There is always room for luck if people are fighting for freedom.
Well-known Estonian journalist Krister Paris, a participant of Ploscha-2006 and a special correspondent for the Estonian media during the Euromaidan and Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, told in an interview with Charter97.org what is special about the situation in Belarus and what will be a decisive factor in the victory of supporters of change over the dictatorship.
- As a special correspondent for the Estonian media, you covered the major protests of the 2000s in Belarus and were part of the support group for our country in connection with the events of 2006. There was even a photo with you in the tent camp on the Ploscha 2006. How are the protests that began in the summer of 2020 different from the previous ones in our country?
- I think there is one main difference: at that time, most of the population did not even understand what the protesters were against. In 2006, Lukashenka did not need to falsify official figures, but everything is different this time. Moreover, the size of the protests is impressive, where people initially came out without any organization. According to my friends from Belarus, people did not know where to go and protest, they just went out and showed themselves.
I want to tell you a story about how I joined the protest in 2006. I was going to come to Belarus as part of a small mission of a Danish non-profit organization as an election observer, but we were told already in Lithuania, when we were preparing to leave, that the Belarusian authorities did not want to see any of us in the country. So me and my friend Silver Maker, who was a member of parliament at the time, decided to go separately from the group. We took the train to the border. They immediately began to suspect us, they took us out of the train and interrogated us for about five hours. However, we stuck to our legend that we are students, study biology, and, in fact, are going to Ukraine for our birthday. I don't know why, but, for some reason, they bought into our story.
Inside the country, we had contacts of people, but they advised us to stay at home, not to go out because we could be arrested, so we decided not to contact them. We went outside and started asking groups of young people where we can spend the night because we didn't want to go to an official hotel for obvious reasons. We managed to reach the opposition, they asked us to show our passports and invited us to their home. Silver was on the Maidan in 2004 and offered to set up a tent city. So, the idea of a tent camp was born in the kitchen in Minsk. We went to the store and bought tents, and, the next evening, we managed to put up the first ones, then the rest were pulled up. In this sense, the protests were similar, there was no organization, just a little bit of luck. Of course, the protest itself was small then, and, after a couple of days, there was nothing left of the tent city.
- How do you assess the current situation in Belarus?
- In fact, Lukashenka is increasingly becoming a puppet of the Kremlin.
It seems to me that all this brutality on the part of the AMAP and other special services could somehow be deliberately encouraged by the Kremlin. With each step, it becomes more difficult to return to the game: to be with the West in the summer and with Russia in the winter. Most of the people voted against Lukashenka, so his regime is supported by the special services as long as he can pay them well, thereby preserving their privileges. A crack in the system can happen if, by decision of the Kremlin or for some other reason, Lukashenka is removed from office, creating the same moment as in 1991 in the Soviet Union.
- You have also covered the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine for the Estonian media. Both of them ended with a change in political power in these countries. How do you assess the prospects of the Lukashenka regime in Belarus? What other factors should be involved in order for the government to change in our country as well?
- First, you have the majority. I know how big it is. Secondly, even his "backbone" and most of those who were paid, the main base - pensioners or passive Soviet people - would not have rushed to defend him. In this sense, there is tension, and it continues.
As we know, the use of force can be a successful strategy, especially when using mercenaries, such as in Syria. At one time, Bashar al-Assad allowed the protests to grow, and, perhaps, he would have been removed from office, but he chose to lead his country into civil war.
In Kyiv, the Yanukovych regime was so suppressed by the number of protesters that snipers, those 10 people, were the last resort on which he could rely. There was a huge mass against him. What could change the balance is widespread civil disobedience. I don't mean direct confrontation with those with guns (why kill yourself?), as was the case in Burma, for example. General strikes that paralyze the country can help you do that, as it helped Ukraine.
In Georgia, the revolution was slightly different. There the state practically collapsed, it was bankrupt before Mikheil Saakashvili came to power. There was no economy, but there was a very wise statesman Eduard Shevardnadze, who said that, if he is not popular, he will leave without shedding the blood of his citizens. In Georgia, there was such a situation because of a wise leader. This was not the case in Ukraine, and it will not be in Belarus.
It should be understood that, if Belarus chooses democracy, then Europe will welcome it with open arms. Unfortunately, we cannot provide any help other than moral support. We can give money, but the point is that the Belarusians themselves must eliminate the dictator.
- Recently the Lukashenka regime “shot itself in the foot” by forcibly landing a Ryanair plane in Minsk using military aviation. How do you assess this incident? What consequences can it have, besides those that we already see? Could this be the same fatal mistake as the dispersal of students on the Maidan for Yanukovych?
- It was Yanukovych's fatal mistake, it mobilized society. Probably, the protests would have stopped, if not this. However, did the forced landing of the plane excited the Belarusian community more than these elections? I do not think so. It was a shocking move, but more for external governments, the paradigm has changed in European capitals.
