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‘Some Belarusians Are Proud That They Were Not Interested In Politics Before 2020’

‘Some Belarusians Are Proud That They Were Not Interested In Politics Before 2020’

Why does Tsikhanouskaya call Putin “legitimate”?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s interview with Novaya Gazeta Europe caused outrage among the Russian opposition and independent media. “Putin is a legitimate president,” she said, and also “The majority of Russians are imps.”

Is it really true? Aleksandr Skobov, a soviet dissident, publicist, member of the Free Russia Forum Council, Dzmitry Bandarenka, the coordinator of the European Belarus Civil Campaign, and host Daniil Konstantinov discussed this on the Free Russia Forum YouTube channel.

Charter97.org publishes a shortened version of the show.

Daniil Konstantinov: Hello, dear guests! Once again I welcome the audience. By the way, an interesting situation has developed on air: now three former political prisoners are on air at the same time. They actually have something to talk about in their free from broadcasts and conferences time.

We start our stream with a rather provocative title: “Are all Russians imps?” I will explain what this name is associated with. The fact is that a few days ago Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya gave an interview to Novaya Gazeta in its new format: Novaya Gazeta Europe. She put forward several, in my opinion, controversial ideas. As our readers should remember, the main points are: “Most Russians are imps,” and “Putin is the legitimate president of Russia.” However, there are Belarusians in the world, the Belarusian oppositionists really, people who have served the Belarusian protest movement for many years, who do not agree with these interpretations by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and are ready to challenge her opinions right on the air. Dzmitry Bandarenka, the coordinator of the European Belarus Civil Campaign, a former political prisoner, an active participant in the Belarusian opposition for many, many years, we can even talk about decades, is with us today. Dzmitry, welcome!

Dzmitry Bandarenka: Good afternoon!

D.K.: Dzmitry, please tell us, let me directly ask you: do you share these ideas announced by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya? She really boldly put forward in her interview.

D.B.: In general, no. But the most important thing that outraged me, Tsikhanouskaya subconsciously meant: “I and Putin are legitimate, and you, the Russian opposition and Lukashenka, are illegitimate.” That is, the person suffers a superiority complex. She has also seen Putin on TV since childhood. Putin is in her mind and she can’t renounce him. So, she makes Putin equal to herself. I don’t know whether the absolute majority of Russians are supporters of the imperial idea, but for me, the most important thing is that there are a huge number of Russians whom I respect, whom I love, who are burning military commissariats in Russia, who have been protesting for decades, who are imprisoned for their beliefs and, of course, great respect for Russian and Soviet dissidents. The most important thing is that Tsikhanouskaya was rude in an interview with Novaya Gazeta Europe. The person simply doesn’t know, probably, with whom she spoke, to whom she gave this interview [Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 - Ed.].

D.K.: It's clear. Aleksandr Valerievich, what do you think?

Aleksandr Skobov: I will say that a politician, if one is a politician, should not always say some things out loud, even if they are correct, because if we are talking about Putin’s legitimacy, we must distinguish between the concepts of legitimacy and legality. Putin is an illegal president, but the concept of legitimacy implies only that the majority of the population does not perceive this ruler as illegal, but agrees that he is legitimate. In this regard, unfortunately, Putin today can be called a legitimate but illegal president. Here, I can’t object to Tsikhanouskaya.

At the moment, the majority of Russian citizens are poisoned with imperial ideology and imperial way of thinking. This is not a constant value. There were periods in the history of Russia when the empire fell asleep and could fall asleep without waking up. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to fall asleep. It was woken up. It was awakened by the new post-Soviet ruling elites. This is an imperial consciousness. But today - yes, we must admit that they turned out to be successful and the majority of Russian citizens, unfortunately, think like imperialists. It’s hard and painful, but some are really driven to exaltation by that very empire ideas, some simply perceive this empire as a natural phenomenon - a passive part. I think that this passive part is more active, but the majority of Russians accept the empire.

D.K.: But accepting and supporting differs, you see, Aleksandr Valerievich, here I could argue with you. To call a leader legitimate (I won’t even say the president) who uses forceful suppression of society in various forms, building up the forms and methods of this forceful influence over the years. Is it then possible to talk about any real internal agreement with this regime, if it relies on brute physical force to a large extent?

A.S.: I think that until very recently (of course, a lot has changed with the full-scale attack of Putin’s Russia on Ukraine), the element of forceful suppression was still not the main one in the Putin regime, and the role of propaganda was greater. Propaganda and such corruption of society by general conformism. Still, repressions were not widespread before the start of a full-scale war. Belarusian society went through much more brutal and massive repressions.

