It's time to sum up the results.
The Charter97.org website has summed up the results of the outgoing year 2021 with Zmitser Bandarenka, coordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign. He outlined in an interview the significant events, the consequences of which will affect the life of the country in the near future.
- Belarus is still living and breathing revolution. When summing up the results of the year, everybody unwittingly sums up the intermediate results of more than 500 days of the struggle for freedom. What has been achieved during this time?
- The first thing that really happened in Belarus was the revolution. And I believe that we should not consider any short period as revolutionary events. I believe that revolutions can last for several years, and Belarus is precisely such a case. It is very important that the Belarusians who rebelled became subjects of the Belarusian politics, and through their representatives - of the international politics as well.
I would like to note that Lukashenka is not recognized as legitimate by the overwhelming majority of democratic countries for the first time ever. The entire democratic community considers him a usurper.
It is important that the civilized world has now imposed real economic sanctions against Lukashenka, and these sanctions are coordinated between the United States, the European Union, Great Britain, and many countries that are members of NATO or that aspire to join the European Union. These are countries ranging from Canada to even Serbia, which has a pro-Russian leadership. Well, an important achievement, of course, is that the Belarusians keep fighting. They have not put up with it. And this is absolutely obvious.
- The passing year has been very rich. What major events, affecting the balance of power in Belarus, would you point out?
- The regime has managed to hold on thanks to the repressions unseen since World War II. Simultaneously, the regime has been making more and more mistakes, and these mistakes are hitting the regime itself very hard.
This includes the landing of the Ryanair plane and the migrant hybrid war against neighboring countries. European countries often turn a blind eye to the actions of Lukashenka and dictators like him, but in this case, they realized that the dictator had already become a regional danger that threatens the security of many countries and the lives of citizens of the European Union.
No doubt, the next factor that continues to affect the situation in the country is the coronavirus epidemic. This is because tens of thousands of people died in Belarus in 2020 (and especially in 2021). The authorities lie about the real situation and continue their monstrous experiment of developing so-called collective immunity without serious vaccination.
The latest actions of the authorities have cancelled the already cramped anti-coronavirus and anti-epidemiological measures. In particular, the abolition of quarantine for all entrants to Belarus and for first level contacts. I can say that this has a huge impact, because thousands and thousands of Belarusians die. Lukashenka and his gang will bear imminent responsibility for this. And we know that murder (and here we are dealing with mass and conscious murders) in Belarus is subject to capital punishment.
I would also note the coordinated actions of various democratic centers, various democratic movements to impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. All the democratic forces have a common approach here for the first time in a long time.
I would also note the attempt of the Belarusian Association of Workers to organize the General Belarusian Strike. However, there was no obvious unity in this case. The most publicized leaders - Tsikhanouskaya and Latushka - did not support this strike and did not support the People's quarantine during the peak of the epidemic. These actions are the ones that we do not understand.
That's because in a situation when hundreds of thousands of people were already not going to work because of the coronavirus, and hundreds of thousands of people joined the strike, it might have been such a moment of serious pressure on the regime. It was especially necessary to protect those tens of thousands of people who have been laid off and deprived of their right to work for political reasons by the authorities. I would probably say that these are the most important events that have affected the situation in the country.
- Who would you call the most prominent Belarusian of 2021?
- In Poland, for example, there is a term that comes from the times of the Second World War - "Polska Walcząca" ("Fighting Poland"). Even in the 1980s, there was such an organization as "Solidarność Walcząca" ("Fighting Solidarity").
I would call the Belarusian of the year such a collective Belarusian fighting for freedom. And those can certainly be specific people: Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Mikola Statkevich, Natalia Hersche, Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk and thousands of other political prisoners. I would call journalists and bloggers who continue their work both inside the country and abroad to be such fighting Belarusians.
I would call such fighting Belarusians the families of political prisoners, I would also call people who are abroad, but who have not forgotten about their country and participate in solidarity events and protests around the world. It is these struggling Belarusians who have attracted the attention of the world. The world media talk and write about them.
- The whole world is watching the situation on the border with Ukraine. The American intelligence reports that there may be a full-scale military aggression by Russia in 2022. Should the world expect a new war or is Putin bluffing?
- I remember one of my conversations with Boris Nemtsov. It was in Kiev in 2005. He was saying that "if there is no Lukashenka in Belarus, you will go to Europe, and the reality in Russia is that even Putin is a liberal for the Russian people, that people are longing for Stalin and want an even tougher regime." Putin as a politician takes these deep-rooted sentiments of many Russians into account. In this way it is easier for him to rule, easier to hold on to his power. Even more so because there was the example with the annexation of Crimea, when his rating soared and then held on for several years.
At the same time, Putin is under pressure from the leadership of the Russian army, because many people who are now in the rank of colonels and generals were lieutenants and captains during the Chechen wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And they have the experience of the so-called victorious war.
They've seized the Crimea, they've participated in carpet bombing in Syria, and they help keep dictator Assad in power by force there. And in terms of the Russian military, Russia has an advantage in missiles, in aircraft, in the number of tanks, artillery and so on. And combined with the element of hybrid warfare such as the gas attack on both Europe and Ukraine, the Russian military believe that now it's the right time to defeat Kiev, to grab another piece of territory, or even possibly to return Ukraine to something similar to the Soviet Union. The likelihood of war, in my opinion, is enormous.
