European Security ‘impossible’ Without a Democratic Belarus

Will Lukashenko be able to bridge the gap between Minsk and Brussels?

8 September 2016

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, the often-called ‘last dictator in Europe’ has rightfully earned his name by jailing and killing journalists and opposition leaders since the late 1990’s. Given Lukashenko’s role in the Minsk ceasefire agreements, he might be trying to get a clean slate with the EU, using Poland as a renowned partner that already played a big role in easing EU sanctions against Belarus in February. Will Lukashenko be able to bridge the gap between Minsk and Brussels?

Santiago de la Presilla: We have the Belarusian parliamentary elections coming up in September (Sunday, September 11th); you yourself have said that these elections won’t be fair and that people should take it to the streets. Isn’t it too little too late? Weren’t mass protests supposed to take place during last year’s presidential elections?

Andrei Sannikov: We should know that there’s a difference between the so-called presidential election and the so-called parliamentary election. There are no elections in Belarus, but during the presidential election there’s a chance to challenge president Lukashenko himself, as we did in 2010. Each election, although falsified, has its political logic. This time the opposition is trying to send a message that the economy is in an almost catastrophic state, and what we should do about it.

There was a report on stating that Lukashenko wouldn’t let any deputies that support a Russian annexation of Belarus into the parliament. Other reports say he’s also looking into allowing some opposition members win some seats so the EU will recognize the elections as legitimate. Do you know if any of these allegations are true?

That’s the false perception he’s trying to give. He needs fake candidates to become fake deputies. The regime isn’t showing any signs that it recognizes the gravity of the situation or the necessity for reforms. He wants to have fake people in parliament seemingly representing some sort of opposition to then sell it to the West for money.

The economy talks in a very strong language only. When it performs well, the ruling regime is the winner, but when it’s on the verge of collapse, some drastic measures are needed. These measures are needed today in Belarus, and all the frantic moves that Lukashenko is making are not helping.

From August 2nd to September 21st there will be a total of 458 OSCE observers in Belarus for the elections, will it make a difference?

So far the international observers behaved according to the rules, criteria, and standards of the Copenhagen document. They produced very accurate reports about the elections, which made Lukashenko crazy, because each election he’s trying to sell to the West. This time, I don’t know. The tendency has changed and there’s a lot of pressure from Lukashenko’s lobbyist so the EU finally recognizes the regime, because we have a dangerous neighbor and the war in Ukraine.

In my view they [OSCE] don’t need to go there. I would’ve welcomed them if the regime had some degree of openness. They also have to take lessons from previous elections, act differently. They have to observe not only what they’re allowed to, but they have to talk to domestic observers as well. It’s not enough to just go there and produce a report with violations; I can myself sit down and produce the report without even going to Belarus. There’s no reversion of violations from the part of the regime. It doesn’t take us anywhere.

When you campaigned for president in 2010, you didn’t advocate for Belarusian membership of NATO. We had the NATO Summit in Warsaw about a month ago, we saw an agreement to deploy four battalions in the Baltic States and Poland on a rotational basis. What does this mean for European security from a Belarusian perspective?

Belarus wasn’t mentioned but it was probably the major topic of the Summit, and it showed that the military is thinking more clearly than the politicians. What are the politicians doing? They’re lifting sanctions from the dictator, they’re trying to make the point that he can play some sort of intermediary roll… They’re being fed these lies and they’re buying them. The military isn’t.

The military is saying: ‘Belarus is part of Russia’s military preparation and military plan, we’re taking this into account and yes, we are taking measures against this’. That’s why the Baltic States got these NATO battalions and Poland got reinforced. The measures taken by the military were against the possible aggression of Belarus with the help of Russia. The Warsaw Summit was an example of good, logical, and clear thinking from a security perspective. Inevitably there will a clash between the political vision of appeasement and the military vision of reinforcing security in the region. Without Belarus being a part of the democratic space, it’s impossible to ensure European security.

