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Natallia Radzina: Everyone Knows – Lukashenka Has To Be Changed

Natallia Radzina: Everyone Knows – Lukashenka Has To Be Changed

The Editor-in-Chief of Charter97.org speaks about escape, media censorship and changes in Belarus.

How was censorship introduced in the Belarusian media? Why did Ukraine pay no attention to the developments in Belarus for a long time? What will be the end of the Lukashenka regime?

Belsat TV publishes a unique interview: Ukrainian journalist Tetiana Ivanska asked these questions to Belarusian journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Charter97.org website Natallia Radzina. Charter97.org publishes the text version of the interview.

— Let's start with social biases. The first bias: Belarusians who have left the country have no chance of returning. Under what conditions will you return to Belarus forever?

— This is a quite silly opinion. I believe that we will return to Belarus, even in the near future. The Lukashenka regime has no prospects today. I believe that the war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, which was supported by the Lukashenka regime, will swallow these dictatorships, it will destroy them, there is hope that soon we will see both a free Ukraine and a free Belarus.

— Is Lukashenka the same aggressor as Putin?

– Yes. Sure. — Is Lukashenka the same aggressor as Putin? He supported this war. He provided the country's territory for the Russian army, which entered Ukraine in 2022. Today, there are many Russian troops in Belarus, they are trained at all Belarusian military training grounds. Also, they were launching missiles from the Belarusian territory targeting Ukrainian cities throughout the year and killing many people. Of course, Lukashenka should bear responsibility for that.

— Actually, we will also talk about the attitude of Ukrainians to Belarusians. Their perception of Belarusians regarding the fact that missiles fly from the territory of Belarus. The second bias: prison changes people forever. What habit have you had since your imprisonment?

— I can say that after prison I began to love life more. It became clear to me that freedom is very good, freedom cannot be boring. Prison taught me to love life.

— It's a wonderful habit. Whose Crimea is?

— Ukrainian, of course.

— Natallia, you are called Lukashenka's personal enemy. What do you think he's afraid of? Is he afraid of you as a leader or freedom of speech in general?

— Of course, he is afraid of freedom of speech. Because as soon as Lukashenka came to power, he began to destroy independent media. Many newspapers in which I started working as a journalist in the 90s were simply closed, they do not exist today. These are the newspapers Svaboda, Naviny, Nasha Svaboda, Narodnaia Volia. Lukashenka began to destroy independent media and independent journalists immediately.

I started working at the Charter'97 website in 2001. We felt the repression on ourselves. In 2010, the founder of the Charter'97 website, Aleh Biabienin was killed. I ended up in prison together with journalists, a criminal case was brought against me. Therefore, I just had to flee the country before the court. I understood that I would not be able to work freely in Belarus. Therefore, I had to leave, start work almost from scratch. Charter'97 is the most popular independent website today, we know that Lukashenka is afraid of us, sure.

— I talked about this in the show more than once and I will repeat once again. They write a lot to me in the comments that Ukrainians do not know what is happening, that I am not immersed in the situation. I honestly say that I'm doing my best to get deeper into the situation. I am here in order to understand and show what was happening, what was hidden and what you need to know.

You're talking about the repression that began against freedom of speech... What did they look like? Because we have our own experience in Ukraine. We had "temniks" [secret instructions or directives for media coverage of events -Ed.] during the time of Yanukovych. Journalists learned about it, the editors said that we, they say, have "temniks". Journalistic solidarity has increased, we have overcome it. What about you? Why could not the journalistic solidarity of Belarusians overcome this?

— First, it's incorrect to compare our regimes. Because the Lukashenka regime is much tougher than the Yanukovych regime.

— I'd like to ask for a pause. The question here is not what I am comparing, but giving an example to understand and show the developments.

— I understand, but still it is impossible to compare the regimes. Because when I often hear in Ukraine: "We did it, but why didn't you, Belarusians!? Just do it!" I always explain that the Lukashenka regime is much tougher, that this is a real dictatorship that has been scaling since 1994, for almost 30 years.

By the way, I have been working as a journalist since 1997 and I remember well those times when they began to tighten the screws on the media. It was going on gradually in fact. Immediately, television was seized and independent TV channels were closed, and authorities took control of television. Then the only independent radio station 101.2 was closed, and strong pressure on independent newspapers began.

— They were doing it by phone, sorry, or could they come and say: "We don't like this article. You are to clean it up and write this”?

— It was happening in different ways. Criminal cases were opened against someone, lawsuits were filed by officials, for example, as happened with the newspaper Svaboda. Also, was working there for some time. People came to someone with the "temniks" and said that if you did not write the right way, your newspaper would be closed. There was also a lot of self-censorship among journalists.

