We have a chance to win in the next six months.
Dzmitry Bandarenka, the coordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign, was the guest of the Free Russia Forum's programme. He summed up the results of 2020 and made a forecast for 2021. The host of the program is Dmitry Semyonov.
Charter97.org has prepared a transcript of the conversation.
- Good afternoon. You are watching the channel of the Free Russia Forum. Today we will talk about Belarus with Dzmitry Bandarenka, coordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign. In just the first days of the new year, the Belarusian People's Tribunal published an audio recording of a conversation that took place in the office of the head of the KGB in 2012. The recording makes it clear that members of the security services of Belarus were involved in certain terrorist activities against Lukashenka's political opponents. In particular, it mentions such names as Oleg Alkayev, Pavel Sheremet. It was suggested to blow him up. As far as we can see, it happened. Do you think the recording is authentic? Is it 100% reliable?
- Both the People's Tribunal and the EUObserver magazine published it. I think the publication verifies the information and the journalist who published the material claims it is authentic.
- It has just become known that the Ukrainian police are also interested in the part of the recording about Pavel Sheremet and promised to investigate it. Could Ukraine initiate a new investigation? May it impose some new sanctions against Lukashenka's regime?
- The former officer of Almaz special unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus Igor Makar has already made a statement. He's ready to come to Ukraine and testify in the case of Sheremet to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office. His colleague, a former member of the KGB Alfa special unit, who currently resides in the European Union, is expected to come with him. I think it is already a serious legal action.
- As for Igor Makar. When talking to Belarusians, I often hear that many people mistrust him. What could you say about this person? After all, Igor Makar is the man who has published several audio and video recordings. They prove the involvement of law enforcers, including riot police, in crimes against civilians.
- I know this man was a member of the Almaz special unit. During the presidential campaign in 2006, he was the person in charge of security for presidential candidate Aliaksandr Kazulin. I guess one should check the audio materials he provides, verify his testimonies. His desire to testify in the case of Pavel Sheremet is encouraging. It's quite serious. I think he deserves trust in this case.
- If speaking about Lukashenka's regime, can we now voice an approximate number of murders Lukashenka and his special services may be involved in?
- I guess it's dozens of murders. It all started with the murders that Lukashenka confessed to. These are murders of criminal bosses and even ordinary criminals. For example, Lukashenka confessed that he had sent special forces to kill robbers, who were active on the highway Minsk-Moscow or Warsaw-Moscow. He confessed to it. We also know that leaders of Belarusian opposition and a businessman were kidnapped and killed in 1999. They were General Yury Zakharenka, Viktar Hanchar, Anatoli Krasouski. Before that, Henadz Karpenka died a mysterious death. One can say these are the leaders of rare nature. The absence of those people helped Lukashenka to retain power.
We know that journalists were killed. Speaking about the Sheremet case, some people are talking about 2016. Here we have a record made in 2012. Although he precisely died the death KGB Chairman Zaitseu mentioned. When Zaitseu headed the KGB, my friend Oleg Bebenin, founder and head of the Charter'97 website, was murdered. It was a few days before the start of the 2010 election campaign. Oleg was murdered in September 2010 and headed the most popular, well-known, harshest website - Charter'97. At that time, Belarusian Partisan, headed by Pavel Sheremet, was also very popular. These people who used to run opposition media were killed. After a while, these websites were blocked in Belarus.
I would also like to remind that the recording mentions one of its participants - an instructor or specialist in subversion. I'd like to remind you that a few months after the elections, when we were in prison, there was an explosion in the Minsk metro in April 2011. Colonel Borodach mentioned that those executed guys had nothing to do with the explosion. The explosives used in the subway explosion were made by professionals.
Therefore, we can name dozens of people killed. According to our information, about 20 people were killed only during the suppression of the protests of the Belarusian revolution of 2020.
- Parallels with Russia emerge one by one. When we talk about the bombings, I remember the late 90s when Putin came to power. When we are talking about this leaked KGB tape, I recall the story of Navalny's poisoning. The FSB had a special unit. It wasn't subversion, but chemical poisoning. Don't you find these similarities between the special services? Who is an initiator?
