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Natallia Radzina: Liberation Of Belarus Could Follow The Worst Scenario For Lukashenka

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Natallia Radzina: Liberation Of Belarus Could Follow The Worst Scenario For Lukashenka
NATALLIA RADZINA

The Belarusian people have changed.

Natallia Radzina, Editor-in-Chief of the Charter97.org website, became a guest of the Witnesses of the Lukashenka Regime project by Radio Liberty.

Why did Lukashenka lose all the elections? Can Belarusian journalists be “above all fighting”? How have Belarusians changed? Can those who have worked for the regime for decades be opposition leaders?

Natallia Radzina speaks about these and more in an interview with journalist Vital Tsyhankou.

Charter97.org publishes the talk:

— In this series of programs we are talking about 1994. The first question I ask people is: who were you in 1994? How did you perceive the presidential election? You were still a very young woman at that time, but you probably already had some political ideas. Do you remember your attitude to those events? What was it like?

— I was only 15 years old. I was in the 10th grade. But I remember this time, the quarrels that were in the family, because my relatives discussed who to vote for. Part was against Lukashenka the others were for him. I remember some saying that you should choose him because he is young, and others answered that it is better to choose from those who are older, because they have already "grabbed a lot" in their lives, and now they will think about the country. And if the young one comes, it will be very difficult to expel him from power later.

Some of my relatives were right. But I remember that I did not like Lukashenka, I did not like him initially even in my teenage perception, he seemed to be too loud and not very sane. And I thought that he couldn't be the president. And two years later, when I was already 17, I entered the Belarusian State University at the Faculty of Journalism. I saw that we were coming to a dictatorship, it was 1996.

— I think our viewers will be interested to know how the study at the Journalism Faculty was then, in the mid-90s. How democratic were the teachers then, how democratic was the atmosphere, how quickly did this begin to change after Lukashenka came to power, in which direction?

— At first, it was a completely democratic atmosphere in 1996. Because we, the students, participated in the protests. You remember that then there were many large-scale rallies: the Charnobyl Way in 1996, and protests against the referendum that Lukashenka held and dispersed the parliament, after which the usurpation of power began. But there were no such mass expulsions from universities for participating in protests.

I immediately joined our independent press. In the second year, I worked in the newspaper "Imia" ("Name"), no sanctions were applied against me. But it should be remembered that my classmate at the Faculty of Journalism was Aliaksei Shydlouski — one of the first Belarusian political prisoners. Aliaksei was arrested for graffiti...

—... on the monument to Lenin.

— Not only on the monument to Lenin. Then there was a lot of graffiti in Staubtsy, Aliaksei's native town. And then he and his friend were arrested, imprisoned and Aliaksei was expelled from the Faculty of Journalism. This was such a first case, and I remember that it was very outrageous to the students. Why was the guy arrested? Why did they expel him? But I don't remember any more such cases being ruled out until 2001, when I graduated from university.

— You managed to finish it while working for the independent press.

— I have always worked for the independent press. Not a day in the state media. And my teachers knew it well, the dean knew it, and they did not apply any sanctions to me.

— Then let's talk about the independent press, since you have already started talking. We remember the newspapers "Svaboda" ("Liberty") and "Imia" ("Name"). How do you think, compared to today, was the influence and opportunity to do good journalism for independent journalists?

— These were, of course, the heyday of the independent press — the end of the 90s. I believe that I was very lucky that I saw real journalism. First, I came to the "Imia" newspaper, then I managed to work in the newspaper "Svaboda" for the last months. Then in the newspapers "Naviny" ("News"), "Nasha Svaboda" ("Our Liberty") — they were published by Pavel Zhuk, also worked a little with Iosif Seredzich in "Narodnaia Volia" ("People's Will").

And, of course, I remember how it all started, this gradual pressure on the media, how it was reflected in the newspapers. Fortunately, Lukashenka got to the newspapers later. First, as we remember, when he came to power in 1994, he started pressing TV first.

— The main horn.

