The Belarus question is not over (yet), Viacorka says
It has been nearly three years since the post-election protests that threatened to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko and left Europe, the United States and Russia in suspense for a few weeks.
A new face looked set to replace Europe’s last dictator, a charismatic woman called Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, but the civil unrest was eventually successfully put down. The rest is history: the West decided to implement a sanctions-regime against Lukashenko’s order, Vladimir Putin forgave his ally’s misdeeds, reopening work on that construction site that is the Union State.
Today, two and a half years after those events, InsideOver got in touch with Franak Viačorka, who is the chief political advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to find out what is happening in Belarus, a key-country in the West-Russia confrontation of which we will hear more and more often.
The Ukraine war has shadowed the Belarus question, but it doesn’t mean that the Belarus question is over – conversely, it’s far from over: Russia intends to increase its military presence in Belarus, and Lukashenko and Putin are working on expanding bilateral ties in the context of the so-called Union State. Despite the rapprochement, Belarus’ support for the Russian war machine appears to have been neither open nor broad. Experts argue that this was due to Lukashenko’s fears of backfires. If that were true, what do Lukashenko’s fears say about today’s Belarus? Is the country living in a kind of “cold peace” since the 2020 mass protests?
I don’t think there is any peace in Belarus. I think we have a revolution, which started in 2020, that is still ongoing, although unfortunately it went underground. For Belarus, Russia’s domination and occupation did not start in 2022, but in 2020, when Lukashenko exchanged Russian support for staying in power for money and diplomatic assistance.
Right now, Lukashenko is cornered. He doesn’t have many choices other than supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine. Lukashenko understands that without Putin’s support he would lose power quickly, and Russia is using the weakness of the Belarusian state in order to increase its control over Belarus. If in Ukraine Russia is using weapons to establish control and occupy territories, in Belarus Russia is using political, informational and economic means, and it is taking over the country – its economy, its infrastructure, even its territory – piece by piece.
Lukashenko understands that Belarusians don’t support the war, the vast majority at least, this is why he chose this partial participation in the war. He realizes very well that if there were direct orders to the Belarusian army to engage in the war, there would be a backfire. He understands, he feels it very well, this is why there are no Belarusian soldiers in Ukraine, but only the usage of Belarusian infrastructure by Russia with the approval of Lukashenko regime.
Meanwhile, Belarusian society resists. Since 2022 there’ve been more than 80 acts of sabotage on railways. Recently, Belarusian partisans destroyed a Russian A-50 military surveillance aircraft, which is one of the most important and most expensive airplanes in the Russian airfleet.
Has Lukashenko changed much in the last two and a half years?
Lukashenko feels insecure, very fragile, this is why he is now interested in having Russian troops and nuclear weapons in Belarus – they’re a kind of guarantee of power.
Today’s Lukashenko is very different from that of 2020. Then, he tried to play geopolitical games between the West and the East – there were jokes in Belarus about him being pro-Russian in wintertime and pro-Western in the summertime. Now, no more games: he’s only fully pro-Russian, because Russia is his source of power and legitimacy.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya was recently sentenced to 15 years in absentia by the Minsk court. How this verdict is going to affect her fight? Does she risk being abducted like other exiled Belarusians?
Ms Tsikhanouskaya is currently under protection by the Lithuanian State, which also gave her diplomatic status. So, she’s protected more or less. But we all remember what happened to Roman Protasevich in 2021, the journalist who was kidnapped on board the RyanAir flight. So, a risk remains at all times.
We do what we can to impose additional security measures to better protect Ms Tsikhanouskaya, as well as other political leaders of the Belarusian Democracy Movement. As for the prison terms, it’s insane to hear such prison sentences in the 21st century. We’re seeing with our own eyes how Lukashenko is trying to build a North Korea-style state in the center of Europe.
