There will be no more “stability” in Belarus.
How the people in Belarus really live, why Lukashenka wouldn’t transfer power voluntarily, how the conflicts with Moscow reflect on the dictator’s image, why Ukrainian politicians should not trust his friendship vows, why it is necessary to study the trade schemes between Russia and Ukraine, which are implemented through Belarus. Belarusian opposition journalist, Editor-in-Chief of the website Charter97.org Natallia Radzina has spoken about all these issues in an interview to Gordon.
– Natallia, you have visited Kyiv not very long ago. What did you do here?
– I wanted to talke a closer look at your political situation, take a series of interviews. We are very curious about what is going on in Ukraine, how the media and the electoral headquarters of the presidential candidates work. Belarus will hold presidential and parliamentary “elections” this year as well, but they cannot be compared with the Ukrainian ones, as we have only had falsifications instead of real elections for 25 years in a row, and you have real political competition here.
During any electoral campaign, the situation in any country, even in Belarus, changes: the people become more pro-active, a chance for changes occurs. Belarusians have always prrotested and challenged practically all falsified elections. In 2006, in 2010 dozens of thousands of people took to the square in Minsk, having disagreed with the fake results of the presidential elections. I think protests may repeat as it has become impossible to live under the dictatorship any longer.
– Who of Ukrainian politicians caused such interest in a Belarusian opposition journalist so it was worth coming to Kyiv for an interview?
– I did not plan to interview the first-rank personalities, and as for my interests, they are with Yulia Tymoshenko, Petro Poroshenko, and Anatoliy Hrytsenko in the first place. The former Ambassador of Ukraine to Belarus Roman Bessmertnyi is also an interesting person. These people stand on democratic positions, they speak about the necessity of holding reforms, and they adhere to the European course of development of the country. As for the candidates with the pro-Russian views, I surely don’t want to either meet or make interviews with them.
Belarus also faces the discussion on what should be done for the country’s development in the European direction, how to get rid of the Russian influence and become a normal state. However, now our task #1 is to liberate ourselves from dictatorship, and the task #2 is to build a new country.
– It’s quite an unexpected phrase “Belarusians always protested and challenged the elections”. To onlookers, it appears they are silent, they have got used to everything, and nothing would ever make them come out and protest.
– This is so untrue! In 2010, about 70–80 thousand people took to the square, according to various estimates. They came out under the conditions of a total information blockade by the state-owned media, and there are almost no other media left in Belarus.
We are not like in Ukraine, where there are many TV channels that are not controlled by the authorities. It does not matter that they are under the control of individual oligarchs. You have a plurality of opinions in the public information field. In Belarus, this hasn’t happened during all 25 years of Lukashenka’s presidency.
In 2010, social networks were not yet so common, and the propaganda pressure on voters was strong. And even under such conditions, a huge number of Belarusians took to the streets. I think that at the beginning of both the first and second Maidans in Ukraine, there were not so many people.
In Ukraine, the number of protesters was growing due to the lack of tough opposition from the authorities, at least at the beginning. You had organizational and informational support, there were scenes, dry closets, heating and distribution points for food, there were first-aid posts. In Belarus, the situation wasn’t even close to this. People initially knew that they were risking their lives. In 2006, our officials stated point-blank that coming out for the protests was equated to terrorism, and under this article there is a risk of punishment up to death penalty. Let me remind you that the death penalty has not yet been abolished in Belarus.
In 2010, the Belarusian authorities also constantly sounded threats that taking to the square was equated with the organization of a coup, respectively, the protesters will be imprisoned. Opposition candidates and members of their headquarters got serious prison terms. I, too, was officially charged, I faced up to 15 years in prison. But even in the conditions of an information blockade, real threats and repressions, Belarusians came out to protest. And they will do it again.
– Well, why then there have been no mass protests in Belarus for 9 years after 2010?
