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Lukasz Jasina, Tomasz Zawisko, Liberal Culture, June 19, 2012 (Poland)

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We would easily win against Lukashenko...

Lukasz Jasina, Tomasz Zawisko: The dictatorship in Belarus is still in its prime, meanwhile you get the impression that the West is tired of this topic. Do you see any chance for this situation to change?

Alexander Milinkevich: The E.U. has tried two policies towards Belarus: isolation and sanctions. The latter were mostly personal, like those of the constitutional overturning in 1996 up to 2008. Then they realized that this "moral" policy of isolation wouldn’t bring any improvements in the situation. But I have no doubt that Belarus’ geopolitical fate will be resolved in the near future. There is no chance of keeping Belarus in the E.U.’s sphere of influence if they do not return to dialogue - once the political prisoners have been released, of course. The dialogue must take place according to strict conditions, and it should be critical. We should know that the dictator will never become a Democrat – he will have to be settled step by step. Without dialogue, Belarus will become part of Russia ...

Jasina, Zawisko: ... Russia, which recently re-backed Lukashenko: financially and politically. Vladimir Putin chose Minsk as one of his first foreign visits after inauguration, while Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande have to wait.

Milinkevich: Putin has seriously helped Lukashenko, promising him money for a nuclear power plant. It will make us more dependent than ever on Russia. In addition, Belarus regained credit, which for a time was suspended. The Russian president wants to be a great restorer of the Soviet Union in the form of a Euro-Asian Alliance and therefore will do anything to get closer to each other Belarus. However, nothing comes for free. Sooner or later, Lukashenko will face the problem of maintaining his position - because his authority also has an economic basis. Russia has tough conditions: they want to privatize the best companies for the benefit of its oligarchs and to replace the Belarusian ruble with the Russian rubvle.

Jasina, Zawisko: Belarusian society seems to be mired in deep depression. Are Belarusians are able to come together and build a joint force that could threaten the position of the dictator?

Milinkevich: Belarus is not homogeneous. Most people are not interested in politics, just like most people in Poland are probably not. But Lukashenko will win easily if he is in their heads. Unfortunately, even the political elite has Lukashenka encoded somewhere deep inside.

Jasina, Zawisko: But people do not only adapt to the political situation, they also help to create it. Why did Belarusians vote for Lukashenko?

Milinkevich: He is a bit like "Ded Moroz" (Father Frost) - when there are problems, he always solves them. He goes to Russia and announces that he has had another success: arranged for oil and gas. A lot of money which Lukashenko received from his own economy and large subsidies from Russia has been spent on solving social problems. Belarusians living near the border of Ukraine or Russia see that over there it is worse. Of course, I’m not talking about in Kiev or Moscow, but about the provinces. People compare us with Ukraine, - where politicians are fighting violently with each other and the situation has not improved at all after the color revolution. For Belarusians, democracy after a revolution means chaos and disorder. Russian television showed a war in the Caucasus, the oligarchs, banditry. Paradoxically, therefore, the system is stable and this is thanks to Lukashenko. We the people are provided with a pension, small but stable salaries, and Lukashenko still uses the word "stability". Citizens want peace and quiet, not revolutionary changes, and he uses this fact.

Jasina, Zawisko: A new generation has grown up that does not know any different, because all their lives Lukashenka has been in power.

Milinkevich: It’s true. This new generation is different from the one that grew up in the era of perestroika. People have adapted, they conform. Especially young people, who understand what you can and cannot say. And they choose what is more certain. But you can make a career under Lukashenko: in power, in business. In Minsk, the cars are better than in Warsaw ...

Jasina, Zawisko: Why do young people, who would be most willing to rebel, not realize that it could be otherwise?

Milinkevich: Well, I was shocked when I read that 70 percent of Belarusians had never been to the E.U., and 55 per cent had never spoken to someone from the European Union. It is difficult to talk about a pro-European mood, since we do not know Europe. For the majority of our society, democracy is  synonymous with these several unsuccessful years in Belarus and what we know from Ukraine. Meanwhile, the best weapon against the dictatorship is a broad exchange, which is hampered by visa problems. A Belarusian pays almost double for a Schengen visa than a Russian or Ukrainian. That’s why we ask for these fees to be reduced, because contacts provide an opportunity for the Europeanization of Belarus. The effect of Poland’s entry into the Schengen area has meant that borders have been closed, and it is nothing other than the rebuilding the Berlin Wall between Bialystok and Grodno.