D.K.: This is an interesting situation we have on the air. A Russian, person from Russia, Russian oppositionist Aleksandr Skobov, agrees with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and confirms that Putin is legitimate, but at the same time illegal (in general, an interesting combination of legitimacy with illegality), and with the fact that the majority of Russians are, after all, imperials, and a representative of the Belarusian opposition, a Belarusian living outside his homeland, he still does not agree with this. Dzmitry, do you have anything to answer Aleksandr Skobov in this regard?

D.B.: I rather agree that the imperial idea is popular in Russia. They are using these wild but effective methods of propaganda to drum it into even those Russians who live, for example, in Israel, the Baltic countries, Germany, in the USA. We know it works. However, there are more important things, as for me. The person who calls herself a representative of Belarus, the leader of Belarus... Why are you saying this? You came to a democratic media, they are talking to you, what did you want to tell your listeners?

It causes action flow. So, Tsikhanouskaya’s chief adviser Franak Viachorka said on Radio Liberty: “What’s the point of working with the Russian opposition? We don’t get anything from this.”

Daniil, you know that I am a patriot of Belarus at least. But we must think about tomorrow, we will remain neighbours, I hope that changes in Russia and Belarus will happen very soon, based on the experience of the Soviet Union, when they were making all possible efforts, when they kept troops in many countries of the world, and then everything crumbled, burst and they had to withdraw it immediately and ask the West: “Pay for our taxi, please.” The same thing can happen now, we have common goals: to change the regimes, to eliminate the regimes of both Putin and Lukashenka, who are twin brothers. First, Lukashenka became a dictator, then Putin, and they learned from each other. But our task is to maintain good relations with those people whom we respect both in Russia and Ukraine. It is no coincidence that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the representatives of three organizations in 2022: to the Russian Memorial, to leader of the Viasna HRC Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, who is in jail now, and to the Center for Civil Liberties from Ukraine. It seems to me that this is the main thing, despite the horror of the war that is going on, despite the horror in which both Russians and Belarusians live today. We will still need to interact, and most importantly, we will need to win together.

D.K.: Dzmitry, but you probably remember another Russia, so to speak.

D.B.: I would like to say that the examples for me were, of course, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, Valeria Novodvorskaya, our native - she was born in the Belarusian city of Baranavichy, Natalya Gorbanevskaya - I knew her personally. Of course, their experience is of great value for us, because we, Belarusians, learned a lot from Soviet and Russian dissidents. There was a powerful dissident movement in Ukraine and Russia in Soviet times, as well as the Jewish resistance of refuseniks. There were not so many dissidents in Belarus because they were eliminated even earlier. In this regard, of course, the people I named are more authoritative and more significant to me than Tsikhanouskaya, who lacks political experience and has slightly damaged moral guidelines.

D.K.: Returning to the debate about legality and legitimacy. Where is this line, when the use of force makes the regime not only illegal from the point of view of law only, but also illegitimate? I just want to remind all of us that there have been waves of protests in Belarus for years, probably for decades (the dictatorship is already in its third decade). It’s just that people often forget about what happened 5-10 years ago, 15-20, and so on. Each time these protests were suppressed by force. Legislation was changed forcibly, presidential powers were strengthened to the point of absurdity, to the point of actually being dictatorial. Where is the line? When can we say that the regime has already become illegitimate, Dzmitry?

D.B.: It's 1996 for us. when the coup took place. It happened thanks to Moscow in many ways, thanks to the Kremlin’s “democrats”. We remember that a delegation came to Belarus then - Stroev, Seleznev, who persuaded the Belarusian deputies to withdraw their signatures on the impeachment. This is also 1999. It continued then. Our opposition leaders were killed and kidnapped, also Deputy Speaker Hienadz Karpienka died in the spring of 1999. Then the former Minister of Internal Affairs, a close ally of Lukashenka, General Zakharanka was murdered, then businessman Krasouski and former head of the Central Election Commission Hanchar were murdered in September. That was the line.

