A freehearted interview with the Editor-in-Chief of Charter97.org.
Editor-in-Chief of the Charter97.org news website Natallia Radzina became the new guest of Studio X97, with Yauhen Klimakin as a host.
We are offering for your attention the text version of the conversation.
- Natasha, you have been living in the European Union since 2011. Do you feel good here?
- First of all, it feels good to work here, for me. I was forced to flee precisely because I realized that in those conditions it was impossible to work in Belarus. Working here allows me to do much more for my country. As for my life, of course, I really want to return home. I can’t imagine my life here for good. And all I do is solely for Belarus to be free, to make it possible for me to return to my family, friends, to my Homeland.
- Have you already got an apartment here? Obtained citizenship?
- I didn’t get an apartment and I don’t want to get it.
- Living in rented accommodation?
- Yes, rented accommodation. Because for me to get an apartment means to stay here for a long time. And it’s easier for me to live, figuratively speaking, on my suitcases in the hope that I will be able to return home soon.
- Did you get citizenship?
- No, I have not received citizenship, although I have the right to obtain Lithuanian one. I think I won’t get it.
- Is this fundamentally important for you?
- Yes, it is fundamental. I have one citizenship - Belarusian - and I want to keep it.
- You are the Chief Editor of Charter97.org. When the Belarusian authorities blocked you at the beginning of 2018, many then said: the end of the Charter will come. I understand that this did not kill you?
- Of course, that didn't kill us. I have been working as an editor on the Charter97.org website since 2001. We have experienced different times. We were constantly arrested at demonstrations, we worked undercover, went through searches, criminal cases ... Of course, the worst thing happened in 2010, when the founder of our site, Aleh Biabenin, was killed, but all the subsequent repressions, and even the KGB prison, where I ended up , and the arrests of journalists, and the actual rout of our editorial office in Minsk - they already seemed a small thing in comparison with the loss of a friend.The blocking of the Charter’s website in 2018 only showed the fear of the authorities of a free word.
- What do you answer to those who tell you: “Charter” is the same propaganda resource as the state Belarusian ones, but the other way round.
- Absolute nonsense. I do not understand these conversations in a dictatorship situation. When they say: you must be above the battle. And in the end, today we see that “above the battle” are journalists, businessmen, artists, singers, writers ... Sorry, but who will fight ?! What will you tell your children later? What did you do during the dictatorship of Lukashenka? Have you been above the fight? .. In a dictatorship situation this is not possible! We must do everything to bring the time of change closer. And I know what I'm doing. I am engaged in journalism, I’m reporting a free word, telling what is really happening in Belarus, calling things by their proper names.
- Do you know what interests many Internet users about the Charter?
- What? (smiles)
- Where do the money come from? Who is supporting you? Is this open information or not? And do Belarusian businessmen support you?
- I’ll say right away that it’s difficult with Belarusian businessmen, because they are very afraid. Although it’s strange for me, since most of them go to jail anyway, lose their business and work in constant fear of losing everything. And instead of starting to change something in their own country, to help people who are trying to do this, they, of course, are still wary. But I hope that in the end they will cease to be “above the battle” and begin to really change something in their own country. Because first of all they need it themselves.
It is no secret who helps the Charter. Funds in support of democracy help us, the ministries of foreign affairs of European countries help.
- Which ones?
- The Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania and Poland. The French Foreign Ministry also helped us.
- You have just returned from the European Parliament. What is the attitude there to Belarus, to the Belarusian authorities, to the situation in principle?
- The MEPs are well aware of what is happening in Belarus.
- What do they say about Lukashenka?
- That he is a dictator. For them it is completely clear who he is. Now they were shocked at how brazenly the results of the “parliamentary election” in Belarus were rigged. They threw ballots into the open, replaced ballot boxes, falsified turnout, voicing figures which actually did not exist. Observers recorded 10-20 percent of the turnout, and the authorities, as always, wrote sky-high figures. Europeans were shocked at how Lukashenka personally threatened observers with physical violence.
