Many Ukrainian volunteers will help Kalinouski's regiment march on Minsk.
What can Ukraine do now to help the Belarusians overthrow Lukashenka's regime? How will relations between free Belarus and victorious Ukraine develop in the future?
Charter97.org talked to the head of the Ukrainian public organisation Zakhidni Informatsiyniy Front, co-founder of the Belarusian Information Centre in Lviv, Yuriy Kmit.
- Tell us about the idea of the Belarusian Information Centre in Lviv. How was it founded and what does it do?
- The Belarusian Information Centre should be seen in the context of an even bigger project called Zakhidni Informatsiyniy Front.
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine, in 2016-2017, veterans returned from the war and saw how much Russian disinformation and ideology existed even in Lviv. Not on the eastern, but on the western border of Ukraine.
Then the veterans decided to first create a club of experts on fakes, and from this club the Zakhidni Informatsiyniy Front has already emerged. It was supported by Ukrainian business.
Now we have a well-known new politician - Maksym Kozitsky. He is the head of the Lviv regional state administration. He used to be just a businessman and financed the beginning of the Zakhidni Informatsiyniy Front. Then we had a 1.5 year break when Volodymyr Zelensky came to power. Then the full-scale invasion began and we literally resumed our activities in the second week of the invasion - as a specialised media dealing with anti-feud, anti-IPSO.
We wrote articles for both Poland and Germany. We spent the first six months really trying to uncover the truth about the war. We did a great job with a large contingent of volunteer students from the Lviv University of Journalism and Foreign Languages.
It was about the second month of our activity that we came up with the idea of the Belarusian issue in Ukraine.
- My friend, whom I have known for about 12 years, is Belarusian. He left Belarus in 2010 because he disagreed with Lukashenka's policies. He did business. He financed the opposition a little. When it came to the surface, he had to flee. They wanted to charge him with non-existent 'crimes' and sentence him to 8 years in prison. So he ended up in Ukraine. We became friends. He helped me with various projects. He founded an international charity fund, Obereg Nadezhdy (Averter of Hopes).
In 2022 Belarus was involved in the war in Ukraine. Putin is actually pushing the Belarusian army into the war. I realised that the Belarusians themselves did not want it. So my friends Aleh Pukiy, Aliaksei Frantskevich (head of the Belarusian Crisis Centre in Lviv - ed.) and I founded the Belarusian Information Centre in Lviv in April 2022.
Journalist Alina Rudina became its head. As a result, we focus half of our information activities on Belarusian issues. We have a portal, two Telegram channels, YouTube channel.
In general, Zakhidni Informatsiyniy Front and the Belarusian Information Centre are two united editorial offices that are difficult to separate.
You see, the BIC as an organisation does not have the status of a legal entity, because everything related to the Belarusian and Russian passports is banned in our country.
This means that physically a Belarusian cannot freely organise any media or business in Ukraine. Everything is complicated because Belarus is considered a co-aggressor.
- Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we have heard from ordinary Ukrainians that Belarusians are "accomplices of aggression". How aware are Ukrainians of the real situation in Belarus, and why is it important to inform them?
- They are not informed at all. I can even say that it is anti-awareness. Most Ukrainians still remember the time of the "good" Lukashenka. The Belarusian embassy in Ukraine has created a myth that Lukashenka is such a "good uncle". They say you have the best roads and natural products.
Now, on the contrary, everything is negative. There is very little or no information about how many political prisoners there are in Belarus, what kind of repressions people face there. This agenda is known to "5 people" in Ukraine and the sixth - Mikhail Podoliak. Maybe a few more journalists know what is going on in Belarus. That's all. This is the general picture of "awareness".
While there is a regiment named after Kastus Kalinouski, thousands of volunteers, Belarusian doctors who work in Lviv, Odessa, Kyiv. There are many examples to show, as in the case of the Chechens, that there are Kadyrov supporters and there are free Chechens. For some reason our people have sorted out Chechnya and are dividing this issue, but in the case of Belarus they are not. I think the reason for this is the lack of an information policy, a Belarusian agenda.
And the main Belarusian issue in the Ukrainian information agenda is, firstly, whether the Belarusians will go to war (against Ukraine - ed.). Secondly, whether there will be a nuclear attack from Belarus. Here the Belarusian agenda ends. Where are Mikhalai Statkevich and Viktar Babaryka? What about Andrei Sannikov? This is no longer covered.
Maksym Pleshko, an expert from the Belarusian Communication Centre, recently told us about the latest poll in Ukraine on attitudes towards Belarusians. It is very revealing. About 60-70 per cent believe that Belarus is occupied. It turns out that Ukrainians already accept and understand that the presence of Russian troops and the policy of Lukashenka himself is the policy of the leader in the country occupied by foreign troops.
