07 December 2005

Interview with Belarus Opposition Leader Alexander Milinkevich

Last week, I had the unusual opportunity (thanks to Damyan) to meet with and interview Alexander Milinkevich who, in a recent congress of opposition parties, was elected to lead the unified opposition against President Lukashenko in the 2006 Belarus Presidential Election. Belarus, dubbed by Condoleeza Rice as “the last dictatorship in Europe” is suffering from a total human freedom clampdown by reigning dictator Lukashenko. With total control of all government institutions, including the Central Election Commission, the legislature, the judiciary and mass media, Lukashenko is attempting to prevent an “Orange Revolution” in Belarus. Recently, the Belarus Verkhovna Rada passed changes in legislation, ordered by Lukashenko, in order to further take away liberties from the citizens of Belarus with the goal of complicating matters for the opposition. These modifications bump many current misdemeanors to felony offense level. For example, public gatherings not authorized by the government will get you 3-5 years in prison. Definition of a public gathering? Five or more people. Distributing brochures and leaflets not sanctioned by the government? 3-5 years in prison. Not to mention the constant threat of losing one’s job or place at a University if one is suspected of being involved with the opposition. The “Orange Revolution” however, has given the Belarus people hope that change is possible. Low-key Milinkevich might just be the candidate that is capable of bringing together disparate opposition parties into a unified front. He and his team have placed their lives on the line in pursuit of freedom. Will enough people hit the streets in protest? This and other questions were part of our conversation:

P: In your estimation is it fair to say that Alexander Milinkevich 2006 is Victor Yushchenko 2004?
AM: When we achieve victory then the comparison is absolutely fair. You have to understand I am only a “candidate of candidates” in a congress of democratic forces I was selected to represent the unified opposition. In the sense that I represent a broad civil and political coalition, perhaps I am close to being a Yushchenko.

P: Were all opposition forces represented at this congress, all democratic forces?
AM: Practically all, there were 10 political parties, only the Social Democrats did not attend, and approximately 200 civic organizations were represented. This was a large gathering in which all regions of Belarus were represented.

P: Are the Social Democrats the party of Professor Kazulin?
AM: Yes Professor Kazulin who believes that we should approach like this [gestures with his hand, palm down fingers spread indicating a multiple pronged approach]. We believe the opposite. There are so many small forces that have their own ideas that we must unite since we are not participating in fair elections here, we are fighting a dictatorship.

P: I am interested in understanding what your goal is. What have you established as a target for your movement? Lukashenko himself will decide what the election results will be…
AM: Yes he’ll write in for himself 75%

P: So is your goal an immediate regime change? Or is there a more long-term goal here?
AM: Our goal is to live in a different Belarus. Our goal is not to change Lukashenko for another president. That’s just a step in the process. We do not want to live in the kind of Belarus that he built. He built Belarus by brute force, he built Belarus on fear. We do not want to live in this type of Belarus, nor do the majority of our people. Therefore, we wish to take advantage of the election campaign to get information to the people. And the main method we will use is the campaign “Door to Door”. Lukashenka has, for many, many years, specifically denied us access to television that has been monopolized by the authorities. At the beginning of the year there were 18 independent newspapers where four years ago there were 60. Starting next year, he will only allow the publication of three independent newspapers. So there are less and less media outlets for real information. There is still the Internet and a few tiny newspapers that are published underground. The main method is to literally go to the people. We will win when we are able to get to the people’s minds. First, we must convey that we are the majority, there is no need to fear, we must fight and behind us are the truth and the future.

P: Yes, people will not know if their neighbor is for the opposition, or not. If information is controlled, it’s really difficult…
AM: It’s ironic, the TV continuously feeds information that support for Lukashenko is 90% in some cities, 60% in others. He is simply not telling the truth. The situation, in reality, is quite the opposite.

P: What mechanisms will the “Door to Door” campaign use?
AM: Clearly it will involve people literally walking with information. It’s winning with people. It’s conversations and then leaving behind information. Also we ask what problems people have and engage in further conversation. Of course in normal times we would immediately be arrested by the police for this type of activity. However, during the period of the election campaign we at least have a chance that we do not have a right to waste, although we know that our voices are not heard by the authorities for many, many years already. In strict terms, we demand fair elections. If he again makes the elections dishonest and not according to the constitution, we will call the people to the streets.