– How come, “no protests”? I would not agree with this. Yes, there has been no significant activity for several years, because Lukashenka suppressed the protest brutally in 2010: there was a huge number of arrests, including almost all opposition leaders, presidential candidates, and members of their headquarters.
A lot of ordinary activists were detained, in one night only about a thousand people were taken. And people got real terms - up to five years in prison. Mikalai Statkevich is now going to run for president. He has served a total of eight years, the last five years - precisely for participating in protests in 2010, when he was also a presidential candidate.
Belarusians were really frightened by the real prison terms for holding a peaceful protest. Not to mention the fact that in prison (this is 100% information, because I myself experienced this) the KGB coerced people to sign for cooperation with the special services. And the majority signed, receiving in return not real, but suspended sentence. Meanwhile, a signature on the paper on cooperation with the special services does not imply active participation in protest activities.
In 2017, protest actions against the decree on “parasites” erupted in Belarus, which quickly grew from social to political. There have been no such protests in the country since the times of perestroyka, in terms of the coverage of towns and cities. The authorities suppressed the demonstrations, arrested more than 1,000 people, 30 people became defendants in a falsified criminal case. But it is obvious that the people hate the dictator and it will not be quiet in Belarus anymore.
– In you opinion, how many discontented are there in Belarus today?
– Up to 80% of Belarusians remain in the opposition to Lukashenka now.
– This seems a huge number of citizens, but they somehow remain unheard and unseen…
– You don’t belive it, because Ukraine has never come even close to such dictatorship that has existed in Belarus for 25 years. If you talked to ordinary people – taxi drivers, customers in shops etc., you would feel it – it seem practically impossible to find Lukashenka’s adherents in Belarus today. The country is ruined, real wages in the region are about $ 100-150.
Of course, the opposition has been persecuted throughout these 25 years in the cruelest possible way, the opposition leaders were murdered, many came through big prison terms, journalists get killed periodically, including chief editors, like it happened with Charter’97. Herein, we have seven times more police officers per 100 thousand people than in the USSR. Plus, eight special services and their agents, that infested the country.
– Then you need to stand up and come to protest!
– Easy to say. Where to? For the 25 years of Lukashenka’s presidency, many political structures have been destroyed, the television remains under the total control of the state, many independent media are either closed or became loyal to the authorities, opposition websites are being blocked, it’s extremely difficult to convey an alternative point of view.
Our website Charter’97 was mega popular - up to 2.5 million unique visitors per month, and it was blocked in Belarus. In such conditions it is wrong to blame the supposed “passivity” of Belarusians. It’s the same if I asked, why Ukrainians did not protest en masse all 75 years of their stay in the USSR.
And even in such conditions today in Belarus, people are beginning to rebel locally: they do not withstand regular non-payment of wages, illegal developments, and dirty Chinese production that has unfolded in certain regions. But in order to assemble a real Maidan, as in Ukraine, there must be completely different conditions. Although I am convinced that the spontaneous riots in Belarus will grow and eventually turn into something very serious.
– What will be the last straw, when the fear of the state repressive machine disappears, and Belarusians will massively come out and protest against the Lukashenka regime?
– It’s hard to say what will be the last straw that will fill the cup of patience. In Belarus, the standard of living of the population seriously decreases, the prices in the stores are several times higher than in Ukraine, and the wages are lower, about 100-150 dollars in the regions and about 300 dollars in Minsk. Enterprises are idle, not a damn thing is working, the industry has collapsed.
About 10 enterprises worked in my native Kobryn, now only one remains profitable - a toy factory. And so throughout the country. Officially, low unemployment is a manipulation because people either do not go to the labor office or leave the country. About 1.5 million Belarusians have already left to work to the West or to the Russian Federation. For a nine-million Belarus, this is significant. Many enterprises work two days a week, people are paid a meager salary, warehouses are loaded with products, because nobody needs them. Russia has its own enterprises of this kind, and the Belarusian economy has always been focused on the Russian market.