But when the question of attitude towards Belarusians is raised, whether Belarusians should pay reparations to Ukraine, the same 70 per cent say "yes". Ukrainian society clearly expresses the demand for "compensation". The fact that hundreds of missiles were launched from the territory of Belarus is a great insult. Belarusians should understand that it exists.
- Belarusians, the overwhelming majority of whom are opposed to Lukashenka's regime but who hear accusations of "co-aggression", often put forward a counter thesis: why did Ukraine not take tough measures against Lukashenka's regime until 24 February last year? How would you answer this question to the Belarusians?
- I am aware of this claim and I think it is justified. But to whom should we put it? Yanukovych? Zelensky?
You understand that we have been at war since 2014. There are purely economic state interests. There are a lot of people in society who have raised this issue and told the government that Lukashenka is a dictator, you can't trade with him and so on. So it is not quite fair to society.
The government will say that at the time they believed that their main interest was to "pull Lukashenka away from Russia" and try to somehow "bring him closer to the EU" and "democratise" him. This was the policy not only of Ukraine but of the EU as a whole. Things are not so clear-cut.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently said: Ukraine's victory will be the key to the liberation of Belarus. What can Ukraine do now to help the Belarusians overthrow Lukashenka's regime?
- You see, Zelensky's policy towards Belarus has recently changed for the better. There is an understanding that it is still necessary to work with Belarusian society through the Belarusian opposition and to prepare for the fact that the process of liberation of both eastern Ukraine and Belarus from the evil and poison of Russian propaganda awaits us.
When we talk about what Ukraine can do, it is already doing a lot. It is exhausting Russia to the point that in the end it will have nothing to do with Chechnya or Belarus. It should deal with its own problems.
There is a slow process of exhaustion of the Russian empire to the point where the centre will no longer be able to respond to uprisings in the suburbs. Unfortunately, this process is taking place at the expense of Ukraine and our lives. Historically, we accept it.
We have a claim on the Belarusians: why don't you help us to liberate you? Why only Kalinouski's regiment? Are there not 10 regiments, 20 Belarusian battalions fighting on the Ukrainian side?
Have you ever wondered whether Ukraine was expecting more Belarusian participation in this war with the Russian Federation?
We expected that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya would come to Kyiv on the second day of the war, put on a green uniform, stand next to Zelensky and say "we stand together", instead of waiting six months for the war to end in Ukraine.
We understand that the Belarusian opposition also has its own national interests. But they should have realised that Ukraine was not going to surrender in three days. And then Tsikhanouskaya would have been "Ukraine's best friend", but that didn't happen. Now it is not very likely that Tsikhanouskaya will visit Kyiv.
Nevertheless, there is an understanding in Ukraine that Tsikhanouskaya is not the only one representing Belarus. Ukraine is ready to work with the entire democratic Belarusian opposition.
If we win the war, I am 100% sure that Kalinouski's regiment will go to Belarus. The regiment has many Ukrainian friends and I believe that many Ukrainian volunteers will also want to help the regiment achieve victory.
- Your centre published a great article about Mikalai Statkevich and his colleagues in the Belarusian National Congress - Andrei Sannikov, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu and others - on his birthday. What can be done to secure the early release of Mikalai Statkevich and thousands of other Belarusian political prisoners?
- Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition and the EU should develop a joint action programme and find Lukashenka's weaknesses in order to negotiate freedom for at least some of the leaders who are in the most difficult physical condition, without betraying any ideas. In particular, I would not separate Statkevich and Babaryka, but release both of them. Each of them has potential.
The more Russia loses in this war, the less room Lukashenka has to manoeuvre. I don't think he will stay in his 'post' for more than a year. The situation is changing so fast that soon nobody, not even in Russia, will need him. I predict that next August Belarus will be free.
- On what forces in our country (or perhaps in Ukraine) do you pin your hopes for changes in Belarus? How do you see this path?
- Two scenarios are possible. I do not exclude the possibility that a heroic general will emerge from the Belarusian power structure, who, with the support of a withering Lukashenka, will see that there is no other way out and will simply organise a coup in Belarus under a collapsing Russia. This option is quite possible.
The second option is a march of Kalinouski's regiment from Homel to Minsk.
- How do you think relations between free Belarus and victorious Ukraine should develop in the future? What are the main points of interaction? In what international associations do you see prospects for both countries?
- We are now considering a very interesting model of future security. It is an alliance of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, which is impossible without Belarus. Because Belarus is in the middle.
Of course, we want Belarus to be democratic, European, a participant in European structures. We expect peaceful good-neighbourly relations with your country.
After all, we share a border of 1,084 kilometres, the only country with which we have more than that is Russia. As far as I can remember, we have never had any contradictions or enmity in our history. Belarusians are a very law-abiding people. They are closer to the Europeans than to the Ukrainians.
In the future, we and the Belarusians will be great friends in the EU, exchanging goods, culture and science.
I am sure that our future lies either in the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian-Belarusian Union or in the EU as equal members.