There are absolutely no illusions about Belarus there. The only thing I saw was huge interest. They were inspired when I said that Belarus is now in a completely new situation. I talked about the fact that Lukashenka is hated in the country today, that many opposition activists took part in this election campaign, well aware of what the “elections” in Belarus are like. But during this election campaign, they measured public opinion when they collected signatures in people’s apartments, when they held numerous actions in the streets, talked with thousands of people, and found out that Lukashenka has absolutely no supporters in Belarus, that 90 percent of the population hates him today. People just dream to see him leaving as soon as possible. And this is the new situation.
In my conversations with the European politicians, I emphasized that today it is necessary to support the Belarusian democratic forces, independent media, civil society, since it is the next year that real changes in Belarus are possible.
- In the European Parliament, another interesting thing happened. The person in charge of Belarus was Robert Biedron. He absolutely openly says that he is gay. And this particular person, given the Belarusian authorities’ approach to LGBT people, is made responsible for contacts with Belarus. Is it the trolling on the part of the European Parliament? Or how should we take it?
- No, I think this is absolutely not trolling. I met with Robert Biedron. We talked with him about Belarus. The first question he asked me was: “How is the situation with the Charter? Are you still being blocked? Maybe you need some help? How are you doing with the financing of the case? ” That is, a person, firstly, showed deep awareness of the Belarusian affairs, and secondly, a real interest. I saw an interesting person in front of me who wanted to help, who asked me what mistakes his predecessor had made, how he could be better at work. Yes, he said that he was forced to periodically come to Minsk and conduct a dialogue with the Belarusian authorities, but assured me that he was not going to turn a blind eye to the human rights situation, the pressure on the freedom of speech, on the situation with political prisoners. Therefore, I have great hopes that this will be a very good job.
- The Charter, politics ... What else is there in the life of Natallia Radzina?
- Like everyone else: I have a family, friends, favorite books, films. In general, for me, the most important source of inspiration is people. So many amazing people whom I often just fall in love with when I get to see a whole personality ... It's amazing. I am very happy that there are always a lot of such people in my life.
- Your moral authority?
- You know, it is very difficult to speak about moral authorities, because I adhere to the principle of “do not make yourself an idol.” Although, of course, I have moral authority. But what is the danger of idols? You place excessive hopes on a person, expect from them that they will do something, and control over other people is impossible. Each person is an independent unit. And at some point, they will not do what you want. This is the danger of waiting for a certain leader who will come and do everything the way we want. People are people. They are different.
- Well, here in Belarus there is just such a story when they say: “We understand the authorities are bad, but the opposition is also not exactly good...”
- It seems to me that all these conversations are conducted due to the unwillingness to act on one's own. You can’t wait for the messiah, you need to start with yourself, you need to take one small step, second, third and just start changing lives. There will be nothing different. A mythical hero will not come and solve our problems for us. We have to act. Each of us must ask themselves a question: what can I do in this situation? Someone can print leaflets, someone can distribute links to films, someone can talk about independent websites, someone can create strike committees, some organizations at their enterprises, unite people into groups and come out to protests eventually. Everyone can.
- In your professional life, you met with many politicians. You saw Barack Obama, talked with Hillary Clinton, John McCain ... Who made the greatest impression on you among the Western politicians?
- Maybe because I'm a woman, but it was women politicians who made the greatest impression on me. This is Hillary Clinton, this is Dalia Grybauskaite, and the Polish European MP Anna Fotyga.
- She was once the head of the Polish Foreign Ministry.
- She was the Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland and headed the Committee on Security and Defense in the European Parliament, as well as the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The power and sincerity strikes me in these women. They no longer tolerate lies, worry more about people. And I understand how difficult it is for them in politics. Not only because it often has to be combined with family and children. Of course, women shock me when they succeed here, and try to change the world.
- You have mentioned Dalia Grybauskaite. You criticized her at first.
- I had to criticize, because I came to Lithuania after prison, after a rather difficult escape from Belarus, and at this time my friends continued to be in prison: both presidential candidates and opposition activists. It was necessary to save these people. In addition, just on the day of my arrival, Ales Bialiatski was arrested, also because Western countries handed over the accounts of the Viasna human rights center to the Belarusian authorities. I was forced to say that the repressions that fell upon the Belarusian people were caused, among other things, by the cessation of Lukashenka’s international isolation. And Dalia Grybauskaite did this when she invited Lukashenka to Vilnius. Prior to that, he was under strict EU sanctions and could not go anywhere further than the countries of the Arab East.