Of course, many journalists tried to resist this, there were solidarity actions, there were actions when journalists came out to protest. The Belarusian Association of Journalists, which appealed to the international community, spoke about the violation of freedom of speech in the country. But it didn't work out, because anyway this press, which was going through the media, was very strong.

And that's why I started working with online media, the Charter'97 website, in 2001. I realized that all independent newspapers would be closed. This is what happened in the coming years. There are almost no independent newspapers left, and those that remained began to work, let's say, very carefully. And so, working at the Charter'97 website until 2010 allowed me to write what I consider necessary, what I see in the country, to call a spade a spade.

— You said about self-censorship. How did this happen? Probably, you had colleagues who succumbed to this self-censorship, began to write more carefully. How does this happen for a journalist when the one understands that, as a journalist, he or she must fight for freedom of speech, but makes a deal with conscience?

— I guess you would have to ask someone else, because I don't know. That is why I left Belarus in 2011. It was a difficult path because they took my passport away when I was released from the KGB prison on bail. And two months later, I was forced to flee the country, and it was difficult without documents.

— We will talk about this for sure.

— Why did you decide to leave? Because I realized that I would not be able to work as a journalist on such a short leash. I'd better leave the profession, but not become a pet-journalist. But many journalists (we saw this until 2020) worked very carefully inside the country, but this did not save them. 2020 showed that it will not be possible to soften the dictatorship in any way, it will destroy you for sure.

— Those journalists who made a deal with their conscience, are they traitors, opportunists or did they have their own specific reasons: family, parents, apartments, credits?

— You know, over the course of my life, I condemn people less and just think that each of them tried to do something in this difficult situation. Let it not work out boldly, loudly, about everything, but they could write about something, and they were writing. And that's a good thing at least.

— In fact, we knew a little more about Belarus thanks to those journalists who stayed. You fled Belarus in 2011. In this regard, I have the first question. Do you regret that you did not go through the 2020 events in Belarus with these people who came to the Square?

— Of course, I really wanted to be in Belarus. My dream came true. Finally, people understood what the Lukashenka regime was and they protested. Millions of people took to the streets of Minsk and other cities. It was a great happiness to see all this. I hope that I will still have the opportunity to take to the streets of Minsk under the White-red-White flag. I hope it happens soon.

— Did you feel euphoric when you saw that the free people of your country took to the streets and how many of them were there?

— Sure.

— Did you feel helpless when news of murders, prisons and torture appeared? How to survive this moment? How did you personally experience it?

— It was so hard. I remember the moment when I was watching a video of women leaving the prison on Akrestsina Street, how they cried, how they were talking about the torture they went through. It was really hard for me. I thought I'd rather be in their place. Because I am still prepared, I already went through this in the KGB prison ten years ago. It seemed to me that I had more strength to endure it, because I never had illusions about this regime. But they had these illusions. It was a double, even triple shock for them. That's when my heart broke.

— Did the 2020 Square lose or not?

— I believe that this is a stage in the Belarusian fight. Lessons we had to go through.

— A certain step.

– Right. We had to go through these lessons. The people took to the streets in 2020, real heroes came out. I admire the Belarusians in this situation. But the problem was that there were no real leaders. It turned out that all the people were better than the leaders. The leaders who appeared on this wave developed a very erroneous strategy, in my opinion. They were afraid to confront the authorities. They also had illusions that they could come to an agreement. An erroneous decision was made to go to protests on Sundays. That was crazy.

— Like in Russia on Bolotnaya.

— It was something similar to the Russian scenario, I agree with you. That's why it ended the same way.

— Who, in this case, should bear great responsibility for the fact that free Belarus could not withstand this stage? Society or leaders who have failed to show the right way?

— You need to look into the future and think about what to do next. We've faced the situation when the real leaders of the Belarusian opposition are in prison. I'm talking about Mikalai Statkevich, Ales Bialiatski, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Yauhen Afnahel, Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, and many brave people who sacrificed their lives to bring changes in the country.

If Mikalai Statkevich had been on the streets on August 9 or August 16, I think that the situation would have changed, we would already be living in a free country.

But let us be realistic: What is happening in Belarus? Of course, our society cannot rise now, over these three years, people have been subjected to such a wave of repression that it is very difficult for them to raise their heads, not to mention taking to the street. Ukrainians have to know that also. Belarus is under occupation. This is the same as demanding from the residents of Crimea, "LPR" or "DPR" [the so-called Donetsk and Luhanks People's Republics - Ed.] that they come out against armed people to peaceful protest and win.