P: These new laws Lukashenko recently pushed through don’t help matters.
AM: It goes without saying. The actions I just described are punishable by three years in jail.

P: Do these laws apply during the election campaign?
AM: These law changes are directly about the campaign. He is limiting our access to mass media more and more and as if that’s not enough, he is now forcing us to be silent, not to talk. He is afraid that we will come to people with this type of campaign (“Door to Door”) and convince them with our words, we won’t need the newspapers. The government is correct to be afraid. Legally it is impossible for Lukashenko to win.

P: The Orange Revolution: is information about it distributed? Do people know about it?
AM: Unfortunately, only those people who read independent newspapers. There was also some TV, satellite TV, but the government continuously squashes this information. They were delighted when Timoshenko left, they see that there are rifts. They are also delighted when they see there are not immediate improvements in the economy. They interview those people that say “We’re disillusioned”. Propaganda is working continuously. Like in Europe, when the EU did not pass its constitution, the government immediately made a big issue out of it.

P: In a recent poll 45% of the population responded that a regime change is due. At the same time the economic situation of the average citizen is higher than that of the average Ukrainian. Pensions are paid on time and there is some sense of order. Will people remain passive, or do you believe they are ready to come out and risk the sense of order even though it’s at the cost of repressions of freedom? Will people go to the streets?
AM: The numbers, for example, are as follows. 25% are loyal Lukashenko supporters. 25% are supporters of democratic forces. Then there remains 50% undecided. People who are not sure if it’s better this way or that way. There are many that want change but are afraid. It is true that in Belarus people live, on average, better than in Ukraine or Russia. It is true that there is relative so-called order, but this is order based on use of force, on instilling fear in people.

P: Order based on a large club…
AM: Absolutely right. In the time of Stalin there was also order, and when Hitler was in power there was also order and the streets were clean. But order without freedom and choice has no future. Our foundation is not built on those people that want more bread and salo, but on those people who want freedom, on those people that want to live with their dignity and not be trampled upon. These are educated people. These are young people.

P: During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, internal government dissension was one of the critical success factors. For example the Minister of Transportation ignored a direct order from the Prime Minister to stop all trains from Western Ukraine to Kyiv. What is the probability of internal government dissension in Belarus?
AM: This will be very difficult for us. In Ukraine, there is still, to some degree, regional self-government (samo-vriaduvaniya). Mayors are elected by the people. The Mayor might not have cared what Yanukovych wanted, he was more concerned about his constituency. They are the ones that keep him in place. We have nothing like that. All positions from the top to the bottom are appointed by Lukashenka. They depend on him absolutely. Of course there is some dissent, but I think in our case government officials will begin to come over to our side only when we begin winning. Or the rating of a candidate becomes significantly high relative to Lukashenko’s. Or our campaign will be so successful that that they will see our power. Or if there is a victory in the election of a candidate of the democratic forces. Until we demonstrate power, they will wait.

P: What can people that are not in Belarus: Ukrainians, Americans, Canadians, what can they do to help in the fight for freedom and dignity?
AM: There are two big problems that our partners, people that are not indifferent to what happens in Belarus, people for whom it is important for Belarus to become a free country, can help with. Information support is important, and help in fighting fear is important. We have to support the independent newspapers that Lukashenko is trying to shut down. They are published in Russia and need financial help. All 18 independent newspapers need help because in the end they will have to be distributed for free. It’s also very important to publish small newspapers locally. We have a great deal of experience in this. This is a big weapon for us. First, there is no censoring. Second we can distribute these throughout the country. These are the ways we need help with information. When I speak about fear it’s very important for Belarus that in democratic countries a fund has been established for victims of repression. When a person has legal expenses, they are covered, when there is fine, the fine is covered. When a student is expelled from a University for free-thinking, for participating in a political protest… when a student understands that there is a place reserved for him, at no charge, at a University in Prague or Warsaw he will be more self-confident and he will not be afraid to come out and fight for freedom.