Before, political activists were sentenced to 15 days. Now, for the same thing, they can be sentenced to 15 years. This, of course, stops many people from being active in political life. It certainly won’t stop Ms Tsikhanouskaya, but for many others it’s a gigantic deterrent – many people fear for their relatives. Even those who are in exile, they still have brothers and sisters in the country. Accordingly, many people prefer to remain anonymous, or they refrain from exposing themselves too much, because they know their loved ones could be taken hostage by the regime. I must say that Lukashenko uses repression masterfully in order to scare people, to suppress the resistance, and to keep his power vertical solid.
According to a recent ECFR analysis on Belarus, more than 11,000 criminal cases against political activists have been opened and more than 30,000 people have been jailed on political grounds since 2020. What’s the situation right now?
What we see are unprecedented levels of terror. It was impossible to imagine until a few years ago that such a repression could take place in Belarus. Now, what people do after they wake up is read the names of those arrested during the night.
Many of the people who are arrested by the Kgb are tortured, sometimes they’re sexually harassed, and their confessions are video-recorded. These videos often look like movies from the Nazi or the Soviet era. Then, the Kgb uploads these videos on YouTube, where they’re advertised, in such a way as to use Western platforms to promote fear. There’s a big chance that after you confess, you still won’t be released.
It’s hard to imagine street protests under these conditions. Accordingly, all those who want to resist usually join some underground movement, doing something secretly. Open resistance is impossible. Furthermore, many of those who are currently jailed belonged to the military, or were officials, so this is not only about opposition activists. Virtually everyone living in Belarus is under threat. It’s like a North Korea in the center of Europe.
Do you think there could be a catalyst event that could get people back on the streets?
Well, there are many possible scenarios – and many of them depend on the evolution of the Ukraine war. Everyone in Belarus is watching how the Ukraine war is developing. Everyone in Belarus is waiting for the Ukrainian counteroffensive, to see if it would be successful or not – hopefully it will. But also the economic situation, which is deteriorating day by day, could trigger a change. I also think some repression within the system, if someone from the very top will be arrested by the Lukashenko regime, could spark some unrest, some discontent, among those who are near him.
I couldn’t predict anything, it’s very hard to predict what could happen next week, or next month, but I’m sure that the situation will change. We can see the fragility and vulnerability of the regime. Our goal, the goal of Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s team, is to keep the regime under stress, that’s why we ask our Western partners to impose more sanctions on the regime, to keep it isolated, and even to create tension within the elite as well – because intra-elite divisions could be a factor of change.
You spoke of your Western partners. This question has to do with them. In light of what occurred to Juan Guaidò, don’t you fear that the West could one day decide to drop the support to Belarus and its people, and thus to Ms Tsikhanouskaya, in the context of some negotiation with Russia?
Of course, we must count on ourselves primarily. No one will make changes in Belarus instead of us – it’s our task. But I do believe that for the European Union is crucial to have a free and independent Belarus. If the EU gives up on Belarus, allowing Lukashenko stay in power, there would be a constant threat to its borders: from migrations crises to skyjackings.
We could even say that the war [in Ukraine] won’t end until Belarus is free. So, I think, I do hope that Europe won’t give up on our fight, because its interest is to have changes in Belarus. It’s in the EU interest to have Belarus out of Russia’s sphere of influence and we will be working with every European partner as long as necessary to convince them to support Belarus as much as possible.
How do you see the future of Belarus in the next five-to-ten years?
My dream is to see Belarus as a democratic country, one where people can be elected to parliament, can compete in elections, and where ministers and presidents change. Sometimes I’d like to see and hear complaints from the Europeans because of our many parliamentary debates, of our instability. But, you know, this is the kind of instability I do want in Belarus, since this is the real dynamic of political life. The worst thing is to have someone elected forever like Lukashenko, with nothing changing.
I do hope that Belarus will eventually become a European country, an EU member, as I’m sure that Ukraine will win and that Russia will be weakened and will no longer be able to put its grip on Belarus or Ukraine again.