At the same time, anti-constitutional “decrees on parasitism” are adopted, which violate the rights of the unemployed. People cannot find work anyway, and now they will be forced to pay for communal and utility services in their apartments several times more than those citizens who work. In addition, they are deprived of free medicine and education in universities. If a person does not get a job after an official warning, they can send them to a labor-and-detox center - this is in fact a concentration camp where they will be forced to work for free. Plus, the rise in prices is continuous, and there is the non-stop suppression of the business freedom.
– Meanwhile, Ukrainian programmers told me, excitedly, that a huge techno-park has been opened in Belarus, where IT-companies from all over the world work under preferential terms, and this is all Lukashenka’s merit.
– Internet sites are blocked in the country, there is no freedom of speech even in the net, but there is a strictly limited mickey-mouse outfit called the High-Tech Park, where 30-40 thousand people feel good. Nobody knows though for how long Lukashenka will allow this technology park to work. In Belarus, prisons are almost one-third filled with businessmen and entrepreneurs whose businesses are being or have been already seized by the power structures.
We have almost no major businessmen left who would not be in prison. Not only does the large business system operate under the cover of Lukashenka and share profits with him, the people also have to pay serious compensation for their release from prison, where they are thrown when their business gets seized. And Lukashenka doesn’t hide it, he says bluntly: if a person wants to get out of prison - let them pay.
– I don’t understand this. If the business is under control and pays the “fee” regularly, why interrupting such a source of profit by placing businessmen to jail, if they can be charged further on?
– So that the businessmen would not overstep the mark and turn into akhmetovs, kolomoyskiys, grigorishins, liovochkins etc. To avoid the conditional Seven Bankers' Cabal, like it was in Russia under Yeltsin. Any Belarusian businessman must know who is the master of the house. And there is just one master – Lukashenka. Here, all the businessmen remain under the spotlight of the special services, a step aside means execution. They need to be imprisoned so that they would not feel too much at ease, especially when there is a need to cover some hole in the budget.
IT-businessman Viktar Prakapenia spent about a year in the KGB jail, got released, having paid a lot of money, and today he promotes the Belarusian High-Tech Park in the West. I think that was one of the conditions for his release. What is it done for? To show the West the “ dictatorship with a human face.”The high-tech park is Lukashenka’s toy. After all, he doesn’t even use a computer, but he creates a picture for the West: we have our own Silicon Valley in Belarus. He needs such an improvement in the image to attract naive Western investors, who in fact do not invest in the country, but in the regime and dictatorship.
– Since the end of last year, the relations between Minsk and Moscow have been tense. The Kremlin’s top officials openly say that they reckon Belarus as Russia’s territory. Analysts seriously discuss the possibility of the Anschluss of Belarus, considering options from gradual economic accession to direct military occupation. Which option to you reckon most possible?
– It is clear that Russia today does not have enough money to aliment the Belarusian dictatorship. There is a serious reduction in subsidies from the Kremlin. In this situation, Lukashenka begins to bargain, involving the classic blackmail of the Russian Federation: like, if you do not give money - I will go to the West. For 25 years he has been playing the role of an offended girl who threatens to leave the guy, but stays. Nobody believes him for a long time, especially the Kremlin, where they understand perfectly well: turning to the West for Lukashenka is suicide.
– Because he will then need to stop the harassment of the opposition, conduct free elections, start reforms, bring back the freedom of speech. Lukashenka is incapable of this, he is very much afraid of losing the power, and this means, the blackmail game will continue.
– What is the possible outcome of this game now?
– I absolutely do not exclude the possibility that the talk about a possible takeover of Belarus by the Russian Federation is a joint game between Minsk and Moscow to raise the rating of Lukashenka. It is possible that they are purposefully doing a make-over of him so that in the West they start issuing loans, and the Russian Federation, accordingly, did not spend so much financially on maintaining the regime.
– This is an unexpected version, please specify.