But I am sure that if we all work from different sides, including the Belarusians who left, if we demand tougher sanctions against this regime, real sanctions that can change the situation, if we help as much as we can Ukraine win, then changes will happen. However, it takes time. And a lot in this situation depends on the victory of Ukraine. I am sure that this victory will come, and when it happens, there will be a great chance for us, Belarusians.

— The second question concerns your escape in 2011. If you had to flee again, but after the 2020 protests, would you also flee through Moscow?

— No. Then it was a completely different situation. First, I had no choice, of course. Because I could not enter Poland, Lithuania, or even Ukraine without my passport — there is passport control. Without my passport I had the only way out — to leave in the car at night. I was laying on the floor.

— It was a whole special operation. If you can, tell us, please, about how you were escorted, how you were followed at the station, on the train, but you still managed to escape. How?

— It was difficult, of course. We don't have time to listen to the whole story in full. I talked a lot about it, there were interviews. It seems that all this was happening with someone else but not with me, when I think back to that days.

— How did it work out? Have you asked yourself this question? Why did you manage to escape?

— First, because God helped here. I realized I couldn't stay. Why did I leave? First, I was not allowed to say anything. I continued to work as a journalist on the Charter'97 website, but as soon as something appeared on the website that the KGB did not like, the police simply came to my house, took me away, brought me to the KGB and threatened to return me to prison if I wrote about economic sanctions, if I told about the torture that took place in the KGB prison.

I knew there were so many political prisoners in prisons then, including my friends, I cannot be silent. Therefore, I decided to leave to speak out about what was happening in Belarus, how people were tortured in prisons, because I witnessed these tortures, I could tell about it.

Thanks to my friends who helped at different stages. Of course, I was forced to live underground in Moscow, no one knew that I was there. Thanks a lot to the Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, she really saved my life. I wouldn't have left without her.

— Then the question is: how did you leave Moscow? Because when I talked to my colleagues-journalists, they say that there were even such rumors that Vladislav Surkov released Radzina, and helped her.

— These are very funny rumors, of course. They always haunt me. No, it was otherwise. When I was living in Moscow, Svetlana Gannushkina took me to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. So, through the UN, I was recognized as a refugee and the transition from Russia to one of the countries where I could receive political asylum began. The first country that agreed to accept me was the Netherlands. The Netherlands issued me a temporary document, the so-called laissez-passer, also thanks to Svetlana Gannushkina.

I should have already left Moscow with this temporary document. But it turned out that I cannot leave Russia, because it was unclear how I ended up on the territory of this country, I entered illegally, without documents. It was necessary to have a Russian exit visa in this document. How to get it? Only in the Federal Migration Service.

I had to go to the Russian FMS, and this was also dangerous, because I was wanted in Belarus and, possibly, in Russia. Then we consulted with Svetlana Gannushkina about what to do in this situation. To come to the FMS or not? I could have been arrested. The UN officials told me that if you were arrested there, I could simply ask for political asylum in Russia, but I did not want to do it at all. Svetlana Gannushkina at that time was in the Human Rights Council of the President of Russia. Medvedev was the president then, many worthy people tried to cooperate with that government. I asked Svetlana to talk at President Medvedev's meeting with this Human Rights Council. In June 2011, at this meeting, Svetlana Gannushkina told Surkov about my situation. He was there. When she told him that the UN provided refugee status for me, that the Netherlands had already issued me a temporary passport, that I just needed an exit Russian visa, Surkov said: "Okay, we will issue it."

— But he also could do nothing.

— He could reject, of course. But I've never seen him in person. I don't know him. But I know that through Svetlana Gannushkina Surkov helped me.

— When you fled, did you have a feeling that you were betraying your relatives and close people, homeland, when you were leaving them?

— Of course, it was very difficult for me to leave my loved ones. I remember very well this moment when I was leaving. I didn't even tell my father and mother about how I would leave the country and that I would have to go to Russia first. I reassured them, saying that very soon I would be in the West so that they would not worry. I remember that we were even afraid to show our tears, because we knew that there could be a wiretap in the house and we could not say goodbye supposedly for a long time, I'm not talking about forever. We pretended when I left that I would be back soon, it was very difficult. I remember — my father blessed me. They knew that they did not know when they would be able to see me. It was a difficult moment. It was hard, of course, when my loved ones began to die. Both grandparents died, and it was very hard that I could not be with them in recent years. Mom and Dad visited me from time to time, but I haven't seen them for more than three years.

— You fled in 2011. Then you received awards, gave interviews, in 2011 you said that the end of the Lukashenka regime had begun. — It's 2024. 13 years have passed. Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine has already begun. Do you think, looking back now, that it was the beginning of the end of this regime or its rise?