– Right. He took control of television, then radio stations. We remember what fate awaited Radio 101.2. Newspapers were still lucky — we could work. But at the beginning of 1999, the newspaper "Svaboda" was closed, then I worked for about a year in the newspaper "Naviny", it was published by Pavel Zhuk and replace the newspaper "Svaboda". But it was obvious that harsh repressions were beginning.

What did the authorities do? They sued the newspapers. As far as I remember, "Naviny" was closed at the suit of Shayman, he was then the Prosecutor General. A journalistic investigation was conducted on his income. And immediately the newspaper was closed because of it. By 2001, I had already realized that the last independent newspapers would face the same fate as "Svaboda" and "Naviny", they would simply tighten the screws. And it was going to work harder and harder.

— How did you know? What conclusions did you draw for yourself?

— I will tell you how I understood. When I conducted a journalistic investigation for the newspaper "Nasha Svaboda" ("Our Liberty"). Then the CEO of a glass factory Uladzimir Zapolski was killed in Homel. It was a very high-profile case. And I went to Homel on the instructions of the editorial board. I managed to find information about who was interested in this. Behind these people, who were interested in killing the director of the plant, was the head of the Council of the Republic of Shypuk.

I returned to Minsk, wrote this investigation article, the newspaper published it and then the pressure began. The editor called me and said: "Natallia, we need to write a refutation, otherwise the newspaper will be closed. I know you're right, but you have to do it.” I said that I would not do it, if you want — do it yourself, and I quit. This was the last straw for me.

I realized that it would be very hard to work and write the truth. Fortunately, Aleh Biabenin invited me, he was the founder and the Editor-in-Chief of the Charter'97 website. We met him in the newspaper "Imia", at my first place of work. Aleh worked there as an editor of the news department. He invited me to the Charter, I realized that I would go to work on the Internet, because working for newspapers was getting harder and harder. I turned out to be right, because then they began to close everyone: the Belarusian Business Newspaper and the newspaper "Imia", a lot of newspapers were closed then. Those who remained were working according to different rules.

— That's interesting. You said that the heyday of journalism was in the mid and late 90s, and since 1996 there has been an authoritarian government in Belarus, in fact, a dictatorship, when Lukashenka decided a constitutional coup, there was no parliament, there was no separation of powers, but there was a heyday of journalism. Don't you find that a bit of a paradox? On the other hand, these historical comparisons with today's journalism, with online journalism, are always interesting. Some believe that there was a "golden age", and now something is wrong. What do you think?

— Journalism still exists today. Charter'97 recently turned 25 years old. We work, I know that it is interesting for Belarusians, looking at the statistics, we are the most popular independent website. And people read us, despite the fact that independent websites are blocked in Belarus. I know that other independent resources also have good audiences. When you write the truth, tell people the truth, it's always interesting. Of course, it was easier to work in the 90s, because the regime was still weak, it gradually was cleansing the society and putting pressure on journalism. Of course, we could work in our own country, and today we all have to stay abroad. Of course, there are many problems with this, but we must continue our work.

I am happy that the media are alive, there are independent journalists, no matter what. After all, the decision to become an independent journalist is a difficult choice for a young specialist today. This immediately causes a lot of problems. You will always be at risk, you will not have a good salary, because independent media always work with a shortage of funds, you will not be able to work in your country, your relatives will also be at risk. Today, going to an independent press is a feat for a young man. Therefore, I am glad that there are these young people, that we are working and continuing our business.

(Video is playing) Natallia Radzina: "I believe that they protect journalists by awarding such prizes. They show the special services, the authorities of those countries that persecute these journalists, that the world is watching their fate, this gives more safety. By and large, of course, it is sad that Belarus is among such countries like Pakistan, Bahrain, Mexico, where human rights are violated, because Belarus is a European country. It's terrible that we are on the list of countries that violate human rights.”

— Remember what year it is, what award was it?

— This is the American award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. I got it after I got out of prison and was able to leave Belarus with great difficulties. I remember that it was a great support. Of course, I was very tired after a hard and long escape from Belarus, which lasted almost a year — 8 months. Prison was such a probation. So they invited me first to Washington, then to New York, and awarded me. Moreover, the organizers allowed me to take one person for this award. I decided that I would take my mother, who suffered a lot when I was in prison. She stood in queues to give me something, she was afraid for me. I took her with me to thank her this way. She is from Kobryn, she has never traveled far, and here is America. I remember that time as an opportunity to make my mother happy, because I was able to take her there.