I also joined the Belarusian delegation to the United States Congress in 2000. There was a trend then - to ask the question: “Who is Mr. Putin?" I then told the Americans that Putin is the same murderer and dictator as Lukashenka. The Second Chechen War was ongoing, that is, there were certain events. The Americans really didn’t like that answer, since Putin had been a partner of the West for many years then. But used to forget that Lukashenka had also been wearing a “democratic mask.” He was a member of the Communists for Democracy faction in the early 90s. Today many people say: “How is it possible? The West recognizes Tsikhanouskaya.” This doesn’t mean anything, she’s the Lukashysts by her nature and her way of thinking is not quite democratic. Lieutenant Colonel Azarau, for example, is a close friend of Tsikhanouskaya. He was a man from the GUBOPiK [the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption - Ed.], the “Belarusian Gestapo”. It was proven that he had arrested opposition activists, young people, and personally participated in arrests and torture. You, Daniil, know it. Even when he was driven out of there, she said: “No, I’ll ask him to work on the Belarusian underground.” Although this lieutenant colonel probably already has dozens of people on his conscience. But if we go back, the West also influenced this, because of a poor decision in choosing partners and incorrect contacts.

D.K.: When you started talking about Lukashenka and his democratic position, I remembered the famous picture of him standing next to the White-Red-White flag in the Supreme Council. Am I right?

D.B.: Yes, he took the oath under the national flag. When there was fear after the suppression of the GKChP [the State Committee on the State of Emergency - Ed.]. He was then one of the first to bring this Belarusian flag to the parliament.

D.K.: I also remember the story when your riot police threw out deputies from the Supreme Council, a funny story, unique. And when was that?

D.B.: In 1995. I was talking about 1996, but it all started in 1995, when an illegal referendum was held on changing the state symbols, on making Russian an officially recognized language, that is. It was further Russification, in fact. These illegal actions - the coup, the murders of opposition leaders - are a clear line for us. Therefore, when people (even not very young ones) in Belarus say “I was not interested in politics before 2020,” the question arises about their, in general, adequacy and sanity. Therefore, Tsikhanouskaya and her team, most of them do not have freedom fighting biography, for a certain, fairly large group of Belarusians accepted them, because they were also sitting, minding their own business, “politics does not bother us.” Then the moment came - and many ended up in prison, many ended up in exile and faced repression. This is probably the only way people can learn.

D.K.: By the way, I would like to remind all of us and our audience that the Supreme Council in Russia was also dispersed, also by force, also by presidential order, although all this happened under a democratic guise and regardless of the assessments of this particular event, I want to say, to share the observation, the most stable dictatorships were formed in the countries where such thing happened, that is, where the Supreme Councils were dispersed by the actions of the presidents.

And yet I am trying to get the idea of legitimacy. Despite all this: murders, coups, some kind of imposed referendums, crackdowns, etc., - the majority often continues to vote for the dictator. Is he legitimate at this moment or not? Dzmitry, what do you think?

D.B.: I’ll tell you that everything is simpler in Belarus. For example, in the summer of 2020, I had a short phone conversation with presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka. Of course, it’s not the best idea, to discuss people when they are in prison and difficult conditions, but he was convinced that Lukashenka had always been popular, only in 2020 everyone felt that the people were against him. So I will say that even in 2001, I can say this for sure because fairly accurate sociological polls were conducted then by the IRI Institute and other services: Lukashenka did not win in the first round. But he falsified about 80% of the votes for him. He didn't win in the 2010 elections either. This is simply a myth regarding Belarus because a month before the announcement of the 2020 elections (in Poland, Lithuania, the US) people thought: “Lukashenka is very popular there.” Our friends from Ukraine also believed that he was popular.

No, he's not popular. And he lost the legitimacy in 1996 - the coup was carried out in 1996, to put it legally. I’d like to say that we have Article 357 of the Criminal Code in Belarus. When I was in prison, the KGB officers told me: “We can change it to Article 357 for you - illegal seizure of power. It provides for the death penalty.” Lukashenka and all his accomplices fall under this article because it actually sounds like this: “Illegal seizure or retention of power,” and also “resulting in human casualties,” that is, Lukashenka and all his accomplices - riot police, special forces, internal troops - they really fall under this article today. No matter how they are trying to present it, it is legally clear that they are criminals and in no way legitimate leaders.

D.K.: Let’s talk about Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s interview a bit more. You, Dzmitry, disagree with her on these main points, but perhaps you will agree with her on something else when she says: “Don’t put us in the same basket with the Russians." Here we are already moving to practice. How should Western countries treat these new conditions, first of all, taking into account the war currently being waged against Ukraine, towards the citizens of Russia and Belarus? In your opinion, are the measures against both sufficient?

