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How can Europe help Belarusians?


Photo: NAМ-media

Keynote points of Pavel Latushka, Head of the National Anti-Crisis Management, Deputy Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus

20 March 2024, Warsaw

Dear ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, I am pleased to welcome all the guests - the EU Member States Special Envoys for the Eastern Partnership, and especially Ambassador Dirk Schuebel for organizing the meeting and the opportunity to speak up. 

We are in the Free Belarus Museum - which not only collects artifacts of protest Belarus of 2020 and beyond, makes exhibitions of Belarusian artists, theater performances, but is also an open socio-political and discussion platform for the entire democratic community. The museum is one of the projects of the National Anti-Crisis Management team, which I represent here.

To show you the scale and permanence of repression, which operates like a conveyor belt, we have taken news about arrests, detentions and trials on political grounds over the last 10 days only. As you can see on the screen, all this happens in Belarus every day.

New information from Belarus this morning. Detentions, trials - and so on every day.

It's been 4 years since the beginning of the events of the summer of 2020 in Belarus. 2 years since the beginning of the war of Russia and Lukashenko's regime against Ukraine. 

In the context of world history, these years and events are only a moment. But for millions of Belarusians the events of the last years became the biggest and hardest test in their lives. And the longest. 

According to the human rights center "Dissidentby", as of today there are 1602 officially recognised political prisoners in Belarus. 1082 political prisoners have already served their terms.

As you can see, Lukashenko's regime puts new political prisoners in place of those released. 

At least five political prisoners have already died in prison: Vitold Ashurok, Ales Pushkin, Mikalai Klimovich, Vadzim Khrasko, Igorr Lednik. Torture, inhuman conditions, lack of medical care - this is what political prisoners face in Lukashenko's prisons. And they die. 

6 political prisoners are in incommunicado status. The leader of the Social Democrats Mikalai Statkevich has been in incommunicado status for more than 400 days. We know nothing about his fate. 

According to the report by the Centre for Law and Democracy Justice Hub, from May 2020 to May 2023 at least 136 thousand people became victims of crimes against humanity in Belarus. Illegal deprivation of liberty, torture, murder, rape and other serious forms of sexual violence, including against minors, enforced disappearances, deportations - this is what happens in Belarus. Every day. 

All independent mass media have been liquidated in Belarus. During these 3.5 years 1500 non-governmental organizations have been eliminated in Belarus, 950 are in the process of liquidation. All 11 political parties have been liquidated. We can state the almost complete destruction of civil society.

What is Lukashenko’s power based on

To date, Lukashenko has held on to power primarily thanks to the security forces and financial and economic support from the Russian Federation.

One of the important factors of the regime's financial sustainability is the use of opportunities to circumvent EU, US and other sanctions through Belarus in the interests of Russia.

Smuggling, corruption schemes, as well as actually legal income due to the lack of synchronization of sanctions against Russia and Lukashenko's regime. All this allows the dictator to earn quite a lot of money.

The electoral cycle has started in Belarus. 

First stage. On the 25th of February Lukashenko organized the appointment of deputies to the parliament.

We defined this day as a "day with no choice". There were only two candidates for one mandate in Lukashenko's parliament. The forecast of independent political analysts and journalists about whom Lukashenko would appoint to his parliament was 100% confirmed. We proceed from the fact that this institution can’t have international recognition and participate in international parliamentary organizations due to the fact that this body is not a body representing the Belarusian people.

Second stage of electoral cycle. On the 25-26 of April Minsk will host a session of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly, a constitutional body created by Lukashenko. This body will actually become higher than the parliament. It actually appoints deputies of various levels, judges, prosecutors, representatives of the power bloc, the government, Lukashenko's administration and non-governmental organizations fully controlled by the regime - 1200 members.

Lukashenko has created 4 parties, which are not political structures in the general sense of the word, and are fully incorporated into Lukashenko's totalitarian system.

The third stage after the establishment of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly will be the election of the President of Belarus, which can take place either in 2024 or 2025. The decision on the date of the election is in the exclusive competence of the dictator.

Today we can state that Belarus has a totalitarian system. 

Lukashenko is under Putin's considerable control and is in fact a puppet implementing policies in his interests. Lukashenko balances the issues of maintaining power inside Belarus, using tools to obtain economic resources from Russia and performing military-political and diplomatic tasks in the Kremlin's interests.

Democratic Forces of Belarus

We can state a unique situation that has developed among the democratic forces of Belarus. It is unique from the point of view of the history of modern Europe. We actually have three institutions that represent the interests of Belarusians abroad and carry out actions aimed at influencing the internal agenda in Belarus. 

The first institution is the President-Elect, and at the same time the head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus - Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya. 

The second institution is the United Transitional Cabinet as the executive body of the democratic forces, which I have the honor to represent today. 

The third institution is the Coordination Council.

Preservation, strengthening and development of these institutions is the general strategy of the democratic majority in Belarusian society today. We face the important task of organizing direct elections to the Coordination Council, which could take place between May and September 2024. 