— If we are talking about journalism to finish this topic, I worked in the newspaper "Svaboda" in the mid-90s. Our Editor-in-Chief, Ihar Hermenchuk, when we were sent to a seminar (I think it was Norwegians) about how to create an independent publication, ironically said: "Let me tell them how to create an independent newspaper under a dictatorship, which will be bought, which will be judged in a day, how to live without grants." In this sense, Belarusian journalism exists in slightly different conditions than the Western one, in other conditions it survives and shows its professionalism.

— Afraid so. I absolutely agree with Ihar Hermenchuk, because we worked in the most difficult conditions. We worked underground, the Charter, for example, was never registered. And how many of these apartments we changed, how many searches and pogroms we had in the editorial office. The Charter journalists have always been at all demonstrations and protests. They were also detained and I was detained. This is always a danger and a threat, but after each action you run to the editorial office and write, tell what you saw.

There were times when we didn't have any money at all, but still we worked without salaries. Of course, today we can tell Western journalists how it works under a dictatorship and how to actually create such an interesting product that people will read, which will influence the situation.

— You said that during the 1994 elections you had certain disputes in the family. Can you remember how your family members, if it's no secret, have changed over time? Did those who supported Lukashenka continue to support him? Or is that not possible.

— I don't notice it anymore. Of course, now it is difficult to speak out in the Belarusian realities, but I know from all my acquaintances who remained in Belarus that Lukashenka has no support. Even the support that was there before disappeared very quickly. Let me remind you that Lukashenka falsified all the elections. He had already lost in 2001.

— What is your confidence based on?

— There was information from the authorities that back in 2001, Lukashenka did not win the elections, that there were total falsifications. But we must understand what the Lukashenka regime is. This is a tough dictatorship, which all this time held power thanks to the repressive apparatus and Russia. All this time, Lukashenka kept in power only thanks to the support of the Russian Federation. If it were not for this neighbor, we would have already forgotten who Lukashenka is.

— And whether there is in such reasoning the removal of responsibility from society, from the people. When the people voted at a certain time, there is different information about how they voted. I think you can speak critically about Belarusian sociologists, but they gave different data, Lukashenka won some elections, according to independent sociologists. Or do you think this has never happened since 2001?

— There has been no sociology in Belarus for many years. Because people are afraid to answer the questions of these sociologists. Therefore, I simply do not believe in any sociology.

— And what to believe in then?

— I see that all the time when Lukashenka was in power, there were protests, and 2020 showed that the whole society rose against him. I do not believe in any victory of Lukashenka in the elections. And if we recall this time, since 1994, when Lukashenka came to power, the opposition protests did not stop, they always were there. Remember these actions, not only in 1996, the March of Freedom in 1999, 2000. The squares that were there after almost every presidential election: both the Square of 2006 and the huge Square of 2010.

— Opponents can say that several tens of thousands of people came to these squares at most. This is not much for ten-million Belarus.

— This is a dictatorship that intimidates people all the time. And you know what methods were used. The same media that were closed, and since 2003, another work of independent media began.

Look at the pressure on political parties, public organizations, how many people were put in prison. The pressure was enormous. It is necessary to understand and not to compare Belarus, for example, with Ukraine, where there has never been such a dictatorship. After all, there was a certain game of both oligarchs and big business, and the political elites were more independent, although Russia's influence there was great. In Belarus, this Russian influence was total, there was a personalized dictatorship of Lukashenka, who stifled any sign of freedom in the country.

— Do you think he did not have mass support, the majority, not only in 2020, which became obvious to everyone, but also earlier: in 2006, in 2010, and in 2015?

— I'm sure. All elections were falsified. People were intimidated. It was all happening. But there was a significant part of society that still came out and protested openly. The year 2020 happened because this recalcitrant part of the Belarusian opposition continued to take to the streets, continuing to say that the authorities in Belarus need to be changed across the street, because Lukashenka was falsifying the elections.