However, on the other hand, the GDP of Russia, for example, was about two and a half trillion dollars in 2013-2014. After the seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of war in the Donbass, Russia's GDP dropped by about a trillion. It has lost about seven to eight trillion dollars in those seven years.
Putin understands the warnings from the West that even more serious sanctions may follow and turn his war into a "Pyrrhic victory," which will lead to both the fall of his power and the collapse of Russia. Yet I think this decision has not been made and here, of course, Ukraine's actions to strengthen its security and the actions of NATO countries will be decisive in whether Russia starts a war or not.
- Today the West is confronted by a whole conglomerate of dictatorships - China, Russia, the Lukashenka regime. This year has shown that they pose a real threat to the civilized world. Do democracies have the means to respond?
- China is a very vulnerable country despite its growing economic and military role. For example, 70% of its world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, and that is how geography has arranged it.
And China is well aware that certain actions, even with regard to Taiwan, could be disastrous for it. As for Russia's GDP, I said it is $1 trillion 400 billion, and for example, the GDP of the United States is 20 trillion, the GDP of the European Union is 14-15 trillion, plus the United Kingdom is a few trillion, plus Canada, plus Japan. And in this respect, Russia is a small part of China's economy and the monkey that Beijing makes to pull chestnuts out of the fire, that is, to probe the West's position.
Undoubtedly, the democratic world is much stronger economically and militarily. I do not think that the Chinese leadership is ready to start a war any time soon. If you look from this perspective, then it is clear that there is the sentiment of the Russian military leadership and there is the real state of affairs. And if in the 20th century it was said that geopolitics was decisive as a science, as a way to implement strategies, then now we have geoeconomics. And it is the key one in our interconnected world of today.
So, obviously, the democratic countries are united. We see that in addition to NATO, there is an alliance of the United States, Britain and Australia (AUKUS), which operates in the Indian Ocean, in the Pacific region. The democratic centers of the world understand the danger that comes from dictatorships, and are taking measures to protect and stabilize the situation. As practice shows, the total economy in the democratic countries of the world is much more developed, much stronger than that of the dictatorial regimes.
- It is obvious that the Lukashenka regime has a very weak position. However, why have we failed to win this year? What mistakes should we avoid in the future?
- I don't know how much we can talk about mistakes. Although they are certainly there, there is also the actual state of things. It certainly is a jar on my ears when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says that "I, like many Belarusians, had no idea about politics at all before 2020". Didn't she have eyes? Had no heart? Didn't she see what was happening in the country?
There were millions of people who once voted for Pazniak and Shushkevich, for Milinkevich and Kazulin, for Sannikov and Niakliayeu. There were hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who took part in Freedom marches and in the Square events of 2006 and 2010. They took part in the Resistance.
On the other hand, the reality is that the people who got on the crest of the wave, who stayed free, who were able to emigrate, they are considered to be the leaders. But they don't want to learn. They do not want to use the experience of the Belarusian Resistance and other countries.
In my opinion, the people in Tsikhanouskaya's headquarters are not politicians, they are not fighters for freedom, they are not revolutionaries, they are "NGO workers". They have this psychology of making sure that their groups do well, for them the main criterion is international travel. This, of course, is an important element, a lot of such international meetings have taken place, but, nevertheless, Lukashenka remains in power, while thousands of our comrades are in prison. And even more of them are fired from their jobs, put under pressure, and so on.
Yet, on the other hand, this is reality. Whether these people who are called leaders want to change, whether they want real change, whether they see this window of opportunity, will also determine the development of the situation. If they don't change their approaches, in my opinion, new democratic centers will emerge which will be set up for real resistance.
As a positive step, I have already noted that even though not at once, even though with a significant delay, all Belarusian democratic centers and groups have agreed on the approach that the toughest sanctions against the Lukashenka regime are necessary. And everything must be done to release political prisoners. There are not a thousand of them. And to release the real leaders, who are in prison. And in this respect, I believe that the strategy of "sanctions-strikes-protests" will continue in 2021.
However, everyone must understand: both Belarusians who are inside the country, of course, and those who had to leave, they must understand that Lukashenka will not leave just like that, that the dictatorship will not give up just like that, that we need an extra effort on our part in order to win. I'll repeat once again - an extra effort and readiness to act together.
- Do you see a window of opportunity for changing the situation in Belarus next year?
- I understand that the regime will have a very hard time in economic terms. Lukashenka himself has triggered these sanctions, he himself unleashed the migrant crisis. And a lot of sanctions are already of a very serious nature. Plus, his fear, expressed in the firing of probably hundreds of thousands of people, and first of all, people with an active life position, specialists in their field, which will also have a blow on the economy. And I see this as the main window of opportunity.
We must not miss this moment, we must use it, we must be ready for it. I think that the hopes that the referendum conducted by Lukashenka will change the situation are exaggerated. So far, I believe that what the groups of Tsikhanouskaya and Latushka have said (the call to ensure the turnout at the referendum) is, in general, a weak and poorly explainable strategy.
I think that the window of opportunity will be associated with the socio-economic situation in the country, which will obviously worsen. And this may be the main impetus for the new mass protests, for the coordinated actions of the Belarusian democratic forces around the world.