D.B.: You know, I would not say that the attitude towards Belarusians is very different from the attitude towards Russians. For example, the Belarusians who have recently come can open a bank account in only one bank in Poland. Old accounts are not blocked, fortunately, for public organizations that are registered in Poland. However, it’s very difficult to open a new account. We know, for example, that a spy and sabotage network was uncovered in Poland, but it turned out that the majority there were Ukrainians and Belarusians, there were Russians too. All of them were spies and possible saboteurs on the side of the Putin regime. Therefore, the services that are responsible for the security of NATO democracies take seriously who is on their territory.

We must understand that there is a war going on. Poland and Lithuania border the Russian Federation. The Belarusian regime was involved and provided the territory of Belarus for the aggressor country. So, one can understand the people responsible for security in these countries. Also, the leaders of the opposition, both Belarusian and Russian, need to fight to ensure that common sense is preserved. To make it possible for people who fought in their countries to obtain refugee status in NATO and EU countries, so that they do not bear full responsibility for what these villains do in their countries. It is also necessary to protect the rights of political refugees. I know that the Belarusian opposition activists (I was even at a rally in Vilnius) also spoke out against harsh measures against Russian political refugees who ended up in Vilnius.

D.K.: That's a good example. By the way, we also joined your protests at one time in Vilnius. But now I want to ask something else just to add some excitement here. Dzmitry, we have a long-running dispute over methods and tactics of fighting the regime on air, and also during personal meetings and parties. You probably know that at the last anti-war conference, at the Forum in Tallinn, a rather tough new resolution was adopted. I would say it was fundamentally new for the kind of opposition, which is usually called liberal. The resolution is about supporting all forms of forceful resistance to the Putin regime, both within the Armed Forces of Ukraine, I mean the Russian Volunteer Corps, and in any other forms as long as the civilians are not affected. I remember that you've been inviolably advocating nonviolent resistance for a long time. I remember that we argued about this regarding Belarus, Russia, and other examples. Now could you join, so to speak, this resolution, let's say, concerning Belarus?

D.B.: We know an effective example when Russian volunteers - citizens of the Russian Federation, Belarusian volunteers as part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine - fight against the aggressor, the Russian aggressor. We know that Russian volunteers operate even on the territory of the Russian Federation. I know that the citizens of Belarus also participate in these raids.

But I am still a supporter of Gene Sharp and nonviolent action in the sense that the main steps that should have been taken following this strategy were not taken even in 2020 - that is, blocking government buildings, and the media, attempts to get airtime on the mass media sources. A lot hasn't been done. Those around Tsikhanouskaya are the people who failed the revolution because they were just talking about the protests and instead of making the protests grow every day. They proposed the idea of gathering once a week. Therefore, not everything was done there.

Here I proceed from the fact that it’s probably better to do some actions non-publicly and be effective than to make loud but hollow statements.

So, I believe that words have consequences. If I stand for something, then I should probably be the organizer of these actions. It’s so easy to support or sign, but I’m still used to being a leader in nonviolent resistance and being responsible for my words. But formally we are dealing with misanthropic regimes that use torture and murder against their own citizens and citizens of other countries. In this case, the international community and the United Nations say that all forms of resistance are legal.

D.K.: Aleksandr Valerievich, but you also went through some kind of transformation in this sense. You were still a supporter of nonviolent resistance for many, many years, despite your rather strong radical position. What's happened? How did your signature appear in this document?

A.S.: For quite a long time I have seen some opportunities for nonviolent forms of resistance and nonviolent forms of protest. I have always believed that nonviolent forms of action are not used to the fullest extent by the Russian opposition. The problem is that much more could be done than the Russian opposition did even within the framework of nonviolent resistance. Therefore, there will be a real effect if this potential is used. But the situation, unfortunately, did not change for the better. At some point, it became clear that nothing could be done with the Putin regime only through nonviolent forms of resistance.

These are the kind of regimes that can't be affected by peaceful, velvet revolutions, which, by the way, flourished at the turn of the 80s and 90s. On the one hand, we see a whole series of successful nonviolent revolutions in the Soviet bloc countries, on the other hand, some totally disgusting military dictatorships that ruled in the countries of Latin America collapsed quite nonviolently halfway around the world. In fact, it was a related process. There was a period when the democratic movement was on the rise, and the old autocracies were retreating, they were backing away, they were not ready to accept unlimited violence to suppress protests. A new generation of autocracies has emerged already, completely unrelated to the limits accepted by the undemocratic regimes of the late 20th century, whatever. These regimes will stop at nothing. Only force will break them down.

D.K.: Thank you very much, friends.

D.B.: Thank you for your participation, Daniil and Aleksandr. For our and your freedom!

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