Head of the Belarusian Human Rights Center “Viasna” Ales Bialiatski, imprisoned for “tax evasion,” spent almost 3 years behind bars, from August 4, 2011, to July 20, 2014. He was supposed to be released only in February of 2016, and according to him, he was psychologically set for such period and did not intend to submit an appeal for pardon. Especially since neither attempts of international organizations to press for Ales’ release, nor Solidarity Days with civic society of Belarus, which have been held by the international human rights community annually on August 4, the day of his imprisonment, did not yield any result and could not have yielded it, except for moral support for the imprisoned himself. However, with the beginning of the Crimean invasion, Lukashenka once more needed to demonstrate his democratic potential (within reason, of course) to the EU. And so Bialiatski was released. At least, the human rights activist makes it clear that he associates his own “premature” freedom with large geopolitical games.
At the same time, according to the Viasna Human Rights Center, there are still seven political prisoners in Belarus, so the Day of Solidarity with civil society of this country is no less relevant, considering the life story and death of one of the Heavenly Sotnia heroes Mikhail Zhyznevsky.
We were able to talk to Bialiatski on August 4. Our short phone conversation started with his first impressions of being free.
“I didn’t see changes in the Belarusian society. Except for several new ugly buildings constructed in the downtown of Minsk. That is all for the changes. On the other hand, changes are taking place in a specific environment of people, which covers whole Belarus. They are active and inquisitive, so I am not pessimistic. I am the most alarmed by what is happening to Ukraine now. This is a thought I have been going to sleep and waking up with for the past few months in prison. Events that are taking place in Ukraine are of crucial importance for us, Belarusians.”
Let us get into more detail on that. In what way can Ukrainian events influence Belarus?
“It should be understood that Belarus is densely covered by Russian mass media, television in particular. And therefore, it is covered with a powerful network of propaganda, which influences Belarusians’ perception of what is happening in Ukraine. Independent media and journalists, and we, human rights activists try to explain the difference between what Russian propaganda is telling and what has really been happening in Ukraine. But I think it is hardly possible to achieve a breakthrough soon. A lot depends on how the events in Ukraine unfold in the future, what democratic and economic changes take place in the next several years. If you succeed, if Ukraine truly becomes a European state, more developed than it has been before, if it is capable of economic growth, naturally, it will set a great example for Belarusians. The same applies to civil rights and freedoms. If you manage to raise the independence of courts, preservation of rights and freedoms of citizens to a higher level, it will be the best example for Belarusians, considering all those connections that exist between our countries. I want to remind that about 200,000 Ukrainians live in Belarus and slightly less, but still a great number of Belarusians live in Ukraine. Our border regions are tightly connected economically. Thus, the situation in Ukraine will determine the future of Belarus for the next five to seven years. It can even be said that to some extent the fate of Ukraine today is the fate of Belarus. That is why we are thinking about the ways we can help you.”
If we talk about Lukashenka’s position in this confrontation, it reminds of an attempt to walk on the blade of a knife. Literally on Monday Belarusian Partisan posted a photo of Russian military near Gomel on Twitter. How far is Lukashenka ready to go in military cooperation with Putin? Where is the borderline? It is clear from your interviews and commentaries that you connect your release with this famous Lukashenka’s balancing. What do you think can the further development of the situation be?
“This is a rather complicated question. It must be understood that the alliances Lukashenka has been creating with Russian presidents, starting with Yeltsin and ending with Putin, during the past 20 years covered Belarus with a very tight web. On the one hand, they allegedly provide some economic benefits, cheap gas and oil, but on the other, they demand a great price, like army bases, military and political cooperation.
“Suffice it to say that in Bobruisk, where I served my sentence, an airfield with Russian aircraft is located. We have been looking at all these Russian planes every day in the morning and at night. It is not for me to judge about the extent of danger Belarus can present as Russia’s ally, it is a task for military and political analysts, but in any case, I find solid cooperation with Russia dangerous for the future of independent and democratic Belarus. Since democracy and human rights standards in Russia are on significantly lower level than, let’s say, in our neighbors that are EU members. And we also try to explain this to Belarusians.
“As for Lukashenka’s politics, he tries to maneuver (I want to remind that Belarus did not recognize the ‘independence’ of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, even though Russian government strongly insisted on it), but this maneuvering can only go on till it hits a limit. A parallel example can be shown here: when Hitler created his coalitions in the 1930s, Germany’s satellites had some freedom of actions, but it was very limited. At the same time, they posed as a united front when it came to military affairs. I think that the union between Russia and Belarus can be a big problem for Ukraine’s future as well.”
You are in the Czech Republic now. What are your plans for the near future? Will you keep on fighting? Are you coming back to Belarus? Or will you stay in the EU, just like many of your colleagues who were forced to leave the country because of the threat?
“Even before my arrest the government hoped that I would leave Belarus, because they virtually gave me this opportunity. But I did not use it because it would mean showing my weakness and compromising myself as a human rights activist, casting a shadow over the whole human rights movement. So, I will continue working in Belarus. I am in the Czech Republic for business purposes, I have meetings with representatives of NGOs, officials, and journalists. And in September I am starting work on numerous problems that exist in Belarus today.
“I want to thank everyone who supported me all these years. I felt protected in a moral sense. Thousands of letters that I received, including those from Ukraine, became a foundation I was firmly standing on.”