Belarus: The Right to Choose Their Future
Member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian Opposition – on the role of the army and Russia in the post-election crisis
Pavel Latushko is a person who has visited both sides of the conflict in the confrontation between the Belarusian authorities and society.
He has 24 years of diplomatic career in the Foreign Ministry of Belarus, he is the former ambassador of the country to Poland, France and Spain, as well as the Minister of Culture of Belarus. In the early 2000s, Pavel Latushko was the author of press releases from official Minsk, rejecting criticism of international observers who pointed out the absence of free and fair elections in his country..
Since 2019 – director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, and in 2020 – an active critic of the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who became a member of the leadership of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition, who experienced the anger of the former leader and was forced to leave the country.
With Pavel Latushko The Russian service of the Voice of America talked about the latest developments around the crisis in Belarus – Lukashenko’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, the arrival of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Minsk and Russia’s interests in the situation in the union country.
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Pavel Latushko: Opposition in Belarus is not anti-Russian
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Danila Galperovich: In recent weeks, we have seen a lot of demonstrations of military force from the Lukashenka regime – the movement of the army to and from the border, the ruler himself in Minsk with a machine gun, and so on. How much does this military information component affect the population of Belarus? To what extent do you think Lukashenka is ready to use the armed forces in retaining power?
Pavel Latushko: As for the military information campaign, this is exactly what it is – a demonstration of the possibility of using the armed forces in order to demotivate society in relation to protest activity. In reality, looking at the events, at the position of our partners, I am convinced that there are absolutely no intentions in NATO to apply any military influence on the internal situation in Belarus. On the other hand, I am also convinced that Russia does not have such intentions, because from the point of view of the Belarusian society, this is a significant loss for the image of the Russian leadership and Russia in general. It is necessary to take into account that the geopolitical losses of Russia from the use of armed forces on the territory of Belarus will be so high that Russia, I think, is not ready to bear them, and I see that very clear signals to Russia have been given to Russia from the West. The fact that, on the eve of the talks in Sochi, Lukashenko and Putin made a decision to return the armed forces of Belarus from the western border of the border to their locations is just evidence of this. As for military exercises – again, this is worth looking at from the point of view of information and propaganda work, rather than a real threat of the use of armed forces on the territory of Belarus..
D.G .: And inside the country – Lukashenka will not use the army against people?
P.L .: He is already using the forceful option, using special police units, the State Security Committee, that is, specially created bodies to protect the state, which are now used in the narrow interests of the current government. If we talk about the regular armed forces, then even the fact of the withdrawal of armored personnel carriers onto the streets of Minsk, which took place several weeks ago, it was more likely again pressure on protest activity, which, by the way, did not really affect this activity. People continue and will continue to go out to protest actions. There are no people in the Armed Forces of Belarus who today would be able to carry out a military operation against their own people. I think one of the reasons for the withdrawal of troops from the western borders was precisely the fact that the troops understood the absolute inadequacy of the commander-in-chief’s decision to transfer them to a temporary deployment to the border, realistically assessing the threat from outside and understanding why this was being done. The fact that some time ago from a closed meeting of the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff of Belarus there was a leak of information, when one of the officers recorded the speech of the Minister of Defense Khrenin, just testifies to the sentiments that really exist in the Ministry of Defense. There is no unequivocal support for the current government in the Ministry of Defense.
D.G .: How do you explain Shoigu’s visit now? Is this pure, what is called, “waving the flag”? Or is there some essence behind it?
P.L .: Shoigu’s arrival should be associated with military exercises to be held in Belarus. It cannot be ruled out that, of course, Russia has some version of the development of events that is not publicly voiced, and which I still do not deny at all, but, again, I think that this does not correspond to either the geopolitical or strategic interests of Russia. in the Belarusian direction. But knowing the major players in the foreign policy arena, we can say that, as a rule, they work along several tracks and different scenarios. This option cannot be ruled out either, but I think its possibility is minimal. In the meantime, there is no need to worry about it. ”
D.G .: I see that very often the Belarusian opposition speaks rather restrainedly about the role of Russia in what is happening – despite the fact that, without any doubt, Moscow insists on the legality of the election of Lukashenka. Only today, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov spoke of Lukashenko as a legitimate leader, and Lukashenko himself received a loan.
P.L .: On the “Lukashenka-Putin” line, Russia no longer guarantees anything to the Belarusian “guarantor”. What was issued for public perception following the meeting in Sochi is a very clear confirmation of this. The statements about the legitimacy of the current head of state, the outgoing head of state, were predictable. We can recall, by the way, how Russia made similar statements about Yanukovych three times, and we know how the events ended. So, from the point of view of Moscow, this rhetoric is logical and explainable. On the other hand, the aid that was announced from Russia in the amount of $ 1.5 billion – today we heard the statement of the Minister of Finance of Russia Siluanov, and he said that the first tranche is a billion dollars this year, and that of this billion 500 million must be received from the Eurasian Bank, and another 500 million will be received only next year. And again, this is, in fact, a delay in the repayment of the debt obligations of Belarus to Russia. We already owe, starting from January 1, about 400 million US dollars for gas, and we must repay one billion in loans from the Russian Federation. In the short term, this gives a certain chance, not confidence, but a chance to keep the Belarusian economy from bankruptcy and default, from the inability to pay on external debt obligations. But it is precisely the allocation of this small amount that testifies to the fact that the incumbent president is given a very clear time period. He must announce a constitutional referendum, submit a constitution for consideration. Russia will further react depending on the activity of the protests.