— I think that in those years Lukashenka suffered a strong blow, it was a demonstration to the world that Belarusians do not accept this regime, and that the struggle continues. Here you need to understand that the protests did not begin in 2020. The opposition has been fighting the Lukashenka regime almost since 1994. If we are talking about the beginning of a strong wave, then since 1996, when it became clear that Lukashenka was building a dictatorship, when he dispersed the Supreme Council and created a pet-parliament, he usurped power. Then the assassinations of opposition leaders and journalists began. And it became clear to everyone what kind of regime it was. Of course, in 2020, this became clear to the overwhelming majority of the people, but there was the struggle all these years. Belarusians have been fighting for their freedom for almost 30 years.

— Again, some of my colleagues, Belarusian journalists, joked that Charter'97 foresees the death of Lukashenka every year. You can talk about physical death, but you can also talk about political death. But when will it happen?

— I think he has a little bit left. See for yourself, for almost 30 years of this dictatorship, see what it looks like. By the way, when recently Ukrainian journalists buried Lukashenka, I said that wait, not so fast. But I still don't think he has much time.

Because the regime doesn't have the resources. The most important thing is to look at what is happening in Russia. All these years, Lukashenka has been holding on only thanks to the support of the Kremlin. If it were not for this support, which we talked about, the events about which the Charter wrote would have happened. Belarusians would have forgotten who Lukashenka was a long time ago. But this dictatorship survived. Why? Because there was support from the Kremlin because there was a very unclear policy of the West and a very unclear policy of Ukraine towards Belarus.

Let's talk about it too. About trade that was going on, why there were no sanctions and why Ukraine paid no attention to what was happening in Belarus. I have visited Ukraine many times since 2014. I talked to many politicians, there were also meetings at the National Security and Defense Council and the Verkhovna Rada, we informed Ukrainian politicians that the Lukashenka regime is a threat to Ukraine, that sooner or later this attack will take place from the north, how dangerous this dictatorship is. Help the democratic opposition fight this regime. Do not trade with this regime. It's better for all the presidents of Ukraine not to meet with this dictator, because this demoralizes the Belarusians, who have always supported the Ukrainians during all revolutions, and when the war began in 2014, they went to fight for Ukraine. Many Belarusians died for Ukraine. But we haven't been heard for a very long time. Only in 2022, the leadership of Ukraine realized what the Lukashenka regime was.

— Natallia, did they not hear or did not want to hear? Again, I am a journalist, I have been working in Ukraine for more than 20 years. I knew what was happening in Belarus. I remember how I broadcast the Freedom Day on my airs when Lukashenka allowed it. I know what was going on there. We understood that human rights were restricted there. However, we did not know everything about how strongly this dictatorship and usurpation of power were established. The question is who is guilty.

I spoke with Alina Koushyk, and she said that this was the work of Russian propaganda, this huge Russian information machine. Because, again, returning to Ukraine, I remember how Lukashenka gained a large percentage in the polls, "one of the best politicians". I didn't understand it. I knew that there was a certain part of those who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union. Why?

— I think that this is not about Russian propaganda, but about trade. It was just an active trade with the Lukashenka regime. Many, including the oligarchs who owned the TV channels, simply traded with the Lukashenka regime. There was almost no information about the situation in Belarus on these Ukrainian TV channels. There was a feeling that there was a ban on criticizing the Lukashenka regime. Moreover, propaganda Belarusian TV channels were broadcasting in Ukraine. We also talked about it. I met with the Deputy Minister of Information. I told her: "What are you doing? What are you showing?"

— What did she answer?

— They said that we can't do anything, let it be. They said something featureless.

— When you fled, you took practically nothing with you, literally documents, but the main thing was your laptop, where you constantly updated the Charter'97. That is, for you, this laptop is a huge part of your life. Not even life, this is your mission. How do you recognize this boundary between journalism and propaganda? Where is this boundary?

— Journalism tells the truth. It calls a spade a spade. Propaganda always lies. Therefore, journalism is about the truth.

— How did it happen that in Europe, where the Internet is so developed, all these atrocities did not receive publicity? Do you think that it was worth creating a well-known opposition newspaper for the whole world in Belarus, a well-known channel for the whole world? So that everyone knows that Charter'97 is like Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland.

— Charter’97 is like Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland. It's just about resources. There has never been such support for independent media so that they could turn around and make a project of a global scale. There has always been not enough support for all Belarusian independent media. We are forced to work in such conditions. It is good that Charter has been working for more than 25 years. When we had no money at all, we were still working, because there is a goal, there is a mission. We know that we have to inform people about what is happening in the country and reach out to the world.

