimea here. Rather, they will have to deal with the second Afghanistan.

- If the answer to this question is formulated very shortly. In Belarus, evil is personified. If someone talks about Belarus outside its borders, most often it is associated with Lukashenka. You once said you had no personal hatred to him.

- I don't feel any personal hatred to anyone. As for Mr. Lukashenka, there have been many questions to him from the side of the Criminal Code. But I am neither court nor victim.I do what I have chosen for myself, the things close to my human nature. I am trying to make my country free, better. There is no hatred in me. Just the love for my country and the feeling of responsibility for my people.

- Thank you for the conversation!