I believe that the 2020 events are the realization of our dreams. This suggests that all our work, and our work with you, Vital, as independent journalists, was successful. Another thing is that the support of Russia this time allowed Lukashenka to remain in power.

— Let's talk later about 2020, and first about one of these moments — this is 2010. This famous Square on December 19, when tens of thousands of people came out, was a hard dispersal, when they seized almost all presidential candidates and all more or less noticeable personalities from their teams, including you. In the biography, I said that you were beaten. Can you tell us more about this, how did it happen?

— Of course, it was a long time ago, and it's not so interesting to talk about yourself. But it was a difficult time, I will never forget this day. Firstly, I was very happy because a lot of people took to the streets. According to various estimates, there were 50,000-60,000 protesters against election fraud. And then there was a dispersal. I was beaten because I was in the front row. As a journalist, I had to see everything.

— Were you near the podium of the speakers? Or in a different place.

— I was near the podium when people were on Oktiabrskaia Square, and then they reached Independence Square, where they were already directly on the steps of the Government House.

— Didn't they break the glass?

— No, she didn't break the glass. I passed on to the Charter website what was happening. We were doing an online story. But I was knocked down by riot police when they began to push people away from the House of Government.

Then I fell, they started kicking me, including on the head. A guy saved me – he just pulled me by the jacket from under their feet. I felt bad, I was taken out of the Square. Someone was able to stop the ambulance on the road, they wanted to take me to the hospital, but I looked back (I remember this moment well), new forces of riot police and internal troops arrived and began to arrest and clear the Square.

I realized that I could not go to the hospital now, that I had to go to the editorial office and write about what was happening. I returned to the editorial office and still managed to work with journalists until three o'clock, I suppose, in the morning, and then they broke down the doors and penetrated. These were people in balaclavas, with assault rifles, led by a KGB officer. We were all arrested and put on a bus. I was immediately taken to the KGB, and my journalists were taken to the district police departments, where they were arrested for 15 days. I was interrogated at night, then thrown into a cell, where I stayed.

— What was asked during the interrogations?

— They asked me what I was doing there.

— Did they want to make you the organizer of the coup?

– Yes. Sure. Because 10 days later I was officially charged with organizing mass riots. I was then threatened with up to 15 years in prison.

— Now, unfortunately, after 2020, everyone perceives it as something familiar, but then for the whole society and, probably, for you, it was a shock. Were you morally ready for this when you went to the Square, when you worked for the Charter. After all, journalists always had some kind of "alibi" — a journalistic certificate. I was also detained on the streets, but after I showed my ID, I was released. Since Radio Liberty was accredited then by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And you, working for the Charter, felt that there was no such legal "roof" over you, that something could happen to you at any moment?

— I was not shocked. I was preparing for prison. I knew it could happen in this country. I had no illusions about Lukashenka, so I didn't panic when I was detained. Moreover, I was already hardened by interrogations, because this was not the first criminal case initiated against the Charter'97 website, where I was a defendant.

We have been under pressure since February 2010. Then the first criminal case was opened for the articles on the website, then the first search took place in our editorial office, I was also beaten when the riot police wanted to enter the editorial office, and I did not let them. I was punched in the face. Then, maybe, there was some kind of shock, but by December 19, when I went through so many interrogations, because they had already opened a second criminal case in the summer of 2010 for readers' comments on the Charter website, then already...

—... for interrogation — as for work.

— That’s true. Therefore, I was no longer afraid of interrogations, I knew how to behave, especially since the day before I read the book "Fear No Evil" by Natan Sharansky, a famous Soviet dissident who spent nine years in prison. He also wrote very well about interrogations, how to behave during them, about prison. So I didn't have much fear. Now I feel very sorry for people who are in prisons, because most of them did not expect this from the authorities. It's much harder for them than it was for me.

— You were sitting, and then there was a rather detective story, when you were released before the trial, and you fled from Belarus. Let's remember it. I think it's interesting, and few people remember.

— It was very hard, actually.

— Why were you released?

— Who let me out? They wouldn't let me out.