– Look at what appears even in the world media: everyone suddenly believed that Lukashenka is the only defender of Belarus’s independence and sovereignty from Putin’s threat. I meet with politicians in the West, and I even hear something similar from them: they say, Lukashenka somehow constrains the situation, if it wasn’t for him, Russia would have seized Belarus.
At the same time, for some reason it is overlooked that Lukashenka is a satellite of the Kremlin, raised and supplied by Russia. He is a project of the KGB and the FSB. They needed their own controlled person at the head of an independent republic. Lukashenka got a cheek with the Russian money, almost destroying Belarus. He has no idea about the market economy, competition, reform, etc.
Lukashenka has never done anything to strengthen the independence of Belarus. We have full military integration with the Russian Federation. Not only do the Belarusian and Russian special services closely cooperate, the Belarusian army is also in fact part of the Russian armed forces. Over the years, various “wars” between Belarus and Russia have been a performance, played out by Minsk and Moscow for the West, in order to keep Lukashenka in power.
Still, in any case, if Russia decides on the annexation of Belarus, it will face resistance within the country, and even more serious international sanctions.
– Why don’t you consider the version that Lukashenka has become too expensive for the Kremlin, and they decided to put another, more flexible “beholder” in Belarus?
– It is no secret to anyone that the relationship between Putin and Lukashenka has always been bad, they cannot stand each other. At the same time, the Belarusian dictator has become too costly for the Kremlin: with people falling into impoverishment, he wasted the Russian money stupidly, all the while building new and new residences for himself. There are already 15 such residences for the none-million Belarus. Huge money is being poured into favorite toys, for example, ice hockey. Lukashenka lives as a new-rich of the eastern type, of course, it causes great irritation among impoverished people. Everyone understands that there will be no peace in Belarus, if only because the people hate Lukashenka.
If Lukashenka sees that a certain Belarusian politician can compete with him, he will be neutralized. At best, a person is jailed and tortured.
– On the one hand, you are saying that Putin and Lukashenka cannot stand each other, on the other – you are convinced that the escalation of tension between Moscow and Minsk is a joint game of Belarus and Russia…
– One does not exclude the other, especially for those who have been working together for a long time in power. Two dictators, each with their own gesheft, both want to stay in power until the grave.
– But why doesn’t the Kremlin find it easier to remove Lukashenka and appoint a more loyal and less expensive parter as Belarusian President?
– Maybe it is easier. The question is where to remove Lukashenka? The man is pathologically power-sick. Or do you seriously think that Lukashenka will voluntarily cede the presidency to someone, while he himself will quietly retire to grow potatoes? This is out of the question.
You in Ukraine really do not understand who Lukashenka is. According to the investigation of the Special Rapporteur of the Council of Europe Christos Pourgourides, death squads were operating in Belarus under Lukashenka, they killed his political opponents. If Lukashenka sees that a Belarusian politician can compete with him, he will be neutralized. At best, a person is jailed and tortured, as was the case with independent presidential candidates after the 2010 elections. Do you think such a person would quietly give up power?
– However, there is an example of Yeltsin, who was also an ambitious politician who liked power a lot, but he left the post voluntarily in exchange for the guarantees of immunity, also of the capital, accumulated by the whole family.
– Do not compare Lukashenka and Yeltsin, they are completely incomparable figures. Yeltsin was not so ambitious. Yes, he liked to feel like a king, but he did not cling to power, with him they did not kill opponents.
– How many Lukashenka’s opponents were murdered or died under strange circumstances for the 25 years of his presidency?
– In addition to those who have already been named, businessman Anatol Krasouski was killed, Aleh Biabenin, the founder of the Charter-97 website; cameraman Dzmitry Zavadzki, Veronika Cherkasova, a journalist, who was also investigating the links between Lukashenka’s regime and the regime of Saddam Hussein. These names are widely known, and there are still a huge number of people about whom we do not know anything at all, including businessmen and officials, who have passed away very strangely.