A Polish delegation recently visited Belarus, headed by deputy Speaker Ryszard Terlecki. He said ‘Belarus has been and will be a neighbor of Poland, that is why the normalization of relations is important for both sides’, he even visited both houses of parliament and held a meeting with Belarusian deputy Foreign Minister Elena Kupchina. What do you make of Warsaw’s attempts to normalize relations with Minsk?

It’s funny because when Law and Justice (PiS) was in the opposition they criticized Platforma Obywatelska (PO) for softness on Lukashenko. Now when they’re the ruling party they’ve reverted their politics.

I think this is a big mistake; I can only quote my friends from the opposition in Minsk who called it a ‘betrayal’. Especially Terlecki, who is known for his advocacy of moral principles and values. The fact is that they even went further than previous delegations; they met with the so-called parliamentarians. It was a taboo for democratic parliamentarians to meet with them, especially in their own premises, this delegation crossed that line. Then Teclecki gave an interview to Belarusian state-controlled media. It’s a betrayal of Solidarity in general.

Poland is by far the best advocate of the Belarusian situation and problems. It should be like this, but this promotion should be based on values. I see much of the relations ‘improvement’ connected with Polish-Belarusian business relations, but I was in prison with Polish businessmen who were told by the Polish government that it was okay to do business with Belarus, and as soon as their companies became profitable, they were raided and robbed of their business, those who didn’t want to pay they were imprisoned by the regime.

All of this will inevitably backfire, no matter how hard the EU and Poland try to improve relations with the dictator, they’ll be cheated and the consequences will be hard for everybody.

But there are also business interests between Poland and Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Many Russians cross the border into Poland for shopping, but the border remains closed for ‘security reasons’, despite the NATO Summit and World Youth Day being over. Isn’t there a clash between these two theories?

It makes our situation even more difficult since Poland wants to reorient their business towards Belarus. So far I see that there’s a double standard of treating one dictator as a friend and the even bigger dictator as a foe. The nature of these dictators is the same, the security threat also is.

Some Polish diplomats, off the record, consider Lukashenko to be some sort of a messenger to Putin. Isn’t it smart to at least keep these channels open?

Lukashenko is no messenger; he is hated by the Kremlin. He is somebody who isn’t trusted, dictators are mistrustful by nature… I think that the Kremlin regards any message that Lukashenko carries as the total opposite.

If Lukashenko is so hated by Moscow, do you see the possibility of Russian-backed regime change in Belarus?

Yes, there might be attempts. With Russian propaganda, with the Russian Orthodox Church supporting paramilitary groups, and with the Cossacks being active in Belarus, it’s a real danger. This is why we appeal to our friends in the West to recognize this danger and help us to counter propaganda and Russian attempts to eliminate Belarus as a country. Lukashenko is not a partner in maintaining Belarusian independence.

I can’t put this mildly, but during your 16 month-long imprisonment you were tortured in various ways. Do you think that the people who did all these terrible things to you will ever face justice?

I think there’s a higher justice that we can’t control. I do think that evil will inevitably suffer, but they will see justice according to Belarusian law, I’m not vengeful, I don’t want to lead my own personal vendetta… To me these people were like different species, they’re just so different they have to be studied as a different specie.

Systematic justice was not done anywhere in the former USSR after the fall of communism in the way that the communist regime was not condemned through a court. There was a lot of discussion, but there was no court process to get rid of the past. It’s visible today, that if we don’t get rid of this past you will come to the situation that we’re facing today, both in Belarus and Russia.

Andrei Sannikov is a Belarusian politician, activist and author of ‘My Story: Belarusian Amerikanka or Elections Under Dictatorship’. He was a candidate for the 2010 presidential election in Belarus, and came in second after the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko. He was jailed in a Minsk KGB facility for peacefully protesting in the aftermath of the elections.

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based journalist and communications advisor. He writes mostly about European politics, Poland and foreign policy.