— Under house arrest, I understand.

— I was prohibited to live in Minsk when I was released from prison, I had a written undertaking not to leave. I was a defendant in a criminal case, a court was waiting for me. Official charges were brought against me. Why did they release me? Because then women and journalists were released on bail, because the European Union simply frightened Lukashenka by saying that economic sanctions could be imposed specifically for political prisoners. And this frightened them very much, some of the people were released. So I was able to go out, but they told me: "You only have a day to get ready, you have to go to Kobryn, to your parents' house, you will sit there without leaving the house under the supervision of the police and the KGB."

I left, in fact, every day the police came to me, very often at 7 in the morning, they checked whether I was there. And so I was there for two months, still working as the editor of the Charter. When I got out of prison, I said to the KGB officer who gave me the papers: "Keep in mind that I will continue my work." And I went out, continued to work and then I realized that on very interesting terms I was offered to remain free.

Because when I began to tell journalists and write on the website about what was happening in the KGB prison (and they used torture against political prisoners and against me personally), pressure immediately began on me: a police car came to the house, they took me away, took me to the local KGB and there they already threatened that if I wrote about the conditions of detention in the KGB pre-trial detention center, they would return me back.

The second topic, which they also did not like, for which I was also taken away and brought to the KGB, was the topic of economic sanctions. Because I wrote and also said in interviews with other media that the only pressure that should actually be exerted on the Lukashenka regime is economic. That Lukashenka is very afraid of economic sanctions. And if they are introduced, there is a possibility that political prisoners will be released.

By the way, here I will say one thing: today there are no economic sanctions for political prisoners against the Lukashenka regime. The existing sanctions were imposed for landing an airplane, for the migration crisis and for the war in Ukraine, but not for political prisoners. Therefore, there are no talks with the Lukashenka regime on this topic. If these economic sanctions were introduced, I think that there would be a topic of talks with Lukashenka about the release of people. This is an important, essential point, I think.

And when I sat for two months and realized that they wanted to censor the site, I was asked to sign papers on cooperation with the KGB. It began in prison, where it was offered to me directly both by enforcers and the prison head, who also conducted interrogations of political prisoners.

— There is a famous case of Ales Mikhalevich, who signed papers on cooperation to get out, and then immediately said about it publicly. Did you consider such an opportunity — to sign to go out, then tell the truth and refuse this cooperation?

— No. I didn't consider it. I told them I wouldn't sign anything. Because they pressured me, they offered me to write a petition for pardon in the name of Lukashenka, as well as a paper on cooperation. I understood that this was a serfdom from which I could not get out.

— They will keep you on the hook for the rest of your life.

– Yes. Sure. Even if you leave, they will hold this paper. Why do I need it? I always refused, but I understood that they could keep pushing.

— Sitting there, did you think that such circumstances could develop? You didn't know that sanctions were imposed, that all women would be released. Did you think you could be released quickly, just let out of these walls?

— I believed that people did not forget about us. As a journalist who wrote a lot about political prisoners, saw these campaigns of solidarity with prisoners of conscience who have always been in Belarus, I understood that they did not forget about us, although in the KGB prison we were told that "everyone, no one remembers you, you are enemies of the people, people are happy that Lukashenka has become president again, and you are all traitors." They kept us in isolation, did not give us any letters, newspapers, we did not know anything. But I was supported by the fact that I believed in this Belarusian solidarity, and I was right.

Archive video by Deutsche Welle: "In the KGB museum in Vilnius, Natallia remembers December 19 last year. On this day, she was preparing an article on election fraud and protests in Minsk. For this, she was beaten and put under arrest.

Natallia Radzina: "I can't speak, because you brought me to such a place. The same iron beds, they were a little higher and I did not have a bed, I slept on boards on the floor under such a bed. We all worry about them, but when you get to such a place — you remember how it was, you understand that these people are now in prisons, they are serving their sentences. Presidential candidate Andrey Sannikov – 5 years in prison."

— You just used the words "torture" when talking about your stay in prison. If it's not too hard for you, could you explain what it means specifically for you.