D.G .: Can the current behavior of Moscow somehow change the general mood of friendliness and closeness to Russia, which really exists in Belarusian society, if not to the opposite, then to a less obvious?
P.L .: Regarding the support of pro-Russian and anti-Russian sentiments in the Belarusian society, in general, it should be noted that anti-Russian sentiments are unpopular in Belarus. The attitude towards Russia in Belarus is quite constructive. But only 3 percent of Belarusians, according to the information that I received from one of the well-known sociological companies, are ready to unite into one state with Russia. About 40 percent express support for the development of close and deep diversified, diversified relations between the two independent states. 32 percent at the same time support deeper relations between independent Belarus and the European Union. The very peak of support in the Belarusian society for close allied relations with Russia was somewhere around 60 percent, that is, we are now seeing a decrease in this figure. When Russia does not express its clear position regarding the illegitimacy of the elections and falsifications during the last election campaign, when Russia allocates credit resources to support a specific person, and not the state (we must clearly understand that this resource is aimed at keeping the outgoing president), when Russia does not express its very clear, clear position in connection with the massive acts of violence against Belarusian citizens, resulting in human casualties, injuries, disappearances of people, all this does not work in favor of the image of Russia in the Belarusian society. So, it can be predicted that here the positive perception of Russia may fall. And this is very important for Kremlin analysts to take into account when developing a strategy for relations with Belarus..
D.G .: What do you think Russia wants in this situation? What does she want? In the meantime, there is no need to worry about it. ”
P.L .: We understand that Belarus, of course, is in the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation – this is a fact, and it is difficult to argue with that. Preservation of this very sphere of influence is a priority for Russia. For the Belarusian society, the priority of the majority of the population is the independent state of Belarus, looking at these percentages – 40 and 32 support to the East and support to the West – we can say that people demonstrate a desire to be a strong bridge connecting East and West. We are not interested in being friends with Russia against the European Union, and we are not interested in being friends with the European Union against Russia. Therefore, by the way, you correctly noted that there is no anti-Russian rhetoric in our statements. We make it very clear, including to the Kremlin, that the choice is not “bad Lukashenko, but advocating an alliance with Russia, or a good opposition, but opposing an alliance with Russia.” We say that we are ready to maintain the status quo and give a new impetus to our relations, including with Russia, because this is the main trade partner of Belarus, because this is the main source of energy resources, and the mental closeness of the two peoples is in many respects obvious. Indeed, the last politician in Belarus will be the one who proposes to build a wall between Belarus and Russia. But this in no way precludes our right to have good and close relations with Europe. Why should this be put on a selection basis? There is no choice. Our choice is to have good relations with Russia and good relations with Europe.
D.G .: You have spent a sufficient amount of time in the Belarusian authorities. For you, the level of atrocity that was displayed by the security forces during the recent events was surprising, unexpected, shocking? Or did you know that inside the Belarusian security forces there are units capable of such cruelty?
P.L .: As for the ability of the security apparatus, the security system to act so cruelly towards Belarusian citizens – of course, I think very few people were ready for this. Probably, we could assume certain actions, but no one of such a scale could have imagined even in a nightmare that Belarus would one day plunge into a wave of violence and cruelty, when even in the eyes of riot police it was clear how much they hate – it doesn’t matter, you a protester or just a person like me in front of you in a shirt and tie, leaving the Yanka Kupala National Theater. I will never forget the look of this riot policeman, who looked at me as an enemy. And if I made some careless hand gesture or turn my head, I would probably be thrown out of the car and immediately started beating me. This horror, this hatred emanating from the special forces, amazed everyone. And not only their attitude, but also real actions towards citizens.
D.G .: How effective do you think the leadership of the opposition will be by the Presidium of the Coordination Council, which is now either in exile or in prison? How important is the role of the Coordination Council in the process that is going on in Belarus? What would you like to see from Europe and the West in general?
P.L .: The role of the Coordination Council is certainly important. This is a platform that has brought together various layers of society through its representatives, which aims, first of all, to lead to new elections in Belarus and to punish those guilty of acts of violence within the framework of the current law. Those members of the Presidium, who, unfortunately, ended up abroad, were not arrested or detained, although criminal cases were initiated against all of us. We continue our work. There is the main composition of the Coordination Council, which currently includes 45 people, but it will be increased in the near future, and there is an expanded composition of the Coordination Council, which includes about 6 thousand people, and which is actually a feed for the main composition and for the presidium. This three-tiered system enables us to survive in this difficult situation. Of course, here we are talking not only about the Coordination Council, here, in general, we are talking about suppressing the right of Belarusians to express their point of view, starting from the right to vote, so that this vote is counted, and not thrown into the ballot box, ending with the right to go to demonstrations. Basic rights have been violated, the Constitution has ceased to operate in Belarus, the electoral legislation has ceased to operate. The Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes also do not work – because there is no justice system at all, the courts churn out sentences, spending 10 minutes per person. Lawyers are actually unable to protect the rights of suspects, this is directly admitted by all lawyers in Belarus. If Europe and the modern world are generally ready to agree that there will be such a state in the center of the European continent, then I think this is terrible. This is actually a challenge to the entire European community. Is the public ready to swallow this challenge, or will it react to it? It is very important for us that there is a single consolidated voice of the European Union, the United States, and if Russia is ready to join this voice, then we will only welcome this..
Reporter for the Russian Voice of America Service in Moscow. Collaborates with Voice of America since 2012. For a long time he worked as a correspondent and host of programs for the BBC Russian Service and Radio Liberty. Specialization – international relations, politics and legislation, human rights.
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