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Andrei Sannikov: Belarus May Become Catalyst

Andrei Sannikov: Belarus May Become Catalyst

Changes in the region may start with our country.

Belarus, the former Belarusian SSR, one of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union, each of which became an independent state in 1991, remains within the tight orbit of Russia's influence.

At the same time, the people of Belarus have found themselves in the grip of their authoritarian ruler, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who has been holding the power since 1994 through brutal repression and a series of unfree, unfair, and essentially fake elections.

Nevertheless, the civil society of Belarus has long been formed and, despite brutal persecution, abuse, torture and murder, its leaders have shown indomitable resilience and courage, and the Belarusian opposition itself has earned respect for its tireless struggle for establishing freedom and democracy in the country and its commitment to peaceful ways of achieving its goals.

Andrei Sannikov, invited by the Washington-based Hudson Institute to the discussion, is one of such civil society leaders, writes the Voice of America.

A professional diplomat, he resigned as deputy foreign minister of Belarus in 1995 in protest, after Lukashenka imposed a referendum on the country that was the first step in consolidating authoritarian power in his hands.

In 2005, Andrei Sannikov was awarded the prestigious "Bruno Kreisky Prize" for services in the fight for human rights.

In 2010, Sannikov ran for president in an election in which Lukashenka claimed that he had allegedly "won more than 80 per cent of the votes", when in fact his regime had turned the people's choice into a fake. Sannikov then led a peaceful demonstration in Minsk's main square. The riot police attacked the people, seriously injuring Sannikov.

Subsequently, the oppositionist was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Following international pressure, the Lukashenka regime released the opposition leader in April 2012.

Threatened with re-arrest, Sannikov left Belarus and was granted political asylum in the UK.

Andrei Sannikov, head of the European Belarus civil campaign, delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute on the strategic importance of Belarus, Russia's regional ambitions and the prospects for political changes in Minsk.

According to Sannikov, at the moment, only according to the official data, obtained by the opposition, "there are about 10,000 people in prisons in the country, and many thousands have left Belarus and live in Europe and the U.S.".

According to the opposition leader, if the world had strongly supported the Belarusians during the revolutionary uprising in 2020, not only their country would have been rid of the current regime, but also the Kremlin would have lost a springboard for an attack on Kyiv.

Andrei Sannikov continued the historical parallels:

"If the attempts of revolutionary actions of the people of Iran would have received more support from the world community in 2022, there would be no shelling of Israel today," he said, adding, "and if the skies of Ukraine would have been closed as well as the skies of Israel, the situation on the front in Ukraine would have been completely different," he emphasised.

Sannikov reminded that the Russian aggression was prepared on the territory of Belarus only because of the Aliaksandr Lukashenka regime there. Back in 2009, Belarus held the largest joint military exercises with Russia in terms of the number of troops involved, the scenario of which "consisted of a nuclear strike on Warsaw and then a breakthrough to Kaliningrad to cut off the Baltic States from the rest of Europe".

According to Sannikov, such scenarios were practised continuously during the exercises from 2011 to 2017 and finally in 2021 - "when it became clear to everyone that the troops stationed on the territory of Belarus were troops that were being trained for the war in Ukraine."

Sannikov believes that Lukashenka is a full-fledged perpetrator of the war, because although the rocket attacks on Ukraine from Belarus will be stopped for a while, his complicity does not end there - he provides territory for Russian military logistics and repair of military hardware.

"There are many hospitals in Belarus for wounded Russian killers. He takes part in the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. He's involved in all this and he's glad that the world reaction and pressure on him is not as strong as it could be. I think we all know that he has made loopholes in the sanctions, both for Russia and Belarus," said the opposition politician.

"Lukashenka is Putin's puppet. He is completely dependent on his support," Andrei Sannikov is convinced, "he will obey orders, because he has no right to vote. He does not participate in the decision-making process, but for some reason people believed him when he was assuring the public before the full-scale invasion that there would be no war."

Sannikov reminded how "pointless the West's flirtation with Lukashenka was when the United States returned diplomats to Minsk and the West lifted sanctions."

"He used this time to prepare repression against our people in 2020," believes Andrei Sannikov.

What should be done with regard to the Lukashenka regime?

Sannikov called for stronger sanctions against Lukashenka and his government.

"More pressure from democratic countries is needed, at least in order to release people from prisons, and to save some people's lives and remnants of health," he emphasised, "but the war in Ukraine has overshadowed the horrors that the Lukashenka regime is doing. A lot of people already think that it is impossible to remove him, but it is not true. Democratisation and progress in Belarus are quite possible, we just need more pressure on the dictatorial regimes and more assistance to democratic forces".

The head of the European Belarus civil campaign believes that it's necessary to apply the sanctions not used before. For example, "recognising the Belarusian "special forces" as terrorists by the EU and the UN".

According to Andrei Sannikov, "companies close to Lukashenka are still maintaining some relations with the West. They are still engaged in trade."

"We need to make more efforts, to talk about it in public more so that these companies have to leave," Sannikov urges.

"Apart from Moscow and Beijing, the Belarusian regime is still dependent on the European Union," Sannikov believes.

"I assume that after the aggression against Ukraine, it became obvious how important it is to make efforts to get rid of the dictatorial regime in the centre of Europe," stressed former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.

Can Putin's regime defeat Ukraine?

Sannikov does not believe in such an outcome, but is ready to imagine the hypothetical consequences of such a development.

"There will be such a strong partisan movement that the Russians will be incapable of absorbing Ukraine. And this partisan movement will spread to Belarus. It is impossible to return to the architecture of the revived Soviet Union, because that world no longer exists. Even Sweden and Finland have decided to join NATO. I hope that Ukraine will eventually join it, too," Sannikov believes, "and then the issue of Belarus will arise, as no one benefits from such a "balcony" of autocracy inside Europe".

What are the chances of the new Belarusian society in opposing the Lukashenka regime, assisted by the Kremlin?

Andrei Sannikov, head of the European Belarus civil campaign, is convinced that there is a chance even in such conditions.

"Just look at the number of times we were taking to the streets against him, and Moscow was afraid to interfere. One should stop seeing us through the 'fear of the Kremlin's attack'. This "fear of Kremlin attacks" led to the war in Ukraine. And it's unreasonable to expect any popular uprising in Russia," said the Belarusian oppositionist.

Andrei Sannikov also drew deeper historical parallels, reminding that "on March 13, 1898, Minsk hosted a congress of the RSDLP, which in the future became the Communist Party of the USSR with Vladimir Lenin at its head."

"And on December 8, 1991, the leaders of three countries - Ukraine, Belarus and Russia - gathered in Belarus and signed the famous Belovezha Accords, which signified the peaceful break-up of the Soviet Union."

"So Belarus can become an example as a catalyst of developments in the region not only in a negative, but in a positive sense," Sannikov stressed.

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