— This is complete isolation, which I was talking about, constant blackmail, pressure. I didn't have a toilet in the cell, I didn't have a bed, I had to sleep on the floor on the boards, and it was winter. I was sick all the time. After the beating in the Square, I was not allowed to do any medical examination, although I was ill, they were even forced to call an ambulance once, but the doctors forbade me to be taken to the hospital, I stayed in this condition in prison. Then I was even forbidden to go to the toilet. I face serious health issues because I stopped drinking water. The interrogations were four, five times a day. They did it even after 22:00, when it was off time, and we should have already gone to bed.

Of course, this is blackmail, pressure, when they demanded to sign papers on cooperation with the KGB, they told me: "We will do everything so that you do not have children, there will be such conditions. And you will be imprisoned for 5 years, no less." And they said about my relatives: "Your mother will die. You can't see her, and she is in such a serious condition near the KGB prison." All this, of course, was hard.

— We have moved a little away from your story about the circumstances of the escape from Kobryn.

— Two months later, when I realized that they would not let me work, they would look for other levers, press to force me to cooperate, I realized that I just had to leave, there was no other choice. And then the plan ripened — thanks to my friends, to try to leave when I was next summoned for questioning. I was summoned to Minsk for interrogation at the end of March, allowed to leave Kobryn, told that I could take the train and come. I decided then that this was a chance, we had to leave. Of course, it was scary, I did not know how it would turn out, because, firstly, I did not have any passport. I was released from prison and they did not return it to me so that I could not go anywhere.

Friends suggested getting off this train on the way to Minsk, and there they would pick me up by car. I actually went to Luninets, it was at night. My friends took me to one of the Belarusian cities (I still do not want to say the name of the city), I had never been there before, they should not have looked for me there.

I sat there for about a week without my phone and laptop. I didn't use the Internet, I didn't talk to anyone at all. Even my parents did not know my location and my fate. I just told them before I left, when I got on the train, that I was leaving. After I spent a week in such an underground, I was taken out. And there were searches, and on the Charter website my journalists immediately wrote that "Natalia has already left Belarus" to stop looking.

But the authorities were looking for me, there were searches at home, of course, at my parents' housing, they even came to the village to my grandparents. They searched everywhere, even in Luninets. I know that many opposition activists were searched, they were looking for that maybe I was sitting in some kind of basement. A week later, I was taken out by car at night. Of course, not on the main road, where they could check the documents, but on forest trails.

— Now, when years have passed, you think that it was their failure or, maybe, as it was in 2020, 2021, when they allowed many people to leave. Maybe they allowed it and just relieved the burden?

— If I were taken out like Latushka and Kovalkova, I would be happy. They just took them out by car — everything was fine, just leave. I had to run, and it was hard. When I was in Russia, I also could not tell where I was. Because I understood that this was a "union state", I could be declared not only on the republican, but also on the "union" wanted list.

I could be detained in Russia, so I was sitting in an apartment in Moscow's Severny Tushino for four months without a passport, I almost did not go anywhere. My friends were already there helping me secretly to get some documents so that I could leave with help from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Let me remind you, I didn't have a passport. And thank God that I was recognized as a refugee by the UN, this procedure for obtaining documents to leave Russia began. Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina helped me a lot then. Thanks to her, I was able to get the documents very quickly, because for the UN, four months is nothing, they can consider cases for two years.

I was recognized as a refugee by the UN, through the Embassy of the Netherlands I received Laissez-Passer — such a temporary passport. And already at the last stage, Svetlana, who at that time was a member of the Human Rights Council under the President of Russia (then there was Medvedev, who seemed at that time more adequate than Putin), asked the Russian authorities to give me permission to leave the country.

I was given this permission, so I was able to leave. But it was very difficult, I didn't know if it would work or not. My relatives also didn't know where I was. All four months on the site, they wrote that I was sitting in a refugee camp in Europe. But thank God it worked out.

— Have you ever met Lukashenka, seen him alive?

— I saw him at some events. Including when certificates were issued to presidential candidates. Such ceremonies were held in the Palace of the Republic, he was then forced to attend. It was both in 2001 and in 2006. Then Lukashenka was no longer present at such events. Nothing interesting to look at him. I personally don't want to look at him.

