TCS Daily

Belarus: A Dangerous Place for Politics

By Evgeny Morozov - April 25, 2006 12:00 AM

This week Belarus begins yet enter another tumultuous spell. On April 26, the opposition will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy by organizing a massive public rally ("Chernobyl March"). This will be similar to or even bigger than the ones that shook the country after the rigged presidential elections of March 19, in which the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko took almost 83 percent of the vote.

On the eve of the "Chernobyl March", TCS contributor Evgeny Morozov talks to Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich about the effectiveness of EU's policies in the country, the next steps of the Belarusian opposition, and the future of the country's relations with Russia.

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TCS: Are you satisfied with Europe's reaction to the presidential elections of March 19th?

Alexander Milinkevich: Yes, I am fully satisfied. The EU has delivered on all of the declarations it has made. These declarations are finally decisive and firm, unlike the ones in the past that were soft, diplomatic, and consensus-seeking. I think that this is right, because the dictatorship understands only the language of force. The moment you start talking diplomacy to them, they interpret it as a weakness, and start abusing their partners. These people never value compromise as an option. So, I am quite satisfied that the reaction from the European institutions -- the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council of Europe -- has been quite strict and homogeneous.

However, the Commission should urgently develop a strategy on how to deal with the civil society in Belarus. This is not a typical country. Unlike Lithuania, Poland, or Slovakia, here one cannot work openly and transparently. The EU efforts should address this shortfall.

TCS: During one of your visits to the EU, you suggested that it should create a special fund for promoting democracy. At the same time, last week many in the EU got shocked to find out that 5 out of 7 billion Euros spent in the CIS have been wasted. How will this new fund you are talking about be more effective?

AM: Fortunately, when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of development aid, Belarus has a very good reputation. It has never been shaken by scandals akin to those in Russia or Ukraine. And I hope this will continue to be the case. Secondly, even when compared to Ukraine, Belarus has received relatively little development funds from other democratic nations. In my opinion, Belarus has a solid track-record, and quite a bright future when it comes to aid.

The fund we are advocating will be under public control. Civil society and NGOs will be more effective than any bureaucrat from Brussels at monitoring how this aid is being spent.

TCS: Could you comment on the relatively weak reaction from the Old Europe (as opposed to that of the New Europe) to the post-election situation in Belarus? What about very little or no willingness from the Old Europe to provide free places at their universities for Belarusian students who were expelled after the protests?

AM: I had meetings both with the French minister of foreign affairs and the chancellor of Germany about this. I would not say that these countries are more passive today. True, this passivity was very common in the past, however, today things changed. Countries of the Old Europe are trying to follow everything that's happening in Belarus and volunteer to join all possible initiatives.

Secondly, after Poland decided to finance studies of 300 Belarusian students, there is not much demand for scholarships in other countries. It is much easier for Belarusians to master Polish, and the majority of people actually want to go there.

However, for us it is also very important that at least 5-10 students are studying in other countries. There is a language barrier though, which eliminates most of the competition at the very beginning. So, whenever I meet representatives of those countries, I always make it clear that they should, of course, help our students as much as they can, but I also remind them that there are other opportunities to help the country.

TCS: The oldest Belarusian newspaper, Nasha Niva, might soon disappear due to the state pressure. Do you think that the EU could offer any help in terms of supporting media projects? Could you also comment on the accusations of bias in the reporting of the Russian-language version of Euronews?

AM: As for Euronews, we are, indeed, very sad about the stark differences between the comments in the English/French and the Russian versions of the same broadcast. For us, it is extremely important that truth reaches our people, and Euronews offers the only window through which Belarusian can peep at unbiased information. I think that the performance of the Russian language Euronews has marginally improved though.