In the first years in power, Lukashenka dealt harshly with criminal authorities, he himself spoke about it. The exact number of deaths is difficult to calculate, but someday there will definitely be a tribunal and we will learn many terrifying things about the Lukashenka regime.
– As far as I understand, asking about the dominance and influence of the Kremlin propaganda inside Belarus is pointless, the answer is obvious, right?
– Lukashenka does not counteract it. In no way. Russian TV channels broadcast freely throughout the country, and not one or two, but up to a dozen: TV, news agencies, radio, websites. They do not just spread Russian propaganda, but call into question the independence and sovereignty of Belarus. However, the website Charter97.org, which has always stood on the ideas of independence of Belarus and is really opposed to Putin's propaganda, is blocked. The official Belarusian media do not criticize Putin even in the light of the current conflict between Minsk and Moscow, the most they are doing is being silent on this topic. Cowardly silent.
And why is this happening? Because Lukashenka himself is afraid of Putin. Because Lukashenka is a miserable beggar who puffs up in front of the cameras, while taking a bow-legged pose in front of the Russian president. Recently, a picture appeared, where Lukashenka, so as not to rise above Putin, sat down in front of him, almost splitting legs apart.
We can talk for hours about how the confrontation between Belarus and Russia will end, and still, we do not correctly predict anything. We can, though, definitely say right now: Belarus, in any case, does not expect anything good from Lukashenka, even if there is no Anschluss, occupation or absorption by the Russian Federation. Just as nothing good awaits Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which border Belarus while Lukashenka stays where he is. Because he is a protege of Russia, a puppet of the Kremlin and will never change.
– To which extent, in your iopinion, does the West understand the real threat of the occupation of Belarus by the Russian “deniables”, especially after the annexation of the Crimea and the war in Donbas?
– Where was the West in the 1930s when Hitler occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia? In the West, the position is always the same - it is better not to meddle. They only get incorporated when everything has already happened, and before that they express “deep concern”. I have no illusions about this. The armed invasion of Russia into Ukraine and the subsequent negotiations in Minsk helped Lukashenka to legitimize himself in the West: from an outcast and a dictator, he turned into a completely handshakeable politician. And here, unfortunately, Ukrainian politicians have played a significant role, and this is no longer surprising.
– What do you mean?
– President Yushchenko once was an advocate for dictator Lukashenka in the West. President Poroshenko invited dictator Lukashenka to his inauguration, despite the fact that Belarusian Mikhail Zhizneuski was one of the first killed in the Maidan.
Poroshenko or Turchinov go to the dictator Lukashenka and ask: “Will you warn us if Putin plans to attack Ukraine from the territory of Belarus?” And Lukashenka answers them: “Of course, I’ll warn you in a day.” Well, this is insanity, because Belarus has long been under the control of Russia, and Lukashenka will never be separated from the Russian Federation!
In Ukraine, no one systematically covers the situation in Belarus, Ukrainians literally do not know anything about what is happening here. Do you really want to help us and prevent the threat of attack from the territory of Belarus? Encourage your politicians to be more responsible towards Belarus, tell them what is actually happening there. Ukrainian politicians should be ashamed of the fact that they go to Belarus and shake Lukashenka’s hand. Journalists in general should investigate smuggling schemes and trade between Ukraine and Russia through Belarus, as well as who of the Ukrainian authorities and oligarchs are actively covering it.
– Do you mean the Russian oil products, that are being shipped to Ukraine under the guise of those made in Belarus?
– Well, of course! Lukashenka does not sell them alone, but together with Sechin. It is necessary to investigate who here, in Ukraine, is enriched on this unofficial trade with the aggressor country. And it will immediately become clear why Ukrainian TV channels are silent on this topic. They are silent because, possibly, the owners of the TV channels have a business in Belarus tied to Lukashenka.
It is also necessary to support the Belarusian independent media and organize the broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels and radio stations to the territory of Belarus so that Belarusians learn about the events in your country not from Russian television.