- How did you change your attitude towards her?
- We met in Warsaw. In Poland, a dinner was organized with the presidents in honor of the award of the Solidarity Prize. As far as I remember, the prize was then received by Mustafa Dzhemilev. I was invited from Belarus along with Stanislau Shushkevich to attend a dinner in which US President Barack Obama took part, there were presidents of other European countries, including Dalia Grybauskaite. We then met and were able to personally talk to each other. She recognized me. She said that she understood how hard it was for me when I arrived. I also explained to her: we went through prisons, through torture ... She said that she understood that she too could make a mistake, could be wrong. The result was such a warm human conversation.
I saw in front of me a woman who remained herself, who analyzed what she was doing, can admit her mistake, trying to change during the presidency. And we watched it. In recent years, Dalia Grybauskaite has been perhaps the most severe and principled critic of the Putin regime, and has been very clear about Lukashenka.
- Did Aleh Biabenin hire you to work in the Charter?
- Yes, he invited me. I started to work in the newspaper “Imya”. It was a very cool independent Belarusian newspaper. In 1997, I came there as a second-year student of the Faculty of Journalism of the Belarusian State University. Aleh was my immediate boss. He was the editor of the news department, where I was hired as a reporter. Already in 2001, he invited me to work for the Charter97.org website. Before that, I worked in many other independent newspapers.
- The official version was that he committed suicide.
- I will never believe this in my life, because Aleh was an amazingly loving person, a great optimist, he never lost heart, always encouraged others, firmly believed that changes were possible in Belarus and this would happen soon. He was just a terrific friend, so reliable.
- What story related to him do you recall most often?
- Oh, a lot of stories. It was just great to have a good time with Aleh.
- Joint parties, holidays ... Did this happen? (smiles)?
- (laughs) Of course. It has always been fun. Aleh has always been a ringleader. It was cool to work with him, it was cool to relax with him. A man loved life and gave people happiness. He loved people.
- He was outlived by children, wife. Are they already adults?
- Yes, his son is already old enough. He actually had two sons. You know, when it is very difficult, you understand what you need to go on in memory of Aleh. It is necessary to constantly remind that there was such a wonderful person, a wonderful journalist who founded the Charter’97 website. We will never forget Aleh, and will continue doing what we are doing, also in his memory.
- Many politicians now say that next year may be a turning point. And you also said this at the beginning of the conversation.
- I am convinced of that.
- The economic situation in the country is hideous today. We see that people are trying to survive on salaries of 150-200 dollars in the regions. Average pensions today is 100 dollars. The prices are higher than in Poland for many products. And given all this, the dictator is going to take the seventh term. Today, this very thought causes rejection in everyone. I can say that today it is noticeable and obvious that the Belarusians have finally come together. Today they are united by one idea - Lukashenka must leave. It seems to me that such a unification of the nation hasn’t happened in the recent history of Belarus. This was not even in Soviet times. This gives us tremendous hope that change is possible next year. Of course, we have to work hard, of course, won’t be easy, but the chances are very high.
- Each person has his own weak spot, an Achilles heel. In your opinion, where is Lukashenka’s Achilles heel?
- First of all, this is his manic desire to remain at power. It will not lead to anything good. Thus, he simply drives himself into a dead end. Today he does not have the opportunity to continue to live the way he lived before that 25 years. At least for the reason that he simply does not have money. He is not ready to make reforms in the economy; Russia is not ready to provide him with energy resources at the previous prices, or irrevocable loans. In this situation, the West is also not ready to finance the latest dictatorship in Europe.
- In 2010, you, like thousands of Belarusians, went to the Square to protest. How do you remember this day?
- It was one of the happiest days in my life. The atmosphere was incredible! More than 50 thousand Belarusians then came out to protest against falsification of the results of the presidential election, despite intimidation by the authorities. That was awesome! The spirit of unity, the desire and the will for freedom - this was palpable. I was happy that day.
- Have they arrested you right there?