- First, both the Belarusian KGB and the Russian FSB come from the Soviet security services. If one looks at the biography of General Zaitseu, who used to head the KGB, he graduated from the Moscow Higher Border Guard School and the Russian Federal Border Guard Service Academy and the Russian General Staff Academy. The methods should be identical, as neither Putin, nor Zaitseu, nor Lukashenka studied at West Point.
- We are talking about those people who oppose Lukashenka now, and the opponents who are no longer alive. However, they used to oppose Lukashenka then. When Lukashenka came to power in the early 90s, some of them were his allies. When did former allies change their position so radically that their liquidation was required? What did cause such a dramatic change in Lukashenka? Why were people so mistaken about him?
- Lukashenka is a sadist and a psychopath. Even before he came to political power in Belarus or became a member of the Supreme Soviet, a criminal case was brought against him for beating up a tractor driver. It was not the only beating. The case was opened because he inflicted serious bodily injuries. Lukashenka was originally a man of a psychopathic nature. When he had more opportunities to satisfy his sadistic inclinations, his actions resulted in death, torture, and mockery of people.
Again, during the same Zaitseu's rule and after the election of 2010, most of the presidential candidates and the heads of the election headquarters were in prison. I was in the KGB jail. These awful things, which are now common, were tested on Belarusian opposition leaders in 2010, 2011 and 2012. It is hard for me to even talk about these murders. After all, I knew many of those murdered. Oleg Bebenin, Henadz Karpenka, Viktar Hanchar, General Yury Zakharenka and Dzmitry Zavadski. There was no reaction to Lukashenka's actions. Putin watched carefully the reaction of the West to Lukashenka's criminal actions. He saw that the West was more concerned about itself. This impunity of Lukashenka for killing political opponents and journalists encouraged Putin to take actions that go far beyond the law as well.
- Since we have already drawn such a parallel with the Russian special services in the context of the poisoning of Navalny. Here we, the Russian opposition, the Russian citizens learned about Navalny's poisoning thanks to the fact that investigative journalists managed to buy on the black market billing calls from FSB officers who were involved in this. Meanwhile, the audio and video recordings that are published by civil investigators and investigative journalists in Belarus on the crimes of the security forces, how do they get them, how do we find out about this?
- I would also like to say one more very important thing. The Belarusian authorities are guilty of murders of political opponents, and obstructed the investigation of murders of opposition leaders. The Council of Europe spoke about this, and the special rapporteur Christos Pourgourides once published a special report, claiming the involvement of the Belarusian authorities in these murders, and specifically accused the interior ministers of Lukashenka. And again, there was a reaction at the beginning, there were some personal sanctions. Then this reaction was gone, Lukashenka was called a "warm-hearted man" even in 2010, in 2019, the leaders of, for example, Poland had dealings with him. They met with him as a negotiator, as a mediator, a person who can stop the conflict in the Donbas.
All this led to more and more new crimes. And now the situation is such that we are witnessing a massive transfer of security officers and officials to the side of the rebellious Belarusian people. And as the same Makar said: he did not really believe that he would be able to resist the system and conduct an investigation, because he is not an investigator, and now he is ready to take risks, because he believes in the inevitability of the fall of the regime, and in the inevitability of the victory of the Belarusian people, and the restoration of legality.
Therefore, I think, I don’t even think, but know for sure that there are a lot of materials that are now at the disposal of the opposition and journalists, including Western ones, and every day there will be more and more if them, because many officials and security officers understand that if they do not do this, their fate will be sad, because, unfortunately, Lukashenka was able to mar many and many security officials with blood and co-partnership in crimes.
- Now let's talk a little about the results of the year. Can we say that 2020 for Belarus was the year of the formation of a civil nation, and the year when Belarus finally woke up?