As for newspapers, it is true that there are practically none left. If four years ago we had about 60 independent newspapers that covered politics and social affairs, right now we have three -- and one more faces extinction. These newspapers are already printed abroad and transported into the country. We hope that Nasha Niva will be able to register in Vilnius (where it was already published once), and then be brought into Belarus and distributed through our network of activists. In this case, we, of course, need better sponsors, since the newspapers will be given away for free, not sold. So we would be looking for sponsors to cover the printing and distribution costs for printing newspapers.

I believe that newspapers -- national or local -- should be the main media vehicle for our informational campaigns. If we have money left from the newspaper projects, then of course, we should invest that into other media projects.

TCS: How strong is the involvement of the United States into the political processes that are currently happening in Belarus? Are you planning to pay a visit there anytime soon?

AM: No, I am not planning to go there soon. Nevertheless, we are enjoying very close cooperation with many American organizations. What I find particularly good about working with Americans is that they have much more flexible, less formalized, ways and means of support than many Europeans. Their help has always been swift and effective. I hope that EU's aid programs will also move in that direction.

On the other hand, all American NGOs and foundations that are active in Belarus have been removed from the country. So they have to work without an office in the country, based in Ukraine or Russia. This is a great impediment.

TCS: What do you think of recent proposals by your colleagues in the Belarusian opposition to hold public trials over Lukashenko? And how this can be realized in practice?

AM: Arranging Lukashenko 's trials does not top my Belarusian agenda at the moment. By the way, neither do the visa sanctions imposed by the EU. What tops my agenda is delivering information to the people, who are lacking it badly. So, beyond punishing Lukashenko's regime for its crimes, this trial process might be extremely important to us as a means to inform the masses.

If we don't do anything, the regime's propaganda will hit back saying that all of this is part of a great conspiracy of the capitalist West. So, if we don't reply with our own wave of information, most of our other activities will be undermined through Lukashenko 's media.

TCS: What do you expect from the Chernobyl March? How is your strategy going to change after it?

AM: First of all, this is going to be a traditional rally. We have been holding political and social actions on this day ever since the first anniversary. So, it is not directly connected to the elections. Nevertheless, we will surely talk about the elections there.

Our main objective is to show that our Chernobyl is not only radioactive; it is also political, cultural, and social. It is equally important that people again pour out in the streets to prove that they are not afraid of the authorities, that they are able to say "No", that they are able to protest.

As for street protests in general, for us it is definitely not an end in itself. We do recognize that street action is very important for us as a mode of change and this dictatorship can fall only as a result of street protests. However, we would continue organizing them only if more and more people show up at each of them. So while I do see that the street actions give us a certain voice, I am in favor of putting the main emphasis on creating better communication and public education campaigns throughout the country.

We simply have to go and talk to people. This is what we have been doing for two years; we have already achieved a result that few have expected. But we have to go beyond and win new supporters. So far we have won the support of only one-third of the population.

TCS: As for Chernobyl, how are you going to protest against Lukashenko's plans to repopulate it? Especially given that in the report published last year, some of the UN agencies expressed views that gave Lukashenko's moves certain legitimacy. Do you enjoy full support of the EU and the US on this issue?

AM: Unfortunately, there is no unity in the West regarding Chernobyl. The democratic opposition of Belarus, on the other hand, are strongly against Lukashenko's plans.

Yes, we strongly believe that one cannot give birth and rear children in those areas. Nor can one grow any fruit or vegetables. Nor can one force university graduates to work there. We are quite intransigent on this issue. We understand that there is very little we can change in the country until we come to power. But we should always be talking about it, appealing to the facts and the truth.

A united Western position on this issue is of particular importance to us. Unfortunately, International Atomic Energy Agency is, of course, often supporting Lukashenko, closing eyes to the obvious facts. Even the UN sometimes has a dubious position on the subject. So what we want is for the West to have a very unified and homogeneous position on the subject like the solid position that the European Union has right now on many of the Belarusian policy issues.

TCS: Now that you mentioned unity, are you still in touch with the other anti-Lukashenko presidential candidate, Alexander Kozulin, who is in jail now? Do you have a joint strategy and how do you coordinate your actions?

