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Juozas Olekas: We Need To Change EU's Position Towards Lukashenka

Juozas Olekas: We Need To Change EU's Position Towards Lukashenka

Brussels is to be more proactive.

The European Union can influence Lukashenko's regime if it becomes more proactive and strengthens sanctions.

Juozas Olekas, MEP, Chair of EP delegation for relations with Belarus, former Defence Minister and former Health Minister of Lithuania, expressed his opinion in an interview with Charter97.org.

— Over the course of the last 12 months the front lines in Ukraine remained relatively stable and there were no major territorial gains or losses. Which repercussion for Belarus does the stalemate-like situation in Ukraine entail?

— Ukrainians liberated about half of the occupied territories in 2022. We all wished more progress in 2023 but after occupying part of Ukraine, Russia prepared for a counteroffensive: they mined large parts of the territories, they destroyed the Kakhovka Dam. On the other hand, the Russian economy works as a war economy whereas support from Europe and the United States has decreased. The position of Republicans in the US Congress and Orbán in the European Union creates a situation when our support is not enough for a real offensive in Ukraine.

But still, I think the Ukrainian spirit and the support from Europe — for example, here in the European Parliament we have more and more strong supporters for Ukraine — is our hope that in the end the Ukrainians will succeed and it will help to create more democratic influence on Belarus. The relationship between the Putin regime and the Lukashenka regime is strong but when Russia is defeated in Ukraine and the Ukrainians succeed, I think, this relation will be severed.

— Let's consider the scenario when Ukraine would have no other choice but to agree on some status quo with Russia. In such a case where Belarus would be?

— In this case, I think, this is a matter of time only. Lithuania has been occupied for 50 years. In the beginning, for about 10 years we were fighting with guns in the forests, and many of our young men and women were killed. Then more than 200,000 have been deported out of Lithuania. But after that, through resistance, we have liberated our country after 50 years.

This [Lukashenka] regime will not last for 50 years. I think the Belarusian people will achieve democracy and real independence sooner. All totalitarian regimes end. Sooner or later but the changes will come. We do have some difficulties but real life is much better in democratic countries than in authoritarian regimes.

— One of the important reasons for the collapse of the USSR was the poor state of the economy. Nowadays Russia has found ways to bypass sanctions. Belarus, for example, is a major hub for bypassing sanctions against Russia. Is there an understanding in the EU that unless there is a synchronization of sanctions against these two regimes, Belarus will remain the major hub for bypassing sanctions?

— From the beginning until now, the EU has had different approaches towards Russia and Belarus despite this very close collaboration. The support of Putin in Russia is very high — the influence of Russian propaganda on the Russian citizens is quite strong (there is some resistance but still the support for Putin is strong). In Belarus, more people are against the regime. They may seem calm but they are against [the regime] according to different public opinion research. For that reason, the sanctions were different, because all the sanctions act not only against the regime, they also influence the ordinary people's life.

So, that was the reason for some sort of difference, but the Lukashenka regime's repressions are going on, and, I think, there is a growing readiness to accept the sanctions on the same level as against Russia. Politicians here in Brussels talk about the need to synchronize the sanctions and maybe to introduce other instruments, for example, some kind of war tax on trade between the European Union and Belarus and Russia. I think we will see the decision of the upcoming Council. In the future the economic restrictions, I think, will be stronger and influence not only directly on the regime but also on the companies who still continue to trade with Belarus or Russia.

— Mikalai Statkevich is considered to be the enemy number one of Lukashenka. For the last year, there has been no news from him. There are no letters, no visits, no parcels with medications. There are growing fears of his possible death. Recently, the officials threw in jail his wife Maryna Adamovich. What should be done in the case of Mikalai Statkevich?

— I think we need to change the European Union's position from, so to speak, reacting after the event happens to a more proactive one. My proposal would be to start strengthening the sanctions saying that if you do not provide the information about Statkevich and the others, the sanctions will be strengthened. The EU should say, "If you continue the repressions and if you continue the isolation of political prisoners, we will strengthen our counter-activities". The main goal is to convince the regime to stop or step back and start to release prisoners and not arrest their relatives and lawyers.

Without this proactive action, I think, the repressions will continue. My suggestion for the European Institutions is to be more proactive.

— What are the most important and most difficult challenges in the job of the Chair of the Delegation for relations with Belarus?

— After 2020 we do not recognize the regime. Our activities are aimed at the relations with the democratic forces of Belarus. We organize different events where we discuss the current situation inside Belarus, and also the situation of Belarusians living in exile and how we can help. We try to solve problems related to the support and rehabilitation of political prisoners and their relatives. We discuss how we, the EU, can help to prepare changes in Belarus, and then how we can prepare to support the future democratic Belarus.

Usually, the delegations have the possibilities to travel to the countries, to have some common activities with the authorities — this is not the case for our delegation, but we are quite active. We are one of the most active delegations of the European Parliament, I would say.

— Recently, you wrote some letters to Belarusian political prisoners. Could you tell us more about it?

— Not only recently. I started to write these letters more than a year ago when as a part of the European Parliament initiative we, MEPs including the President, have sent hundreds of such letters.

I don't believe that they get our letters. So far we did not receive a single reply. Maybe they end up in the KGB or at the hands of jail authorities, but we say in Lithuania, "Drop by drop will hollow a stone". I think that our activities show that they are not left alone, that people are thinking about them, doing something, maybe even small things, that they are not forgotten.

For example, we have sent letters to Mikalai Statkevich 3 or 4 times. Also, we sent letters to the prison authorities saying that they bear responsibility. Political prisoners have the right to be in contact with the outside world, to send and to receive correspondence.

Prison authorities are trying to isolate them, to say, "You are alone. No one has any interest in you." I would say, this is another kind of torture. I think we should continue these and other activities to show that Europe did not forget these people and will remember them until democracy is back in Belarus.

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