Lukashenka is extremely weak.
Natallia Radzin, editor-in-chief of Charter97.org, spoke about this in an interview with kyky.org.
- You left the country in 2011, fearing persecution by the KGB because of the charges of organizing riots. Already then, they began to test this scheme of pressure on journalists, or did it happen before that?
- It started from the first days of Lukashenka's coming to power. Any dictatorship begins with the destruction of freedom of speech. Back in 1994, television was taken under control in Belarus; in 1996, the last independent FM radio station, Radio 101.2, was closed, and then they began to pressure the media. For the first time, the authorities ransacked the Charter’s office in 2001. In 2010, several criminal cases were initiated against the site, searches were carried out, all employees were arrested, including me under a criminal offense.
So there has always been repression against the media. How many colleagues have we lost? I would like to remind you of the names of the journalists who died during Lukashenka’s rule: some people were killed, some were kidnapped, some died prematurely because they were subjected to pressure. Their death was unambiguously caused by the conditions in which they were forced to live and work.
This is Dmitry Zavadsky, a television journalist; Aleh Biabenin, founder of the Charter-97 website; Pavel Sharamet, founder of the site Belarusian Partisan; Yury Zisser, founder of the TUT.BY website; Piotr Martsau, founder of the Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta newspaper, the Imya newspaper; Veranika Charkasava, a journalist for the Solidarity newspaper; Vasil Hrodnikau, journalist of the newspaper Narodnaya Volya; Ales Lipai, founder of the BelaPAN news agency; Yury Bushliakou, a journalist for Radio Svaboda; Volha Karatkevich, a journalist for Radio Svaboda; Ihar Hermianchuk, editor-in-chief of the Svaboda newspaper; Viktar Ivashkevich, editor-in-chief of the Rabochy newspaper. And this is not a complete list...
- How many years in prison did you face on that charge? Since then, have the legislation been tightened under the article on organizing mass riots?
- I was threatened with up to 15 years in prison. This article has remained the same, new political articles have been added, according to which prisoners of conscience are accused today. But one thing is certain: in a free Belarus all those convicted under these articles will be rehabilitated, but those who illegally persecuted people will be punished.
- You left the country in 2011, and the Charter was blocked by the decision of the Ministry of Information only in 2018. Why do you think the authorities waited so long? Today, as the experience of TUT.BY shows, sites are blocked immediately.
- Still, TUT.BY was closed three years after the blocking of Charter-97. It is difficult to understand what is going on in the head of the schizophrenic. I think this is because the audience of Charter97.org in recent years has grown 10 times, and, on the eve of the blocking, it was read by 2.5 - 3 million unique visitors per month (and the most important indicator - the site had 50 million views per month). The authorities were simply afraid of our enormous influence.
By the way, when Charter-97 was blocked in 2018, I warned both my colleagues and the international community that, if there was no serious reaction, the attack on the Internet in Belarus would be large-scale. Unfortunately, the reaction was more in words than in deeds, although, I am grateful to the members of the European Parliament, who adopted two resolutions during the year demanding the immediate unblocking of the Charter-97 website. However, no sanctions followed, and, in 2020-2021, Lukashenka blocked almost all independent websites in the country and began to practice arbitrary Internet shutdowns. Although, it will still not save the hated collective farm regime. The Belarusians have learned to bypass the blockage - the same audience of the Charter is returning to the previous indicators. In addition, fortunately, there are telegram channels and other social networks. In the 21st century, no one will be able to cover a person's mouth, eyes, and ears.
- You replaced journalist Aleh Biabenin, who was found hanged in September 2010 (three months before the next presidential election), as the founder and head of the Charter. What do you think of his death: was it murder or suicide? Perhaps, over this time, they managed to find some facts to clarify the circumstances of his death?
- I’m convinced that this is murder. I was friends and worked with Aleh since 1997, he was very fond of life, his family, work. He was a whole, active, responsible person. Friends were the first to find his body, and they saw traces of violence on the body, which they immediately told the police and publicly the media. However, as a result, not even a criminal case was initiated. The professional version was not considered: for example, my closest colleague was not even summoned for interrogation.
I think the death of Aleh Biabenin is connected with the fact that he was supposed to become one of the heads of the electoral headquarters of Andrei Sannikau, who in 2010 announced his nomination as a presidential candidate. s. Aleh died three days before the start of the election campaign. The goal was to intimidate people on the eve of the elections. However, the opposite happened: people with even more fury joined in the process. Andrei Sannikau, according to independent observers, entered the second round with Lukashenka in those elections. We will never forget Aleh, and I am convinced that soon an independent investigation into the circumstances of his death will be carried out in Belarus.
- If we are already talking about the death of journalists under mysterious circumstances, then apart from Biabenin, Zavadsky, Charkasava, Sharamet. Can Pratasevich continue this list?
- There are now about 20 journalists and 20 bloggers in prison. Hope everyone stays alive. Today it is important to save the lives of all political prisoners, and there are thousands of them in Belarusian prisons. I know from myself how much prisoners need solidarity and support from people who are at large.
- Do you think the West will take any radical measures to eliminate Lukashenka after the case with Pratasevich, or, as always, will express "deep concern"?
- We are doing everything we can to ensure that the “deep concern” finally translates into concrete action. And effective measures are the introduction of economic, financial, and commercial sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. It is necessary to ban the purchase of Belarusian oil products, potash and nitrogen fertilizers, to impose sanctions on industrial enterprises and banks. Some of these sanctions have already been imposed by the United States, but they need to be expanded. Such sanctions should be introduced by the European Union. Only personal sanctions do not work - it is possible to save political prisoners and destroy this regime in a short time if there are coordinated and clear measures of economic pressure.
