At the Riga Security Conference, we spoke to Franak Viačorka, a senior adviser to the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The crisis in Belarus keeps coming up in the discussions of experts and politicians, and the regime of unrecognized President Alexander Lukashenko is mentioned as one of the main destabilizing factors in today's Europe. A year ago, Tsikhanouskaya herself spoke at this conference, talking about the main task of her team - to hold new democratic elections in Belarus. So far, this has not been achieved - instead, the Lukashenko regime has only learned to nip any dissent in the bud.
There are now more than 800 political prisoners in Belarus, thousands of people have left the country for security reasons, and resistance has shifted from an active "street" format to cyberspace. Tsikhanouskaya's team is also forced to work "in exile" - in Vilnius. With Franak Viačorka, we discussed how the "government in exile" works, whether it is difficult to organize resistance from afar, and what Belarus can be like after Lukashenko.
For more than a year, Tsikhanouskaya's team has been operating "in exile." What difficulties do you feel because of this?
The most difficult thing is communication with Belarusians. We now have our own samizdat network, 2,000 volunteers, and more than 10 companies have their own strike committees. Our task is simply to be an "umbrella" for all initiatives and groups that fight against the Lukashenko regime. We coordinate them so that everyone works within one strategy. And all the calls - with retirees, students, workers, etc. - are now very difficult to implement, because people are afraid even to use Zoom. After all, if there is a spy on their video call, they will then be exposed and arrested.
And what achievements are you most proud of during this time?
At the international level, within a year we have achieved non-recognition of Lukashenko, sanctions against his regime, and support for civil society. The European Commission has promised to give $3 billion for reforms in Belarus - this is the first time European officials have communicated with an unofficial government and promised concrete money.
We recently spoke with Russian economist Sergei Guriev. He says he does not understand at all how this happened: the European Investment Bank, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Commission - all communicate with Tsikhanouskaya as a recognized head of state.
At the same time, she does not declare herself president or head of government. Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the democratic movement. We know that she won the election, but we have no evidence because all the ballots were destroyed. During this year, Tsikhanouskaya met with the leaders of many countries - and it's just incredible. During his 27-year presidency, Lukashenko has not met even half of them.
How, in your opinion, has Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya herself changed this year?
At the beginning, a year ago, she was not seen as a president, except as a leader leading the democratic movement to new elections. But now she is increasingly perceived as a politician. She had to memorize hundreds of names of world leaders, and learn how international organizations function.
The fact that for the last 10 years she has been raising a son with a hearing impairment also played a role. She gained patience, calmness, confidence. And now we have a patient, calm, and confident politician.
Tell us more about your headquarters: who works there, how are the responsibilities distributed, what are the priorities now?
We have an office that works as a presidential administration. It helps Tsikhanouskaya by devising certain strategies and messages aimed at both Belarus and the international community. And there is a cabinet with the same responsibilities as the traditional government.
Economic vector has a team that processes reforms, organizes economic forums. It is cooperating with the European Commission, in particular, it has developed a $3 billion aid plan for Belarus.
There is Aliaksandr Shlyk, who is involved in elections and electoral reform, as if he were the head of the CEC. The task of his team is to prepare Belarus for new elections.
There are those responsible for education, who agree on scholarships for Belarusians, are engaged in reforming higher education. Last year, we won 800 scholarships for Belarusians in Poland, and the European Humanities University in Vilnius also has several thousand places for them. Together with the European Commission, we are creating a special program for those who want to gain diplomatic skills.
We are also organizing a school of diplomacy to strengthen our international team. We work separately with young people, but our representative has been in prison for almost a year.
Are there enough people now who can implement all these developments in the new Belarus?
No, we lack experts, specialists who can come and take responsibility for the country.
It is clear that this revolution was not expected. More precisely, of course, we have been waiting for it for a long time, but such things still always happen all of a sudden, even if you prepare for them all your life. And we seem to have always said that we need to work, arrange reforms, prepare future elites. But when the revolution began, neither reforms nor elites were ready.
I think the situation in Ukraine was similar after the Revolution of Dignity. So now our main task is not to waste time and think about the future. Because Lukashenko can step down in a month or a year. And we need to be prepared for each scenario.
It is probably difficult to help political prisoners deom outside Belarus. Don't you feel certain helplessness?
The most important thing is that everyone has a lawyer, that the family of every political prisoner has support. In particular, financial, because when you are in prison, you also have to pay money to the state.
How much does it cost?
It depends. First, you pay in a pre-trial detention center, then in prison, you can be appointed to a working group and have funds deducted from your salary.
This is the Soviet prison system; nothing has changed there. Prisoners in Belarus are slaves, and their work is also [reminiscent of] slavery. Formally, they receive some money, but almost everyone takes it away at once. In some prisons, there is a store, where you can buy chocolate, condensed milk, cigarettes. But while you are not working and just sitting in the cell, you need someone to pay - to transfer or bring this money.
