Siargei Vysotsky, leader of the Belarusian Freedom Party, speaks about Alexander Lukashenko’s dead end, anti-Russian sentiments and clerical servility
For a long time Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed that his country was an island of stability in the CIS, but in late May this stability vanished in a matter of seven days. The Ukrainian Week discussed the current situation in Belarus with the leader of one of the country's opposition parties.
U.W.: Is the crisis in the country caused by objective factors, or was Lukashenko right when he blamed external factors?
Of course, part of the blame rests with the president. The Soviet-style economic management that has been practiced under his rule has, naturally, exhausted itself. But this is not the only problem – political mistakes have also been made. He should not have made Belarus so dependent on Russia. One of his recent strategic blunders came amid the presidential elections when he believed that abruptly severing ties with the West would win him economic support [from Russia]. As a result he was led by the nose. Moreover, big economic players in Belarus also facilitated the devaluation of the Belarusian currency. The problem is that Lukashenko had ousted many Belarusian businessmen, and they were replaced by Russians. The Russians are linked to the criminal world which, in its turn, is linked to special services; so I have no doubt that there was a game played from the outside. As a result, we have strong anti-Russian sentiments in the population, something we have not seen before. People are already saying that Russia wants to turn us into Smolensk gubernia and use Belarusians as labor.
U.W.: What, in your opinion, is going to happen to Belarusian political prisoners in the near future?
Lukashenko found himself in a trap, because a move in any direction would destroy him. If he sells all of our economy to Russia, he will win some time, but in this case Belarusians will eventually tear him to pieces. This is what he always boasted of: this is our way and our economy; this is the way we live – poorly but with dignity; we have stability. If he attempts détente with the West, he will have to release all political prisoners. Can you imagine what will happen if they are all set free now, in present conditions of instability? They will immediately start working against Lukashenko. These are active people who have contacts in the West, and they will be recognized as heroes. In the long run, any human rights are out of the question – human rights advocates, journalists and all those in the opposition are targets for frenzied attacks. The government is after everyone.
U.W.: Do you at least have an independent mass media?
We have official periodicals, and there are so-called independent media. By the way, well-off people watch Ukrainian television via satellite feed. Less than a third of Belarus’ population uses the Internet. There are three or four periodicals that can loosely be said to be in the opposition. But they have matured in such a severe authoritarian system and the government has pressured them for so long that they are in opposition only to a degree: one-half, one-third and so on. Moreover, they are all tied to one political group and far removed from the protest sentiments of ordinary people.
U.W.: In Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) co-exists with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Is it true that in Belarus there is one dominant church – the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church?
We have a totally idiotic situation with churches. Every movement has to have a measure of decency. Patriarch Exarch Filaret (not to be confused with Patriarch Filaret in Ukraine. – Ed.) behaves so obediently that even Patriarch Cyril of Moscow is repulsed. When Filaret says: We are yours; We are here for you and are prepared to follow Russia’s lead, Cyril replies: No, after all, it is a question of only spiritual unity, while independence is divine providence. Of course, what lurks behind Cyril’s clerical tact is a plan to build the “Russian world,” and there is nothing good about it, but he at least acts adequately on the outside in stark contrast to Filaret’s absolutely servile behavior.
U.W.: What is the condition of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (BAOC)?
It is the most persecuted religious organization in the country. It has been stripped of its church buildings following one and the same pattern: believers build a church and almost complete it, and then a government inspector and the OMON special-task unit arrive. They throw out everyone and transfer the church to the Russian Orthodox Church. And yet parishioners in the autocephalous church treat their priests very well, knowing that they are true pastors rather than some priests sent down from Moscow. When a BOAC priest comes to a village, crowds of people gather. They take him by the hand to their homes, asking him to christen their children or hold a service. The influence of the BOAC is great indeed. I am sure that as soon as the country gains freedom, it will be a very serious, respected and influential organization. Now Ukraine is helping it a lot – BOAC students study in seminaries run by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate).
U.W.: It is no secret that students were a moving force of the Orange Revolution. What attitudes prevail among Belarusian students?
They are very much protest-minded and more pro-Western than the Belarusian conservative opposition. “Sooner to the EU, sooner to NATO” is what they say. I am sure that in a short time when protests begins young people will support them.
U.W.: In your opinion, is there ultimately going to be a revolution?
You may call it a revolution if you wish. I call them upheavals. There will be upheavals, and we will have a new government, perhaps in a year or three months – I can’t give you the exact date, but this regime will not last more than two years.
A chronicle of recent protests in Belarus
Car drivers hold the Stop-Gas protest against a fuel price increase by blocking the central streets in Minsk. People who watch the event from the sidewalks throw small banknotes under car wheels. Several participants are fined 3.3 million Belarusian rubles (nearly USD 660), but activists collect money and they do not have to pay out of their own pockets. The next day Lukashenko orders gas prices to be lowered.
Following an appeal from the group called Revolution Through Social Network on the Russian social site vKontakte, nearly 1,000 Internet users come out into the streets and hold silent protests in various Belarusian cities without any political slogans: 400 protesters in Minsk, 200 in Gomel and 100 in Brest and Mogilev each. A similar community is registered on Facebook.
Residents of Grodno Region block a highway near the Bruzgi checkpoint on the Belarus-Poland border. People are enraged over stringent export quotas imposed by Minsk on certain goods. Out of nearly 200 participants 22 are detained.
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