- Yes, we can say that this is a year that Belarusians can be proud of. They heard about Belarus all over the world and the image of Belarusians has changed. Earlier I had to hear from residents of neighboring countries or Western countries that Belarusians are people who probably like living under a dictatorship, that Lukashenka is a strong business executive. In Ukraine, he still remains a very popular politician. But Belarusians have shown that they are not like this, that they are Europeans, that they are brave and courageous people. This is, of course, the beginning of a real Belarusian revival in every sense. And I think that after all, a change of power is inevitable and a revival will follow - both cultural and economic. Yes, we can be proud of 2020, despite all the difficulties.
- Journalist Ihar Yakavenka in the previous broadcast said that in the event of a trigger event in Russia, the Putin regime would be swept away as soon as possible. If you look from the height of today, what can we designate as such a trigger event in Belarus that brought people to the streets?
- I believe that this is the year 2020 and the events that followed in the spring and summer of 2020 were being prepared, they did not arise by themselves. Yes, probably, in the headquarters of Tsikhanouskaya or in the so-called new opposition there are no people who would say that there will be a revolution in Belarus in 2020. Many pseudo-independent Belarusian analysts, not to mention neighboring countries, predicted that these elections would be duller than the 2015 elections. However, this revolution happened. We spoke about the revolution - the team of the civil campaign “European Belarus”. Pavel Seviarynets spoke about the revolution. Mikalai Statkevich spoke about the revolution. And we not only spoke, we were preparing this revolution.
But, of course, this coincided with the election campaign, it was the main action, not even the situation with the covid, but still the election campaign, because, probably, Viktar Babaryka was also preparing for real decisive actions. Because, if we look, in 2019 he already made statements that can be interpreted as going into politics. And these events were prepared by people, and prepared by many independent journalists, independent bloggers, who were the first to be jailed. We can say that such people were Siarhei Tsikhanouski and other independent bloggers, Mikalai Statkevich, Pavel Seviarynets, Yauhen Afnahel. For some reason, they don't talk about these people, there is a more popular person, but these people were the first to speak out, urged people to take to the streets and were the first to go to prison.
- That is, can we say that the main reasons that brought people to the streets in Belarus still lie in the political plane rather than the economic one?
- No. Here I still want to say that I once studied and passed exams on the works of Lenin, and of course I remember about the "lower and upper classes", but Lenin said that there is a subjective factor - the presence of political power, political party that is capable of acting in a revolution. The economic conditions for this revolution have existed for a very long time. For the last 10-12 years, the Belarusian GDP has not been growing, and if now they say that supposedly the GDP of Belarus will fall lower than that of the neighboring countries, especially the "decaying" West, I predict that in dollar terms it will fall by 15 percent, because that the devaluation of the ruble against the dollar last year was 22%, the inflation rate was officially set at 7-8%, and the devaluation of the ruble against the euro was 30%. That is, in dollar terms, the GDP of Belarus in 2020 will fall by 15%. And if we compare this with 2009, then nothing has changed, it only got worse.
Also, the economic situation worsened since, because of the covid, many Belarusians were unable to go to work in Russia. Many were unable to go to Poland, to the West to work. So this revolutionary background has existed for a long time. Let us recall the protests of the so-called parasites of 2017 that swept across the country.
But the factor of the people who called to take to the streets, who were the first to take to the squares and led otgers, is very important, because without these people, the revolution would probably not have started.
- We see that now, due to the onset of cold weather, with the onset of the holiday period, the protests, the street activity itself have somewhat subsided. Could the very "national gathering" that Lukashenka planned for February serve as some new trigger for them?
- It would make absolutely no difference. Perhaps this will weaken the system, perhaps useful idiots in the West and in neighboring countries will say: "But there is something in this, some share of democracy has appeared." But you shouldn't expect anything from this.
Protests cannot remain of the same level of intensity all the time. It seems to me that the time has come in Belarus to declare a public lockdown in connection with the covid pandemic. Since Belarusians are Europeans, and the authorities again do nothing to preserve people's lives and health, now the society should simply repeat, copy the actions of neighboring countries, the countries of the European Union to combat the spread of the covid epidemic, especially in connection with the fact that a new dangerous strain has emerged that comes from Britain.
In Poland, where I am now, about 500 people died every day in November-December. I can predict that due to the fact that schools are not closed in Belarus, unlike in Poland, restaurants are open, cafes are open, the level of medicine is much worse, about 300 people die every day in the country, that is, we lose about 10,000 people each month.