Lawyers are the only way to communicate with prisoners. Siargey Tsikhanouskiy's lawyer's license has now been revoked, for example. And Sviatlana no longer has access to her husband.
About 10 lawyers have been deprived of their licenses in the past year. And now we have no communication with most political prisoners. You can't call them. You can write letters - but they also come with a delay of a week or a month; many letters do not arrive at all. There is censorship: "inappropriate" words are "filtered out" with a marker pen.
Recently there was a leak of conversations of security officers where the chief of the Ministry of Internal Affairs gives orders to the chief of prisons: they say, three times a day fill a cell of "political [prisoners]" with chlorine to make it impossible to breathe, put them with "aromatics" (homeless, unpleasant smelling, people with lice and diseases that are difficult to be around) and give them the worst mattresses - with fleas and parasites. This is also torture.
Currently, such evidence of torture appears largely thanks to IT workers. Is there some sort of activism in cyberspace?
Belarusians are well versed in technology. Programmers who lost their jobs or moved from Belarus to Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia this year (about 20,000 people) continue to fight. They support the initiatives of cyber-guerrillas. It is a whole movement, because people are hacking state pages, publishing leaks, archives, personal data. There are groups of cyber-guerrillas who simply report trolls, bots, and propagandists.
There are also troll factories in Belarus, and we just don't know how to deal with them, because there are so many of them. When the Pratasevich story happened, I received 12,000 comments on Instagram in just a few hours - all with the same content. Like, "you landed the plane, we'll kill you." At the time, they wanted to spread such a narrative that it was not Lukashenko who landed the plane, but Franak and the democratic forces were to blame.
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Lukashenko seems to be finding new ways to hold on to power. Recently, a proposal was made to hold a referendum on the redistribution of powers of the president and other branches of government. Will this help Lukashenko legitimize his power?
It seems that Lukashenko is no longer very happy that he promised this referendum. He understands that everything he is doing now in the political sphere will lead to public resistance. People will be able to register as observers in a referendum, campaign for or against the Constitution, depending on which constitution is presented there.
Of course, Lukashenko hopes that as a result of this referendum, he will become even stronger and his power even less constrained. But it is likely that this referendum is not his idea, but a compromise offered to him by the Kremlin.
In any case, I do not see Lukashenko's willingness to make the slightest concessions. He believes that because of the migration crisis or the imprisonment of political opponents, he can maintain his tough stance and gain time. But I see hatred and disloyalty growing even among his people.
Those who recently supported him, walked under his flags, are now boiling mad. They leave and take their wealth out of the country. Lukashenko is going crazy - hence all the mistakes he made recently, from landing a Ryanair plane to the murder of [Vitaliy] Shishov, the migration crisis and attacks on Ukraine.
You mentioned the migration crisis that the EU countries have been suffering from for four months now. Now protests are heard not only from neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, but also from Germany. How do you think this story can end?
It will end as unexpectedly as it began. It's just that in Poland and Lithuania, for some reason, they don't understand yet that the problem is not with migrants, but with the regime. So now all these discussions about building a wall on the border are not a solution to the problem. Lukashenko will undermine it, throw migrants over it, fire on Polish border guards, and find a way to provoke Ukraine if necessary.
He now looks at Poland, Lithuania, the European Union or Ukraine and smiles: "These suckers are useless." He understands that democracies are very weak when it comes to self-defense. Democracies are not adapted to harsh joint action, to the consolidation of efforts.
Poland has been discussing how to treat migrants for two months now, and Lukashenko can solve everything with a stroke of the pen.
But then a logical question arises: if Lukashenko's decision on migrants was revenge for the new package of sanctions, will the West not be afraid to introduce new ones?
After the Ryanair [incident], the European Union adopted the fastest sanctions in its history. Previously, they told us that it was impossible. But it turned out that anything is possible when there is political will - and now it is lacking again. That is why it is necessary for states, leaders, governments to take responsibility, make decisions and go through with this matter of pressure and sanctions.
Sanctions are a perfectly normal tool of international politics when others no longer work. At the same time, sanctions must be tough, swift, and comprehensive, so that they cannot be circumvented.
Although, generally speaking, I did not even think that Belarus would remain on the agenda for so long. Every international structure and organization is now talking about Belarus. But there is also some fatigue. For example, the Hungarian Foreign Minister said during a recent discussion with Tsikhanouskaya: we did everything we could, we have to try something else. In fact, they did not do even 20% of what they could.
Our task is to support this interest in Belarus. And those who call themselves democracies must look for tools and opportunities to combat it. It's not just about the European Union, but also about Ukraine. It allegedly sympathizes with us: we hear words of support from the Ukrainian people, media and politicians. But when it comes to more decisive action, such as sanctions against Lukashenko, uncertainty immediately comes through.
Now the protests are not in an active phase. Are people just afraid? Is there a reason that can lead them to a new round of active street revolution?
