Obviously, the protest potential has ripened in the Belarusian society.
Member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine from the party “European Solidarity” Oleksiy Honcharenko, who recently headed the association “For Democratic Belarus” in the Ukrainian parliament, stated this in an interview for the Charter97.org news website, the program “Change of Power”.
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- Good afternoon, Oleksiy. You became the initiator of the creation of the association For Democratic Belarus in the Verkhovna Rada. Why did you do this? What motivated you?
- In fact, it seems to me that this is very important for Ukraine. Because I, of course, am primarily a Ukrainian politician, I’m a people's deputy, but I think that it is very important for Ukraine that our great neighbor Belarus be a free and democratic country: free from Russia, democratic in its development. I think that this is fundamentally important for the whole of Eastern Europe, and for Ukraine it is extremely important. Therefore, Ukraine cannot stay aside from what is happening in Belarus.
Secondly, we, Ukraine, demonstrate and declare European aspirations. It is written in our Constitution from last year that we want to become part of the European Union. But European values mean not only appealing for help. It seems to me that European values mean also taking some kind of active position, especially with regard to Belarus, the Belarusian people, with whom we have actually lived in the same country for many, many centuries. First it was Russia, then there was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then it was the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union. It is clear that the connections are huge, the connections are very large. And now, of course, we understand that Belarus has become a country in which there is a dictator, probably the brightest dictator existing in Europe. I am speaking about Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
Now Belarus is hosting presidential elections. From the outside it seemed that there was some possibility of an alternative. But then repression began. And very harsh repression, including detaining presidential candidates, their relatives, opening criminal cases, etc. Therefore, under such conditions, I considered it important that a group appear in the Ukrainian parliament that declares a certain political position. It is clear that our opportunities to somehow influence the situation inside Belarus are scanty. But we can declare a political position.
I remember how at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, for Ukraine during the Revolution of Dignity, every word was important when we fought with Yanukovych, who at the last moment turned the state to Russia, and began to move towards Putin. Then every such statement was important to us. Therefore, I want to believe that in Belarus it will give strength to someone, and maybe we can do something to help in the democratic development.
Therefore, we called the association “For a Democratic Belarus”. And in general, we would like Byelorussia to become Belarus, and are ready to help with everything we can, which depends on us.
- What actions will the group take?
- At this stage, we plan to prepare for the next sessional week (we have the last scheduled one) a draft resolution of the Verkhovna Rada addressing the leadership of Belarus with a request to stop political repression. I cannot affirm and guarantee that this project will be submitted and that it will receive support, because, basically, the group includes representatives of either the opposition factions, or non-factional people's deputies - we do not have a single member of the pro-government party, which has a mono-majority in the Ukrainian parliament. Our group included deputies from the European Solidarity faction (I am one of them), the Golos faction, the For Maybutne faction. Now a colleague from the Batkivschyna plans to join us.
We hope that the group will expand. Of course, I don’t know how successful the adoption of this decision will be, but at least we will try. This will be our first step.
We were also contacted by the Ukrainian publishing house Folio, which is now preparing to release the book ‘Belarusian Donbass’. That is, it is such a mixed Belarusian-Ukrainian topic. The authors are former journalists of the Minsk editorial office of Radio Liberty, and we have already found the opportunity to help publish this book. I believe that this is some step to emphasize the ties, and show the nuances of our relations.
These are the steps that we have planned “for now”. In addition, of course, we will monitor the situation in Belarus. In the near future, the registration of presidential candidates will end there. We will see if the opposition candidates are actually registered, and we will see what happens next. We, as an association, will try to react very quickly, declare a position.
- How do you assess the situation in Belarus ahead of the next presidential “election”? Of course, it is not correct to call this event election.
- It is obvious that the person who rules for 26 years is going to appoint himself for the post again. I am talking here about Aliaksandr Lukashenka. And it does not look like an election. Obviously, now everything is in the hands of the Belarusian society. How ready is the Belarusian society to resist the re-appointment of Lukashenka, how mature is this protest potential, how seriously is the situation in the society itself already, and how strong is the vertical and the system built by Lukashenka? I can only judge it from the outside.
It is clear that there is no exact answer, although I think that no one has it. And nobody knows exactly what will happen.
I saw certain optimistic signs: lines of people who wanted to sign in support of the opposition candidates. As I understand it, this is a rather unusual phenomenon for Belarus. It seems that a certain protest potential has matured in the Belarusian society.
But once again I want to emphasize the purpose of our association. We do not plan and do not want to intervene in the internal political situation in Belarus in terms of supporting one or another candidate. This is not our right, we are not citizens of Belarus. But we want the elections to be held democratically, so that people can democratically elect their leader. This is our goal, that is what we will be talking about.
By the way, answering your last question. I am one of the delegates of Ukraine to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Now, because of the coronavirus, we have omitted two sessions: April and June. And at the June session, I planned to raise the issue of Belarus, at least in the speeches in the hall. Maybe we will prepare some draft resolutions, depending on the situation. The next session will be held in October. I hope that it will take place. This is also an important platform where there is no Belarus, you know that Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, just because of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. But this is an important international platform, especially important from the point of view of human rights, and, generally, it is the most significant international platform on the European continent. We will definitely raise the Belarusian theme there too.
Besides me, Rustem Umerov also entered the association. This is a Crimean Tatar, a citizen of Ukraine, a deputy from the Golos faction. He also represents Ukraine in PACE. There are two of us, maybe this will also give us some tools.
- Today in Europe they are returning to the discussion of sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. Is Ukraine ready to adhere to a common policy towards Belarus together with its European partners?