— If we turn to such journalistic topics, would you like, for example, to do an interview with him?

— I am not an investigator or a lawyer. Investigators and lawyers should speak to him. I am not interested in his thoughts, he is a criminal. What should I talk to him about?

— Even criminals, in the history of many such cases, give interviews from prison, write books, become famous.

— I will definitely listen to his last word before the verdict.

— We are talking about the thirtieth anniversary of the first election. Does this person remain in power only, in your opinion, because he built such a dictatorial system, a system of suppression? Or due to the fact that, after all, maybe the Belarusian society has not done enough over these 30 years to, let's say, overthrow him, to remove him from power.

— Here I will protect the Belarusians. I believe that in the conditions in which we all had to live and work, it was very difficult to overthrow this government. First, we must understand that all these years we have been fighting not only against Lukashenka, but also against Putin. Because support has always been huge, ranging from economic to political.

In the international arena, Lukashenka was defended by Russians too. We can see what was the attitude towards Lukashenka until the last moment. Almost until 2022, when he and Putin launched a war against Ukraine. Prior to that, Belarus had not been the focus of the international community's attention. And for how many years we have been demanding the use of effective economic sanctions against this regime. No one wanted to listen. In the West, they thought: "Some political prisoners are in prisons, they do not have elections, the main thing is trade, the main thing is to buy oil products, potash, nitrogen fertilizers and much more." And no one wanted to go into conflict with the Kremlin, because they said that "this is our territory", this is our dictator, he remains." And that’s the problem. They did not pay attention to the Belarusians, to their calls for help. Can Ukraine fight on its own now? No, It can't. It needs support. And the Belarusians as well.

— Speaking about sanctions. Not so long ago, Zianon Pazniak, let's say, spoke quite sharply about some of your assumptions and the essence of his statements: "She is a journalist, why she gets into politics. Write whatever you want on the Charter, but stay out of politics."

— What should I comment on? The man is 80 years old. Let's congratulate him, by the way.

— I would not even like to talk about Pazniak, but about this principle, where the border between journalism and politics, journalism and activism. On the other hand, it is not only professional politicians who go into politics. Doctors go into politics, plumbers go into politics, writers and playwrights go into politics, like Václav Havel, journalists also went into politics in different countries, and achieved a lot. How would you see this dilemma?

— I see no dilemma. I work as a journalist, I express my opinion, I have the right to do so. I was recently in Brussels, where I participated in a meeting of the Delegation for Relations with Belarus and told what was happening in Belarusian prisons, how political prisoners were killed there. I prepared a huge report, where I listed all the cases of murders of political prisoners in prisons, and spoke about the catastrophic condition of other political prisoners.

Because many people of retirement age today can die at any time, ill people, including those suffering from oncology. What's this? Journalism or Politics? I say the facts. And I have the right, as a citizen of Belarus, to call for effective measures against my country, this regime.

We need to stop Lukashenka, we need to save people. What's this? I believe that this is just my civic duty, I absolutely do not care what you call it: journalism, politics, activism. As a citizen of my country, I must fight for my country and for my people.

— Some will say that the task of journalists is to give the floor to other people, politicians who can say it, and not to say it themselves.

— I believe that I can declare it myself. That’s all. And what about this position in journalism "above all fighting"... In Belarusian conditions, sorry, you are not above the fight — you are under the baseboard. I believe that we should all speak out about what is happening in Belarus now. Because there is horror, it is necessary to save people. How can you be silent in this situation?

— And how do you feel about the arguments that you have heard more than once in your life, that the Charter was forced not after 2020, but since 2011 to work from abroad, so it lost touch with the Belarusian reality?

— Has Radio Liberty lost touch with reality?

— But we were in Belarus until 2020, even until 2021.

— I also had journalists who worked underground in Belarus, I just didn't talk about it. You will not lose touch with people if you are always in touch with them.

This is not a situation of Soviet times, when you left and once a year you can get a letter. Lukashenka will not be able to close Belarus now. We still know what is happening there, even in the conditions of war and actual occupation by the Russian army. Remember how the war began, how much information there was about what was happening, how many weapons were heading to Belarus, how many soldiers. We all knew this as journalists, we will know more. Lukashenka will not succeed.