- No, I was beaten in the Square at the end, but I managed to run to the editorial office, or rather, they brought me. I had to work hard, I did not want to go to the hospital.
- You said you even managed to write something.
- Yes, then there was a lot of work, a lot of news. It was necessary to tell the world what was really happening in Belarus. Despite the crazy headache, because I had a concussion after beating, I continued to work. We worked at the editorial office until four in the morning, and then the doors cracked, KGB officers came, arrested me, the journalists ... I was immediately taken to the KGB prison, and the journalists were sent to the police station, after which they were sentenced to days of arrest just because they worked in the Charter.
- I saw that after your release the Deutsche Welle made a material about you, if I’m not mistaken, in the KGB prison, when you were...”
- ... well, not in the Belarusian, of course, KGB prison. It was in Vilnius, at the Museum of Genocide. I just could not restrain myself. Tears were running from my eyes, although it seemed to me that I had already experienced this, told about it and it should be easier for me.
- I see you are shaking even now.
- ... It could be the cold (laughs). But when I got into the same actual atmosphere ... The Belarusian KGB prison has not changed since the Soviet times. As it was built 50-60 years ago, this is how it remains.
- There is a moment when you are saying: “I was in a very similar cell. Down there on the wooden floor we slept.” Yes?
- I had to sleep there because there was no sleeping place. I slept on the so-called plank bed, which was made of wooden boards, knocked together. You know, I don’t want to talk about it anymore, the past is in the past. Thank God that we survived going through this. This situation tempered and changed a lot. In general, I do not regret having to go through all this. Now I want to look to the future.
- Tell us the story how you communicated with Vladimir Putin, please.
- It happened in 2009. I was just in Poland, participated in the so-called Solidarity Train, which was organized by the Polish side for journalists from Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. We got acquainted with the experience of the struggle of the Polish trade union Solidarity. In early September, there was a press-conference in Sopot, given by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. I took a taxi and came from Gdansk to the press-conference. I previously managed to quickly obtain accreditation for it.
When I arrived, I saw that there were hundreds of journalists from different countries. Naturally, I had a question for the Russian president, but I couldn’t ask him because they first gave the floor to journalists from the Polish and Russian pools. They asked formal questions, and then the presidents were about to leave. Journalists then rushed to the VIPs in an attempt to ask them questions. The guards pushed them back, as always, and I just in a critical, stressful situation thought about how to hook him and make him turn around to answer my question. I just shouted: “Answer for Belarus!”
And then I saw Putin turning around, looking so tired, and he said: “Well, what is there for Belarus?” Right there, a platform was cleared in front of me, the guards pushed everyone away, and I was standing in front of Putin, and it was clear that he expected some formal question about “brotherly relations”, or something else, from Belarus. And I asked him: “How long will you support the dictatorship in Belarus?” And I just saw such horror in his eyes, he was lost for words, didn’t know what to answer, and asked his favourite question, which always reveals that he’s not ready: “What is your name?”
- I answered that (laughs). In general, I’m Natasha, the website of Charter97.org. So what about my question? And he had such a pause, he came up with something and answered so vaguely, but nevertheless confirmed that he supported the dictatorship in Belarus because he said: “Democracy in the post-Soviet space is so weak that we are forced to support stability”…
- The fragile souls of citizens of the former Soviet republics need only a whip! (smiles).
- Yes, yes (laughs). I remember that after that an article by Andrei Kolesnikov, who was present at this press-conference, was published in Kommersant. He wrote: “Vladimir Putin never spoke so badly about democracy in Belarus.”
- During our interview, you recalled the Polish Solidarity. They had such an interesting thing that I remember. When they struggled with the communist system in the last century, they developed special equipment that helped the opposition go on the air of state propaganda radio stations and television channels. There was absolutely propaganda news and then a voice appeared or the inscription: “They are lying! They are lying! Solidarity will triumph! ” Imagine if you could now go on the air of Belarusian state television channels or radio stations. What would you say?
- I would probably say: “Belarusians, do not be afraid. We are the majority. We must fight and we must win! The wait is nearly over. We are moving towards victory. See who is at power? Who are we afraid of ?! A bunch of people trying to sit on chests of gold and hold power? We are the people! We are the power! ”