As soon as repression is stopped and people are released, millions will come out. Now you leave home with a flag - and 15 minutes later you are already in the KGB. And then a case is trunped up, you risk 5-7 years [in prison] for terrorist activities. Even now, for subscribing to a Telegram channel, you are threatened with imprisonment for 7 years. Of course, this is not in the legislation, there is no such law, but we have already had a complete legal default.
The law simply does not work. There are no human rights. You just have to accept it and look for ways to act in the absence of rights and legality. Going outside is not something that is risky - it just doesn't make sense, because you won't get to the street. In August and September 2020, the street became possible because there were no mass arrests for several weeks. Then, when mass repression resumed in September, fewer people went out.
They dared to do so only when they were sure that hundreds of thousands would come out. And now the protest activity is mostly virtual: it is cyber-guerrilla warfare, sabotage, public disobedience - when people refuse to obey certain laws, distribute leaflets, draw white and red flags on banknotes or write "Lukashenko, go away." In short, they use all the non-violent methods of struggle that are possible. The protest did not disappear, it simply took on a new form.
So, does intimidation, in particular of users of Telegram channels, still work?
Yes. 15,000 people have already unsubscribed from TUT.by after one statement, which was not substantiated at all. But every dictatorship, not just Lukashenko's, sows distrust and self-censorship. And then the dictatorship no longer needs to do anything when people begin to self-censor: they say, it's better to get out of harm’s way. And this is the worst.
And every day, representatives of the regime film people being beaten, maimed, spread videos of confessions in the KGB pre-trial detention center - so that others fear. And, unfortunately, the independent media reproduce this information, and therefore reproduce terror and thus play the role of a terrorist.
Even mentions of Lukashenko now play into his hands. All he wants is to stay in the media space, because he is also the source of his legitimacy.
Thanks to what Lukashenko still manages to stay in power?
There are several reasons. In general, Belarusian society is quite state-dependent. Our people have historically become accustomed to order, rules and laws. And this is very useful in a democracy.
Belarusians are called East European Germans: when reforms need to be implemented, everything happens amicably, quickly. In Belarus, no one crosses the road at a red light. When there were protests, people cleaned up the garbage on the streets. After the protests, Minsk was cleaner than before. People dismantled the barricades themselves and washed the asphalt.
Some say: oh, Belarusians do not know how to make a revolution; but it is part of the mentality. And I think that one day it will help us - although now it helps the dictator. Then we will carry out reforms quickly and the society will be organized quickly.
We saw completely unprecedented self-organization last year, when the state said it would not fight the coronavirus: die or do whatever you want. The society was quickly organized, raising money for masks and medical assistance, for artificial lung ventilation - only because of the understanding that the government will not help.
However, another reason is Lukashenko himself: he was able to build an ideal system of control, surveillance and fear, similar to Stalin's institutions. When people are watching each other, there is a system of denunciations, all cities are equipped with surveillance cameras. When the Criminal Code provides for conditions that give a shorter term for murder than for Viktor Babaryka for running in the election. And all this to protect one person.
In one interview, you noted that those who are leaving now will return quickly. Could it be that after Lukashenko's departure, Belarus will not be the country they dreamed of?
It is difficult to imagine anything worse than Lukashenko. He destroyed the state, discredited state institutions, created an economy in which it is impossible to build something or make money. For business, it is one of the worst countries in Europe. That is why I am sure that as soon as Lukashenko leaves, hundreds of thousands of people will come.
Everyone will look for their place in the new Belarus, they will want to invest in the country. This was the case in Ukraine after 2014, because many people wanted to be part of the new state and change. We will have the same, but even on a larger scale, because we did not have the years of freedom and democracy that were in Ukraine. It will really be a big day for Belarusians all over the world.
But at the same time, for all areas that are now controlled by the state, it will be shock therapy.
I realize that it will hurt. Of course, it will be necessary to introduce certain reforms and changes. Those who are accustomed to living in a kind of paternalistic state will find it difficult to adapt to market conditions.
But we do not need to hurry too much. Care should be taken not to completely destroy the social sphere. We understand that older people are accustomed to state care. It is impossible to destroy everything in one fell swoop and build a liberal model from scratch. We will have to create normal conditions for the arrival of investment, to form an investment climate.
We shouldn’t stop, for example, state-owned enterprises. But we should make it so everyone wants to invest in the new Belarus - Americans, Europeans, Russians and Ukrainians. At the same time, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when uncontrolled privatization began, which led to oligarchization, as was the case in Ukraine or Russia. This did not happen to us, because under Lukashenko this process was stopped. And, perhaps, this is a good chance not to make the mistakes made by neighbors.
I want Belarusians to develop immunity to dictatorship as a result of all this suffering. I hope that the fact that we did not win immediately can be a good sign. If Lukashenko had stepped down from power on August 10 and we would not have gone through all that we went through in a year, this victory would probably have seemed very easy. And then Lukashenko number two would return and arrange an even worse dictatorship for us.
But now we are developing immunity against the dictatorship, and we will keep anyone like Lukashenko off at gunpoint.