The Baltic countries and Poland actively supported the Belarusian democratic movement at the state and society level. The larger countries didn't really care about this, with a few exceptions. The forced landing of the plane changed the paradigm: it is no longer a moral issue of supporting democracy against tyranny but a security issue. Lukashenka has shown how dangerous he is. This is why these sanctions were negotiated extremely quickly. The European Union is unknown for quick solutions, especially in such areas. Moreover, countries that usually create problems in sanctions decisions, such as Hungary, quickly made a decision. I think this was due to the shocking effect, which was quite large.
I doubt it was a shot in the knee, perhaps, it was deliberate. Again, there could be tacit approval or support from Russia. I draw a parallel with the theory that my friends told me about why the AMAP acted so harshly - after all, they know that they will then be handed over to the court. There are suggestions that the FSB or some other Russian agencies helped in the forced landing. For some reason, it seems to me that Russia managed to deceive Lukashenka, making him believe that this is a good idea.
- The European Union has introduced sectoral sanctions against the regime in Belarus. The main articles of Belarusian export fell under the restrictions: petrochemicals, potash fertilizers, tobacco products, as well as the financial sector. How strong is this blow to the Lukashenka regime? What are the consequences of the sanctions for the Belarusian authorities?
- At least this time, the sanctions were of some seriousness. Economic analysts say that the blow to Belaruskali and other potash producers should be big enough. Finally, the EU has done something that will affect the money that goes directly to the Lukashenka regime. I think this is the first time that sanctions can hit hard.
Of course, there are many ways to get around sanctions, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia. It may take a considerable time for the sanctions to take effect, or they may not work at all. You need to understand that, often, such broad sanctions against the economy are a way to make people understand that their ruler is not able to provide a good life. In Belarus, this is not the case: you do not need to convince your people that life is bad.
In this sense, the sanctions were mainly necessary for our countries. We couldn't do anything this time, so we showed that we were serious. I'm not sure how strong support the sanctions are for Belarusian democracy, but it definitely narrows the opportunities for Lukashenka, hence, they definitely work.
- The European Union is already preparing a new package of restrictions against the Lukashenka regime, and European politicians are talking about a “tough spiral of sanctions,” meaning their growing nature. Why is it important not to ease the pressure on the Belarusian authorities?
- It is important to convince even those who can quickly forget about past events. As we have seen in recent weeks, when Merkel and Macron came up with the idea of meeting with Putin, even though he did not follow through on any agreements that he entered into.
Lukashenka successfully took hostages, then released them, earning the title of "peacemaker" at the expense of the Minsk agreements. We must not fall into the same trap again. It's like cheating in marriage: first time, I blame you, second time - myself.
- How toxic do the Belarusian regime and everything connected with it - the goods exported by it, the measures taken - appear to Tallinn today? Can we say that now his departure from the political scene is inevitable?
- In Estonia, we do not recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus; instead, Tsikhanouskaya comes to Estonia and meets with our president and prime minister. This is what we are doing politically. However, there are other aspects as well. Just recently, Postimees published an open letter from the Estonian Student Association and Belarusian support groups, which blacklisted 3 of our universities because they cooperate with Belarusian universities. Of course, their argument is quite understandable, but we must keep some opportunities open to help Belarusian students come to Estonia for political reasons.
In other things, Estonia is unlike Lithuania or Poland. Belarus is not such a big problem in everyday politics. We have no border. Today, the issue between Estonia and Lithuania is acute, because they accuse us of secretly buying Belarusian electricity.
Of course, some businessmen dealt with Belarus before the sanctions, but, again, for us, the economic effect of the sanctions was really minimal. So the Belarusian issue is not so toxic for Estonia. We have a politician Igor Kravchenko, who strongly supports Lukashenka, but most people only laugh at this.
As I said, there is little we can do other than sanctions and moral support. Some countries are engaged in taking the brains out of Belarus. For example, Estonia supported students who were expelled from Belarusian universities and accepted them into their universities. Some IT companies hire specialists from Belarus. However, I do not know how good it is for the future of your country.
- You saw with your own eyes the aggression of the Russian Federation in the east of Ukraine and, even as a war correspondent, you were at the front. What impressed you the most there?
- War inflicts the greatest suffering on those who are at its epicenter. I don't know how happy people are now in Donetsk and Lugansk. Life has definitely gotten a lot harder. To cross the border, you need to go through checks, queues, etc. Another thing is the so-called "government": in fact, these are the Bolsheviks who do not represent the people. This is a foreign occupation.