– For the last six years, you have been living and working in Poland. What do you face when entering Belarus?
– Arrest. I actually escaped on the eve of the trial. Ran away, despite a written undertaking not to leave. I had an article envisaging up to 15 years in prison. The criminal case against me in Belarus was suspended when I was already in the West and announced that I had received political asylum in Lithuania. Please note: they did not close the case, but it was suspended. When I return to Belarus, the case will be resumed and a new article for escape will be added.
– Why don’t they put you on the international wanted list?
– Putting an opposition journalist on the international wanted list seems an idiotic act even for the Lukashenka regime. Although now the Russian and Belarusian regimes use Interpol for political purposes, to persecute their opponents.
– I visited Belarus several times, and I was especially impressed by the local customs officers – their work was quick, precise and well-coordinated. How did you manage to cross the Belarusian border without a passport, which was seized from you back in the KGB jail?
– First of all, after the release from the KGB jail, I sat quietly for two months and followed all the instructions provided for my own non-leave obligation, not showing signs of escape. Secondly, I escaped just at the moment when they summoned me for an interrogation. I was forbidden to live in Minsk, they sent to me to Kobryn, where my parents live, and I was banned from leaving it without permission. Two months later I was summoned for an interrogation by the KGB in Minsk. I took the train and at night I got off at a small station.
I didn’t immediately cross the border, but for more than a week I stayed with completely unfamiliar people in a completely unfamiliar town without communication, without telephones, without going out. After that, they took me through the Russian border at one of the forest crossings at night. When I got off the train, I was announced on the wanted list, they searched the houses of my parents, grandmother and my friends.
– What did you face in case of staying in Belarus?
– I clearly understood: even if I receive a suspended sentence, I will still be under the control of the KGB, I will be told what to do and what to write. In prison, they tried to force me to sign a paper on cooperation with the special services. I refused. As soon as I left the KGB jail, I continued working as the editor of the Charter’97 website. The police came every day and checked whether I was there or not. In fact, it was not a release on recognizance, but almost a house arrest.
I still kept writing. As soon as I published an article where I talked about torture in prison that I had to go through, or called for the imposition of sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, I was immediately taken to the local KGB in Kobryn. The head of the department came there and threatened that if I continued to write in the same spirit - they would return me to prison, saying, “Ms. Natallia, think better of this.”
I was officially forbidden to write articles “containing value judgments.” Literally there was such a wording. It became absolutely clear: if I stay in the country, I will be on a short leash. That is, formally, perhaps, I will look like an independent journalist, but in practice it will be necessary to coordinate the topics of publications. Actually, today independent media are forced to work in Belarus in this way: everyone comply with the rules that set guidelines on what can be covered and how it should be covered in the media, everyone knows for sure who they can write about, who you cannot, a step aside is followed by a call from the KGB curator.
– What will you do if even after the presidential election of 2020 Lukashenka stays in power?
– Fight. I will repeat the key phrase one more time: Belarusians hate Lukashenka. It was a terrible mistake in 1994 to elect him as president. But, firstly, it was a project of the Russian Federation, into which huge money was pumped. Secondly, the nation was politically immature, people did not understand that they had chosen a populist and a madman. Lukashenka then promised everyone to return “everything in the back”. Remember the famous painting by Vasya Lozhkin? And so it turned out, let us say, “in the lower back” ... As a result, today absolutely everyone understands that it is urgent to get out of there.
There will be no more stability. That is why it is so important to build a policy and strategy of Belarus without Lukashenka right now. That is why everything must be done to free the country from the dictatorship and the influence of Russia. The place of Belarus is in Europe, where it has always been historically. Today, everyone needs to be involved in the liberation of Belarus from Lukashism and Putinism. Especially since between these modes there is an equal sign. Only a free and democratic Belarus can be a guarantor of stability in the region.
The interview was taken by Natalya Dvali, Gordon