AM: We are in dialogue with his party. For us, the most important thing is not uniting the two leaders, but uniting the two party structures. Our current coalition has a very broad assortment of parties and social groups, and we would, of course, only welcome Kozulin's party among us.

However, sometimes it just happens that full cooperation is impossible. I think that such flawless cooperation is possible only if the two parties share the same aims and goals. If they are different, then full cooperation is not possible, but limited cooperation is, in fact, possible and even required.

TCS: Is the other opposition leader -- Michail Marinich, who just has been released from jail -- involved in the opposition campaigns?

AM: Marinich said he would like to take some time off to recover his ill health. He's made a public statement that he is not going to enter public politics, but would rather become very active in the field of human rights.

TCS: What concrete steps can the Western countries make to pressure Russia, especially on the eve of the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg?

AM: I know that Putin's attitude towards Lukashenko is not a very good one. One can talk to him about it, and he senses the problem (he himself has big problems with Lukashenko). Of course, if the West manages to come up with a unified position on the subject and starts buzzing about it every time they meet with Russia, it would be much easier to foment a regime change in Belarus. Naturally, this regime sustains itself only through Russia's assistance. As soon as even economic assistance disappears, the regime will be gone quickly.

The West should give a clear indication to Russia that without a real change in Belarus, it will be extremely hard for Russia to cooperate with other democratic countries. I think that this is extremely important that this question is raised at the G8 meeting; we fully endorse this initiative.

But let me underline once again: our coalition is not anti-Russian. Our coalition is able to build better relations with Russia that Lukashenko. However, we would never trade in our sovereignty.

TCS: How exactly you are going to build your relations with Russia, primarily in the energy field, in the current environment of rising energy prices?

AM: I believe that the prices we pay for oil and gas will increase up to the market levels, regardless of who will be the president, Lukashenko or Milinkevich. It is no longer about giving presents to friends within a coalition. Today Russia is entering WTO, and it just has to do increase prices. So we have no illusions -- we will be paying as much as all other countries in the world.

Lukashenko has not prepared the country for these changes. We have prepared a plan on how to gradually get out of this predicament. We want to publish this strategy of ours soon, so that people can read it and the government can follow it. There are many ways for us to avoid big problems. Energy conservation is one; here we need more investment support. And of course we need alternative means of energy generation -- and we have a program for that.

The Belarusian economy will be in a deep crisis soon, and we fully understand that.

TCS: Could you comment on the recent statements by the Russian television about an assassination attempt on yourself, planned by politicians from Georgia and Lithuania?

AM: I know the people that were mentioned in that TV program. I had met them, and we know each other. I do not consider myself an enemy of those people. I fully exclude the possibility of terrorist acts. Of course, I am already used to this, since before every significant protest of the Belarusian opposition, there always appear some beneficiaries who tell me that I am about to get shot. It happened on the eve of March 19, it happened on the eve of March 25, and the same thing happens all over again now. Doing politics in Belarus is a dangerous activity.

TCS: How strong is the human resources potential of your team? Especially considering that many of them had already worked for Lukashenko in his early years, who do you think will be the new people that you will bring into power?

AM: Our team consists of people with rather diverse backgrounds, from science to very practical experiences. However, one should not think that once Milinkevich gets to power, all of the previous managers will be gone. Of course, we are going to get rid of all "ideologists", we do not need any ideology in the workplace or public life. Those who work in the economy, the social sector, medicine are likely to retain their posts. Some of the key people will need to be changed for the reforms to be effective. Perhaps, even some of the current ministers might be able to stay.

However, I don't think that we are likely to run into a big HR problem. I assure you that there is a very strong restive mood all through Lukashenko 's nomenclature. Many of them have excellent schooling and potential. It is just that due to today's situation -- where everything is decided by one man -- they cannot really express themselves in politics or economics. There are many talented people in Belarus, capable of carrying the reforms.

TCS: Thank you very much.


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