If in Ukraine, with all that corruption, they talk about normal democracy, then, in the separatist "republics," people are simply prisoners of their tiny pockets, they are doomed to live under siege. I am not sure about the standard of living in Donbas because, according to my Ukrainian friends, people there are afraid to speak their thoughts out loud. However, on the other side of the front line, life in Ukraine is quite free, and they can talk about almost anything.
Very bad things happen in war. I talked to people when they were liberated by Ukrainian troops. So, they also did not speak well about the behavior of the Ukrainian army, so war is always suffering.
I am also interested in the conflict in Yugoslavia: everything was possible there until the first drops of blood were shed. Maybe even after the first drops of blood, there was still time, but, after a certain moment, you cannot go back and negotiate. In this sense, Estonia is lucky because we officially had no casualties when we gained independence. We didn’t lose anyone, and it helped us a lot to move forward.
- To what extent are the Russian Federation and the Putin regime now dangerous for their neighboring countries, and what is capable of restraining them?
- I would say that the biggest threat to NATO countries is not the army. Let Putin's army train here and there. If he is not completely desperate, he is unlikely to launch any direct military confrontation against NATO countries.
In fact, after the invasion and annexation of Crimea, there were rather big fears. Then in Estonia, we did not panic but worried. People massively voluntarily joined the Defense Union. Many people asked me, because I am a journalist, whether the war will start. Someone even bought some shares, because they did not believe that Article 5 of NATO would really work. At the time, Barack Obama's surprise visit to Tallinn was remarkable. He then said that, if Russia decides this, then the American troops will always be there. This has generated quite a bit of attention.
In fact, we understand that NATO agreements are just paper. We know that, in this part of Europe, we are significantly outnumbered in armaments. All these NATO forces in our country will not be able to withstand the first onslaught, but we still hope for some sanity of Putin. We are ready but not afraid of such a possible scenario.
How is he really dangerous? He supports all groups, parties, disinformation that encourage people to go against governments, deny universal logic, masks, or vaccines, in general, deny all the basic facts that the Earth is round. Such people are suitable for the Kremlin's plans. They question the institutions of democracy, support extreme right-wing parties, xenophobes in order to thwart the European Union project. This is where the danger lies.
The biggest danger in Estonia is our citizens, the Russian-speaking population. Unfortunately, after 30 years of regaining independence, we still live parallel lives. They watch Channel One, but we don't, we have different narratives. For example, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, a survey was conducted where 80% of Estonian speakers said it was unacceptable, and 80% of Russian speakers said: “Why not?” We understand that there is a need for better integration, but, so far, this has not happened. It is a weapon that can be used when the right circumstances arise.
- Some experts argue that there is some kind of compromise between the Kremlin and the West on the issue of regime change in Belarus while hinting at the last meeting of Biden with Putin in Geneva. How do you rate such opinions? Are there any facts that would indicate a possible interest of Moscow in a change of power in Belarus? In this case, how can the people of Belarus defend their right to subjectivity and decide for themselves what kind of power will be in the country?
- This is one of the concerns that were voiced after the start of the August elections in Belarus. I'm not sure what kind of agreements Biden and Putin might have on Belarus. It would be quite normal to assume that Biden said that it would be worthwhile to remove Lukashenka from the political scene, they say, we are not against it. It should be understood that, if Belarus has a chance for fair elections, and the Belarusian people choose the pro-Russian direction, then it cannot be worse than now.
You have reached the point where anyone is better than Lukashenka. It couldn't get any worse. Now, from the point of view of civil liberties, everything is much worse here than in Russia. Actually, this is one of the reasons why the situation in Belarus is dangerous. Moscow tends to copy Belarus in 5 years. In 2006, protests in Russia were completely free, in 2011, there was a peak, but then this freedom ended. I was a correspondent in Russia in 2010-2011 when the police did not beat the protesters - this happened very rarely. However, they do it now. In fact, the Kremlin uses Belarus as a testing ground, they look at what works and what does not. Therefore, Belarus is exporting violence and fear, making Russia a worse place than it is now.
- At one time, peaceful protests of citizens helped the Baltic states to become independent and democratic. What would you like to say in this vein to the Belarusians, who in one form or another have continued to fight unceasingly since last summer?
- Study, read, establish informal connections between people fighting for democracy. There are a lot of you, this regime cannot survive even with the help of Russia. Do not expose yourself to unreasonable danger, do not lead to the moment when they will shoot at you.
I admire the courage of the Belarusians who go out into the streets knowing that you can be arrested, beaten, and even tortured. It’s hard to even think about what could induce people in Estonia to do something like this.
History shows that there is always room for luck when people are fighting for freedom. The independence of the Baltic states was not an accident; if we had suffered for a couple of more years, it would have been a defeat. We were lucky that the leaders were morally clean, they did not compromise with themselves. This helped us to quickly and clearly break with the past.