P: Speaking of youth, is there a youth organization, a strong one?
AM: We do not have such a movement in Belarus, although we do have some development of youth organizations not only in Minsk, but in other cities. Organizations like ZUBR, Youth Front, and Rights Alliance, the good thing is that they have formed a type of coalition. They’ve united and together they are implementing a mobilization campaign.

P: The composition of your “Maidan” is comprised of what? Is it 50% young, 50% old, what is it?
AM: First of all it will be the youth, but small proprietors and business people should come out as well. They are almost all dissidents that understand that in the current regime there is not future for them.

P: You have two sons right? What ages are they?
AM: One is 31 years old, he’s a lawyer, finished law school and is now doing business law, and the other is still a student he’s 16.

P: And they live in Belarus?
AM: They live in Belarus, in the same city as I do.

P: Do you find any time for family?
AM: It makes me very sad; I also have a grand-daughter, that I see my family so rarely. There are times when a month goes by and I do not see them. They believe in me and support me, although they are afraid something might happen to me.

P: Do you find any current or historical world-renown figures inspirational? Why?
AM: In the history of Belarus there are famous people that are examples for me. First of all is one of the rulers of Grand Duchy Of Lithuania in which there were Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. He was Vytautas the Great who, in fact, started his political career in the town where I am from. He was able to unite a great number of nationalities, and there was a great deal of tolerance towards people. And there was also Kastus Kalinowski our national hero that in the year 1863 created an uprising in Belarus against Russia. In fact, my ancestors were part of that uprising. My grand father and great-grandfather were victims of repression. And regarding contemporary figures, Belarus is proud of its creative elite and these individuals support me and that is of great significance. They are a cultural elite that do not wish to live in Belarus the way it is now.

P: Is there an underground cultural, art movement?
AM: Yes there is an underground culture. Their writings are not published because of government censorship. We have successful rock groups that are famous in other countries and in our country they are prohibited from performing. They are not liked by the authorities. Yes there is much art and we want all art to develop freely and we will make it so.

P: To recap, maybe you could say something as if you were addressing the people of Belarus.
AM: I will say that uprising that I mentioned in 1863 the circumstances were very difficult. A small kernel of people called upon simple peasants, upon the nobles, regardless of the huge machine of the Czars Empire, the Army, they still rose up. They rose up because they believed that they would raise the spirit of the people. So I believe that when our revolution happens, like in Ukraine, the same as in Ukraine the goal will be the spirit. This will not be a revolution for financial gain. This uprising will happen with the slogan: “For your and our freedom”. It’s impossible for there to be freedom in one country, when in a neighboring country there is tyranny. We are fully expecting that when Belarus joins the family of democratic countries it will not only be our victory. It will be a victory for the entire democratic world. So I would say it like this: “For your and our freedom”. It’s good that in America, Canada, and Europe there are people that are not indifferent to this. Thank you for this. The issue of victory, however, is our issue. But your support of us is exceptionally important.

P: We are with you and wish you success!
AM: Thank you. Thank you for your interest towards us.


cherolex said...

I visited Belarus in February 2003. I attended the conference on media and NGO cooperation, organized by Belarussian NGOs. There were about 50 NGO representatives. The conference wa held somewhere in sanatorium, 50 kms outside of Minsk. A few things stroke my mind:
1. The conference was held almost secretly. It was very important that nobody from the government officials wouldn't learn about this...otherwise, I would imagine myself, detained by police...he, he...not very funny experience.
2. I also learnt that a few NGO and other professional media in Belarus had a lot of problems with registration of their media outlets. For example, one NGO media was requested to remove the word "independent" from its name and motto (below the title). Then there were limits in circulation figures - no more than 1,000 copies or something like that.

I strongly believe that Belarussians will be able to stand up for changes in their country and choice they will make.

petro said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I've never personally experienced a regime that restrictive. Regarding NGO's I know that there are several outside of Belarus setting up pro-democracy operations. Radio stations being erected in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania. It's a real challenge to get information across.

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