Jasina, Zawisko: You do not like comparisons to Ukraine, but one thing seems to be in place. Father Borys Gudziak once told "Liberal Culture" that in Ukraine there is a fear that will turn this country into a moral Chernobyl. What is the role of fear in Belarus?

Milinkevich: Our situation is incomparably worse than in Ukraine or Russia. If you are loyal, you have a job, and if not, you will not find one. We do not have Siberia or psychiatric clinics like in the Soviet Union. But if the authorities notice that a student participates in demonstrations or collects signatures for a democratic candidate - they can throw him out of college. If a teacher is involved in the democratic movement, they will also be fired. People need to make a living, and now even employees of businesses worry about their jobs. Therefore, our opposition is mostly made up of people who have a big problem with sustaining their family, because it is impossible for them to find any work. In 2000, I was forced to leave university, where I had been working for 25 years. There are thousands of such cases. I have a way of making a living, because I teach abroad and earn from books, but most people do not have that option. Everybody thinks about tomorrow.

Jasina, Zawisko: Is, then, Belarus doomed to Lukashenko? The current president has always maintained enough support so that most of the public has not rebelled? You said yourself earlier that it could be easily overcome.

Milinkevich: Because it turns out that the Belarusian authorities are losing a lot of support. In the elections in 2006, it amounted to more than 60 percent - after the crisis, when the ruble lost nearly three times its value, it dropped - as never before - down to 20 percent. I think that Lukashenka will not regain lost support. People are starting to be disappointed in him, and his position will be largely dependent on the support of Moscow - five, seven billion annually cast as gifts to Belarus.

Jasina: However, the drop in support for Lukashenko does not translate into a successful opposition. Why is that?

Milinkevich: Although you have to fight for the minds of all people, for a non-violent, but revolutionary change, we need an evolution in thinking of the middle class who live in large cities. Much of the new businessmen adapt to the system, but we can not blame them, because they do not know that you can do otherwise. A huge amount of work on education and information is needed. In this case, the Internet is our ally - in Belarus it is used by around 60 percent, around 80% of young people. Besides, an influential civil society is developing in Belarus which focuses on small local problems. It is there, and not in parties, that there are now more people whom we want to reach.

Jasina: And did you manage this during the 2006 presidential elections?

Milinkevich: It was the year of Lukashenka’s largest economic success, and at the same time terrible repressions. In fact, we did not believe that we would win. We just wanted to unite people who think pro-democracy - the count. But our result, which was 25 per cent for me and 7 per cent for Alexander Kozulin, was a great success. We showed that there are people who are not afraid to go to the square, although the authorities had said that they would treat them as terrorists - which carries the death penalty. We showed that they would have to reckon with us. Lukashenko realized that society did not support it. We supported the young, educated, enterprising and pro-European part of the society. I was in a contrasting position, although that was not a PR plan. Lukashenko is coarse, rude, and speaks to everyone using ‘ty’ (informal ‘you’). I come from an educated family.

Jasina: It there a chance of repeating that success or even building on it?

Milinkevich: After those elections, a struggle began within the opposition over who would be the next leader. In 2007, the Belarusian opposition held a congress, which eliminated the "one leader" function and introduced a system of rotation, in which five people were provided as temporary leaders. It was a big mistake. I backed away. It’s obvious five people cannot go everywhere and talk. Therefore, it is our fault that as many as nine candidates took part in the last election. In this way, we demonstrate weakness, not strength. We cannot allow that as we are not a democracy. Without a single candidate in an authoritarian regime you simply waste your time at elections.

* Alexander Milinkevich, Belarusian mathematician and physicist, in 1990-1996, the democratically elected deputy mayor of Grodno. Until 2000 he worked as a university lecturer. An honorary member of the Union of Poles in Belarus. In 2006, the united opposition candidate in the presidential elections in Belarus. Today is the head of a social movement called "For Freedom".

Lukasz Jasina, PhD, member of "Liberal Culture" editorial board. He lives in Hrubieszow.

Tomasz Zawisko, co-editor of "Liberal Culture".

Interview took place at the Wroclaw Global Forum, 1 June 2012

"Liberal Culture" No. 180 (25/2012), 19 June 2012

Originally published (in Polish):

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