Yes, the protests will continue because people will not calm down. And protests in the open air are permissible, but Belarusians now need to save the elderly, they need to help the doctors again and stop wandering around restaurants and cafes, limit their actions, keep their children out of school, and stop going to universities. This is important in January, at least. Because we are civilized people, every human life is dear to us, and we must think about it.
- Isn't there a risk that all the real passionate madcaps, which are usually few in number, by the springtime will be either behind bars or in exile? The protest will die out again, thus Lukashenka will secure himself several more years of rule.
- At this stage, the role of the Kremlin is probably more important than that of Lukashenka himself. If there was no Moscow support, this regime would no longer exist, because in the current situation it exists exclusively on Russian money. But we know that for Putin and for the Kremlin in general, Lukashenka has become toxic. Hoping that he will stay for a few more years is the most dire scenario for Moscow, because Lukashenka is not recognized by the West.
Many economic projects, including those in the oil sector, in the petrochemical sector, were implemented by the Kremlin through Belarus. And in a situation where Lukashenka became a world outcast, a serious blow was cast to the Russian economy as well.
As for the fact that there are few real passionate madcaps, then the protest is decentralized ... Our main task is to free our comrades, and there are probably thousands of them today in prisons, and thousands who are under criminal cases. First of all, we must achieve the release of our leaders: Statkevich, Babaryka, Tsikhanouski, Afnahel, Seviarynets, and many others. But here a lot will depend on Belarusians themselves, as well as, first of all, on the people who consider themselves political leaders. And I will say that we criticize Tsikhanouskaya's headquarters, the Coordination Council. But we admit that we, the representatives of the European Belarus, the Belarusian National Congress, have also made a number of mistakes.
- Here goes a slightly provocative question. Is the peaceful protest that we see in Belarus, about which they talk so much, still capable of leading to success or should the good be able to defend itself?
- Good should be able to defend itself, obviously, but a peaceful victory of the revolution is also possible. I know that there is a discussion underway, one of the initiators of which was well-known Mr. Illarionov, that peaceful protests, as a rule, do not end in victory if the authorities use violence. Not in this case. In essence, the point is that the leaders of the revolution have enough skill and understanding that the revolution is an art, and very often the authorities did not use violence, because an agreement was reached with the security forces in advance. With the security forces, as with a separate, say, management segment. And then it may not come to violence, or even if the authorities begin to use violence, but the security forces go over to the side of the people, as it happened, for example, in Romania.
And mistakes were made here, including by the headquarters of Tsikhanouskaya, and the leaders of the Telegram channels. For example, the unification of all security officials, like, they are all the same. As they say, "cock-roosters" and so on. We know that 5-7% of these security officials are participating in the suppression of the revolution, but the attitude towards all siloviki has become the same. This was one of the mistakes of the revolution. I hope that certain conclusions will be drawn, and we can already see from the reaction of the force structures that a part of the Belarusian security forces may go over to the side of the people.
- Well, in the end, Dzmitry, I'll ask you the following question. What lesson should the Belarusian society have learned in 2020, and what mistake should not be repeated in 2021?
- This is not even the mistake of 2020 alone. I often had to deal with the fact that in different periods of the Belarusian dictatorship or, one might say, the Belarusian Resistance, decisive moments came when it was necessary to give everything, to sacrifice everything, to risk everything. But at times we saw the leaders saying: "No, but we will win in four years, or in six months, or in a year, but now ..."
It seems to me that after experiencing the acute phase of this second wave of covid, the protests will begin anew. We all have a chance to win this year, perhaps even in the next six months. Still, this cannot be postponed until tomorrow. And the fact that some of the leaders ended up in emigration is our plus. These people continue to act, they can interact with our foreign allies. These are people who act freely, and their contribution will also be enormous. Both the diaspora and the Belarusians inside the country must act as a single fist.
I hope that 2021 will be the year of our victory, the departure or escape of Lukashenka, and the beginning of normal European reforms in the Republic of Belarus.