— You have your own special attitude towards 2020, and to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia, and democratic forces. In your opinion, what was missing in 2020? How do you feel about the fact that one way or another you will have to turn to the power option?

— Firstly, I will say that no one today can name a certain scenario of how Belarus can be liberated. There may be different scenarios, of course. Since there is a war, many people talk about a scenario of force. But no one can say for sure how it will happen. Lukashenka said that it would be the liberation of Belarus by the NATO army. Maybe he knows more. In conditions of war, anything is possible. And even what Lukashenka says, the liberation of Belarus by the NATO army. Everything is possible.

— And which option would you consider the most correct? Because some say that the force scenario will lead to a civil war or to the junta coming to power. Others say that negotiations are unrealistic as long as there is Lukashenka, who will never voluntarily give up power himself.

— Of course, I would like it to be some kind of non-violent scenario. A force scenario is always followed by victims. But whether it will be possible to do this in today's conditions of war, I do not know. I know one thing: Belarus should be freed from both the Lukashenka regime and Russian influence. And the second thing, it's very important. If we do not get out from under the influence of Russia, we will never live in a democratic country. Our Belarusian way is the way to Europe, to the European Union, to NATO, we have no other way out. If we want to keep ourselves as a people, as a nation, if we want to keep our country really independent — we must get away from the influence of Russia. And only the European Union and NATO can give us some guarantees, this "umbrella".

— As soon as what you call the liberation of Belarus happens, are you going to return?

Immediately. Perhaps not even after release, but during.

— Some say that "this is not all, this is not the final democracy, I will return when there is a pure democracy".

— I've been living out of suitcases for 13 years. Of course, I'll be right back. I can't imagine my life anywhere except in Belarus.

— How has Belarusian society changed over these 30 years, has it learned the lessons? How would you rate this path? Because some say these are the lost years. And some talk about how society has changed and grown. What is your understanding?

— Of course, society has changed. It seems to me that now it is very important to continue to analyze. Analyze how we got to such a point as now. How could we allow a dictatorship for 30 years? Every Belarusian should ask himself this question. Some will say, “I did my best. I worked as an independent journalist, I did everything I could." Someone will say: "I have always been in opposition and did everything possible in this situation." Someone will not say anything, because he died during this time. And someone, sorry, worked for this regime, wanted to consider something in this mode for themselves. Someone did not pay attention to it, earned money, did not think about the country. We need to continue to analyze this. How did Lukashenka endure so long? It was a big mistake to allow this dictatorship in Belarus. Even if we say that there were objective conditions: Russia's support. After all, you need to ask yourself these questions in order to prevent such a dictatorship again.

— Since you have already touched on this, how do you feel about those who worked for the regime, and for a long time, and now are in opposition. These are people who realized everything, should they be praised for it? Or do you have some reproaches to these people?

— I believe that these people should, first of all, repent. They should honestly say: "I worked for this regime, I was mistaken, I was an accomplice to the crimes that this regime did." And if a person does not admit this and says that "I worked for the state", "It was not me who said that there were no political prisoners, that sanctions should not be imposed, because I was an ambassador in one country, then in another".

— Who are you talking about, I wonder?

— I'm talking about Pavel Latushka, for example. And about Aliaksandr Azarau, who worked at GUBOPiK [Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption - the punitive body of Lukashenka - Ed.], and we know that he worked very hard with some categories of Belarusian citizens. Because there is information from Belarusian volunteers, whom he pressed, and from the relatives of these volunteers, and from football fans, whom he also dealt with. And now he is getting into politics, the "Opposition Leader". What is that? Who are these people? Repent, first of all. Second, stay out of the lead. You cannot claim some kind of leadership because of your morale.

— And if people will vote for them?

— We'll see. We will see everything in free elections. But, unfortunately, we do not have such elections yet.

— All right. Natallia, thank you very much for such a sincere and deep conversation. Thank you very much for agreeing. I think everyone will be interested.

— Thank you!

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