- It is obvious that Lukashenka is getting back at specific journalists. Over these years, have you received threats from the Belarusian side that they will get you? You escaped from the KGB, ruining their plans. And these people perceive such actions as a personal insult. A striking example is the case of Maryja Kalesnikava.
- Lukashenka settles scores with everyone! There are "enemies" everywhere. Of course, there have always been threats.
I take certain security measures, but I don't dwell on them - they interfere with my work. Fear is paralyzing, so I prefer not to be afraid in order to act.
- Charter is often accused of excessive radicalization and refusal to hear other opinions and assessments, as well as called “propaganda from the other side.” What can you say to that?
- The well-known journalist Andrzej Poczobut, who is under arrest today, immediately after the August 2020 events wrote on his Facebook: “Do you remember how they laughed at Charter 97 because they consistently used the words “dictatorship,” “regime,” etc.?” Is it still funny? Indeed, we have consistently called a spade a spade over the years. We warned that the country will face fascism if we do not fight. If you pretend that “not everything is so bad” and there are “not so many” political prisoners, and if you don't get involved in politics, you will remain intact. That's it, politics came for everyone, including because people themselves allowed it with their cowardice and indifference. So let's work on our mistakes and finally win.
- How do you feel about the NEXTA channel, which, one might say, intercepted the agenda from Charter? Do you consider them competitors? Are there any joint projects planned?
- More good and different projects. Especially with a clear-cut position - it is necessary to fight this regime and build a normal free European country. I believe that Stsiapan Putsila and NEXTA did a lot for the Belarusian revolution, although, unfortunately, the young guys did not have enough wisdom to interact with more experienced people, including in the matter of organizing mass protests. We started working with NEXTA back in 2019 and promoted Stsiapan's project in every possible way: we did a great interview with him in our YouTube program Studio X97, found funding, and helped in the creation of the film "Lukashenka. Criminal materials."
- There were many rumors that TUT.BY had some kind of KGB curators, but we all see how history is developing today. I know that you had disagreements with Yury Zisser. Has your attitude towards him changed now?
- Many media outlets had curators from the KGB - this is not news. When Yury Zisser was alive, we argued, including about what kind of media should be in Belarus. They argued openly, eye to eye. The last time we spoke was when they blocked Charter-97. Yury then told me in a private conversation: "I am sure they will do anything, to the most extreme measures." And so it happened in the end. I will not discuss a person when he is not alive. I will say one thing: the death of every talented person is a great loss for Belarus.
- Today the security officials come to the offices of TUT.BY, hoster.by, the homes of journalists, find hundreds of thousands of dollars under sofas and imprison "political" ones for economic articles, put yellow tags on them. They also came to the Charter office - were they tougher / more clumsy then? Or have they not changed the training manuals since then?
- They worked just as clumsy. During the first search, I was punched in the face, when they tried to break into the office without a prosecutor's order. During the next one, they broke down the doors. They took all the equipment, not only computers but also dictaphones, telephones, cameras, video cameras, notebooks.
- How is Charter financially surviving today? How does it make money?
- I think you know that the Belarusian independent resource has nothing to earn in such conditions. We work thanks to the support of European foundations and private donations. It is difficult, and we are always happy to receive any help from our readers.
- You rocked the regime when it was not yet mainstream, and you were not recognized as terrorists. What emotions do you feel about this: joy, resentment?
- Weird question. Recognition of people, independent media, and organizations as "terrorists" is another crime of this regime, for which its representatives will unequivocally answer.
- Natallia, tell me, as an experienced person, when will this all end? In a year, five years? Although, probably, you asked the same questions in 2011, but already 10 years have passed...
— I am not an oracle, but as an experienced person, I will say: everything depends on our determination and activity. Lukashenka is extremely weak and in a very vulnerable position. If we act, everything will fall apart soon. What do you need? Sanctions. Strikes. Protests. Economic sanctions are possible – the dictator himself is asking for them. Now we need to move on to the strike. This will really hit the regime if the private business stops. Go on "vacation"! It's summer, what complaints can there be?
We must protest; otherwise, no one will survive.
I know that today GUBOPiK is switching the focus from the protesters to the surviving business - it is simply being robbed. No one will be able to wait out. Workers of enterprises should start striking following entrepreneurs - job cuts have started anyway, and the lack of money is forcing the authorities to go for even greater cuts in wages. Pressure on members of independent trade unions increased. What else is there to wait? A strike is a pretty safe way to protest. They won't be able to fire everyone - there won't be enough strikebreakers. Due to the lack of specialists, enterprises will simply stop working. In support of the strikers, I am sure people will take to the streets again.
- Does the sense of total arbitrariness with which all political emigrants come become blunted over time? How was it with you?
- I did not live with this feeling, I thought more about what I can do to help people inside the country. It actually helps. You should love yourself, of course, but you shouldn't feel sorry for yourself all the time.
- What events in Belarus during the years of your emigration impressed you most of all to the depths of your soul? When and why did you last cry?
- I knew that there will be a Revolution in 2020. And I was very happy. The pride for the country, for the Belarusians was and is enormous. Cried? When I read and watched interviews with people after Akrestsina Street. I was ready to be in their place, to take their pain for myself. It seemed that I could handle it, but how will they? But we all have our crosses to bear...
- If the regime falls, will you return to Belarus? What are you planning to do in a free country? How will the Charter-97 agenda change?
- Of course, I'll return. Immediately. That's what I live for. What I will do – time will tell. And Charter 97 will always be independent in any case.
- And the last question: if you were in the same room alone with Lukashenka - what would you do? What would you talk about?
- I graduated from the Faculty of Journalism, not Law. The investigators will talk to him, but I have nothing to talk to him about.