— But I am talking about a publication or a TV channel or an online resource where all the opposition, all opposition journalists, all politicians will be united.

— It seems to me that this is a kind of utopia. As in Ukraine, there cannot be one TV channel on which all the journalists will work. But if we are talking about democracy and freedom of speech in general, I believe that there should be different media: TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, and, of course, websites. I would not unite everyone into one collective farm.

— I am not talking about a collective farm, but about the fact that there should be one editorial office, that, for example, journalists from Charter'97 or NEXTA correspondents come to one newsroom. I'm talking about some kind of common work to convey their voices.

Again, going back to my own experience, this is scary on the one hand, and quite ridiculous on the other. When you are looking for someone in Poland, someone is advised to you from Belarus, then the Belarusians ask them to say that, for example, conditionally, the one is from Siarhei and you were together in jail once. This is my personal observation, I noted for myself that almost every third Belarusian of those who are now in Poland now was in prison previously. Every second says that it is necessary to rescue someone out of Belarus. I am afraid, not even because of the phrase "rescue someone", but because in the 21st century it is necessary to rescue someone to be safe in Europe. Why did this happen? How did this happen?

— Now there are actually thousands of people in prisons in Belarus. We can't even count how many political prisoners there are now, because there are no more independent journalists in the country, there are no human rights activists, and according to various estimates, there are now from 8,000 to 10,000 people in prisons in Belarus.

The scale of repression is simply enormous. We call certain numbers that are available to us. For example, according to human rights activists, there were about 100 politically motivated arrests every month in 2021. In 2023, there were 700 politically motivated arrests. From what we know, this is a seven-fold increase in repressions. Why does this happen? Because Lukashenka is afraid. He is very afraid, he understands that the Belarusian people hate him. If he felt calm, he would not have committed these repressions. It is clear that Lukashenka does all this because he is scared and because he understands that people do not accept him. He is even afraid of his close associates, even his own security forces. Why do we need the Wagner in Belarus? For his personal protection. Because he no longer trusts the Belarusian security forces.

— What will be the end of the Lukashenka regime in your opinion? How is this going to happen? This is clearly connected with the victory of Ukraine in the war. Could something have happened that the liberation of Belarus and the Belarusian people from Lukashenka took place during our war?

— Anything can happen. I can only say one thing — it will happen in our lifetime and soon. You have to believe it, you have to know it. How will this happen? There may be different options. This may be some kind of military path to the liberation of Belarus. I would not say that it is utopian option, because during the war different things can happen. Secondly, there may be some kind of upheaval among the establishment. I also do not exclude this, you are to know that not all the officials are fools. They also see that this is a dead end and that Lukashenka leads them all to the churchyard, and they have no future with him. Third, something could happen to his health. We already see that Lukashenka looks very bad, very sick, in constant stress, in constant fear.

— What would you like to see as the end of Lukashenka? Should he be in jail or should it be a people's court?

— First of all, I would just like to see his end. And what it will be is not so important. But, of course, I would like him to stay in prison, at least try to understand what it means to be in prison in Belarus. For example, I would put him in the place where Mikalai Statkevich is kept. This is a real leader of the Belarusian opposition, about whom we know nothing for a long time. Because they are holding him in a solitary cell, there are no letters or calls from him for a year, there are no dates with his wife or lawyer, we are afraid for his life. But we know that Mikalai Statkevich is a personal enemy of Lukashenka, he is in harsh conditions in a solitary confinement cell for more than three years. In the basement of the monastery of the 18th century, this is such a prison in the city of Hlybokaye. This is a very difficult regime, and I would put Lukashenka there.

— Don't you think that imprisonment will be easier for him from a psychological point of view, because he understands, even if deep in his mind, that he is a criminal, he is imprisoned and he knows what for. People who are now in prison understand that this is unfair in their cases. It will morally be easier for him to be a convict, he will somehow justify it.

I don't think so. He is no longer a human, but an animal. It will be very hard for him to be behind bars, I'm sure.

— Have you learned to cry again?

— From time to time, I'm a woman, I can cry, but it doesn't happen very often.

— Are you a happy woman today?

– Yes.

— Do your strength and your traumatic path affect the life of your family?

— I hope not to a large extent. It seems to me that it is better not to let your injuries and your life problems affect others.

— What is your dream as a woman and as a citizen of Belarus?

— As a woman, and as a citizen of Belarus, I would just like to return to Belarus, because I know that my place is there.

— When do you think your dream will come true?

— Hopefully soon. A year or two.

— I thank you for the meeting.

– Thank you.

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