- I can’t answer this question, because today I am in the opposition, and this question, of course, will be addressed by the Ukrainian authorities. We saw that Zelensky met with Lukashenka. On the one hand, it is obvious that there is Lukashenka, he is the head of Belarus, and Ukraine needs to communicate with the Belarusian authorities. On the other hand, how much they deepened in this communication, I don’t know, therefore I can’t answer the question of how Ukraine will adhere to any policy here, how Ukraine is ready.
We understand that Ukraine itself is in a difficult position. Our largest neighbor - Russia - is the aggressor, captured Crimea, part of the Donbass. Belarus is our neighbor, the second largest state border. At the same time, we understand that Belarus is very deeply integrated into Putin's system, especially this concerns everything related to foreign policy and security. There are general databases of border services, military bases in Belarus. Of course, this is a risk and a threat to Ukraine.
On the one hand, it is clear that the Ukrainian government will take a rather cautious position, on the other hand, you understand my position.
- Yes, thank you for this position. Indeed, there is such a problem, no matter who the presidents of Ukraine, autocrats or democrats are, they always built close, business-related relationships with dictator Lukashenka, who, by the way, is the illegitimate ruler of Belarus. Can Belarusians now count on certain principles of Ukrainian politicians?
- As they say, “I won’t tell you for all of Odesa, since all of Odesa is very large.” I cannot speak for everyone. The deputies who have joined our association have a clear position, we believe that Belarus should be democratic, that what is happening in Belarus today is a flagrant violation of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. Therefore, we consider Aliaksandr Lukashenka a dictator.
As for the rest, I can’t say for them. I understand why, in principle, any Ukrainian government communicates with the government of Belarus for obvious reasons, I have already said this before. But at the same time, I think that if we want to be part of a political Europe, a European family, then we demand from them certain values and principles that they profess, for example, in relation to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. This is our right. But then, probably, we also cannot use any different approach, for example, to a situation in Belarus.
- Belarusians died for a free and independent Ukraine both on the Maidan and the Donbass. Independent media and democratic forces of the country have always taken a pro-Ukrainian position. How can Ukrainians help Belarusians today in the fight for freedom?
- Speaking in the Verkhovna Rada, I recalled Mikhail Zhizheuski, who was the first to die during the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan. As I said, our group is now helping to publish the book “Belarusian Donbass”. This is a very interesting research. An electronic version is already on the Internet, anyone interested can find it. And in the near future, we will release a printed edition in Ukraine. I can tell you that there is research there about those Belarusians who fought on the side of the so-called “DNR” and “LNR”, who were actually Russian mercenaries, and about those Belarusians who fought on the side of Ukraine. It is interesting.
We are grateful to those Belarusians who helped and supported us both on the Maidan and the Donbass. Of course, we would like to have as few Belarusians as possible, whom propaganda or money are forcing to go to fight against Ukraine in the Donbass. It brought no good to anyone.
As for how we can help, as long as I see that we can help with a political position, raising this topic on the sites that are available to us. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine is still available to us, which we did, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, when it works, and there we will raise this topic. This is what we can do so far.
We will respond. If we receive requests from Belarusians about what other help they will need, we will look for opportunities to provide it.
- Our program is called Change of Power. Your country has vast experience in transformation and revolution. How can Belarus free itself from a tyrant, in your opinion? As we see, one can’t count on the elections.
- Yes, our experience is as follows: there have been three revolutions in Ukraine. The first was in 1990-1991, ther second was the Orange Revolution on the Maidan, which was precisely connected with the elections and the government’s attempt to falsify the election results when people massively took to the streets. And the last was the Revolution of Dignity. It did not happen in connection with the election. The society reacted to the change in the country's foreign policy when Yanukovych, who had been collecting the votes of pro-Russian voters, but in the early years of his reign he very actively moved Ukraine to an association agreement with the European Union, and when it all came to the point where it was necessary to sign, sharply turned around and went towards the Russian Federation.
The society did not accept this, the society took to the streets. You know what happened next. Unfortunately, there were quite a lot of victims, but Ukraine defended its European choice and democracy in the country. Therefore, it all depends on the Belarusian society.
We have such an experience. On the one hand, the help and statements of Europe and the USA were very important for us when American and European politicians came to us. On the other hand, at the key and decisive moment of the revolution, it was the European politicians who were trying to come to an agreement, so basically everything was in the hands of the Ukrainian people.
So it is here: everything is in the hands of the Belarusian people. Nobody will solve the problem of dictatorship for the Belarusian people, this is obvious. Vladimir Putin adds up to all this (for Ukraine and Belarus this is a common problem). I do not know the details of his relationship with Lukashenka, they are probably not cloudless. But it’s obvious that Putin finds the change of power in the way that it happened in Ukraine during the revolutions unacceptable, and this seems to be the only way in which it can happen in Belarus.
In any case, if again there are no democratic elections, this means that there is only one way.
- I know that you come from Odesa. Does something connect you with our country besides the territorial neighborhood?
- I come from Odesa, but since 2014 I’m the People’s Deputy of Ukraine, I live in Kyiv. My father has Belarusian roots. I was in Belarus once, in 2013. I mean, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as in an independent country.
I can’t say that I have many ties with Belarus, but I have come through many inner sufferings. This is a very important country for us in the sense that if Belarus became a truly free and democratic country, it would be much easier for Ukraine to resist Russian aggression, and move towards Europe.
The fact that Ukraine is squeezed between dictatorial regimes is bad for us, and gives us wrong and bad signals, including to the Ukrainian society. Therefore, the sooner Belarus becomes democratic and free, the better for Ukraine.