At the same time, a number of new institutions with both socio-political, civic and human rights orientation have emerged in recent years. Among them we can single out the Office of Svietlana Tsikhanovskaya, NAM, organizations of former law enforcers of Belarus - Belpol and Baypol, workers' movement - Rabochy Rukh, Cyberpartisans and others.

Due to the impossibility to carry out professional activities on the territory of Belarus, a wide network of independent media has been created abroad, among which it is important to mention Belsat, Euroradio, Radio Racja, Nasha Niva, Malanka TV and others. Belarusan bloggers and relevant channels operate from abroad.

The non-governmental sector of Belarus in connection with relocation is also represented abroad, however, as well as the above-mentioned institutions, it continues to interact through confidential channels with Belarusians living inside the country. Here we can note the presence of dozens, if not hundreds, of non-governmental organizations.

Thus, we have a unique situation of actual preservation of institutions, non-governmental organizations, political structures and independent media, which work daily to change the situation in Belarus.

We are self-critical about our performance, but at the same time, the fact that we have managed to maintain consolidation and a certain degree of efficiency over three and a half years is important.

Strategy towards Belarus

Unfortunately, we have to admit that since 2020 there has been no clear understandable strategy of actions aimed at changing the situation in Belarus.

During this time Lukashenko:

  1. Unfolded the most large-scale mass repressions against the Belarusian society for the last 50 years of European history.

  2. Crimes are committed in Belarus, which according to official documents of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council are recognised as crimes against humanity.

  3. Organized the hijacking of a Ryanair civilian aircraft, thereby actually committed an act of terrorism.

  4. Organized an undeclared war with the use of illegal migrants against Belarus' neighboring states that are EU members.

  5. Provided the territory of Belarus for aggression against Ukraine.

  6. Has become Russia's main ally in military-industrial and trade and economic cooperation. Neither North Korea, nor Venezuela, nor any other countries can match the scale of tactical and strategic assistance provided by Lukashenko in Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

  7. Achieved the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus. We can predict that the next step will be the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons on the territory of the country.

As of today, we must state that the only country that has a clear systematic strategy of actions in relation to Belarus is the Russian Federation, which has set as its strategic goal the incorporation of the territory of Belarus into the Russian Federation. The so-called Union State of Belarus and Russia is used for this purpose.

If we see today the actions of Russia aimed at the military occupation of Ukraine, then at the same time we must state that Russia carries out actions of non-military occupation of Belarus. 

What is the strategy of the Russian Federation? Their strategy is to provide informational, ideological, cultural influence on the Belarusian society. At the same time, they marginalize Belarusian culture, Belarusian language in Belarus, strengthen the perception inside the country, among Belarusians, of unity with Russian society, rewrite history, etc. This is militarisation of society, identification of the European Union, the United States of America, and democratic values in general as common enemies. For this purpose, both informational propaganda tools and creation of pro-Russian non-governmental organizations on the territory of Belarus, bribery, corruption of state officials, introduction of persons connected with Russian special services into the system of national defense and security are used.

An important thesis that I would like to voice. We are fully aware that the responsibility for the future of Belarus as an independent, sovereign state, first of all, lies with the Belarusian people. And our goal is not to shift this responsibility to our partners, who are assisting us in this difficult period of struggle for our sovereignty and independence. However, without international support, without a mutual strategy of actions, the achievement of our goal will be longer in time and less realistic.

I don’t think that we have too high expectations of possible action from our partners. Rather, we are often faced with an underestimated desire to use the available arsenal to prosecute and hold the Lukashenko regime accountable for all the violations of international law and human rights that I have mentioned.

Main challenge and threats

Today Belarus is in the geopolitical context of the war initiated by Russia against Ukraine. It should be understood that territorially Belarus is surrounded by Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia and is in the center of geopolitical events. 

The “Belarus balcony” is of strategic importance for the interests of the Russian Federation and will certainly be further used by Russia in continuing the war against Ukraine and destabilizing the situation in the neighboring countries of Belarus. 

Is it possible to reach an agreement with Lukashenko? This is an unrealistic scenario. By his mentality, Lukashenko is a man connected with the Russian world and devoted to the interests of the Russian Federation. At the same time, he is a man who would like to retain a certain control over the territory of Belarus. And he will balance his relations with Putin only in the context related to obtaining more economic resources to preserve his power, gradually giving up a part of sovereignty in favor of the Russian Federation. Any steps in the direction of the West can mean only one thing - the desire to receive even more funds for loyalty to the Kremlin.

The key factor that can change the situation in Belarus is the Belarusian people, who need to regain their subjectivity in terms of influence on the internal and external policy of Belarus. 

The key factor and strategy of the democratic forces of Belarus is to support Ukraine and the victory of Ukraine over Russia as an aggressor country.

Russia is currently pursuing a strategy aimed at demotivating Western partners to provide financial, economic and other assistance to Ukraine. In my opinion, the West can apply a similar, somewhat mirror-like strategy towards Russia. The most powerful sanctions against Russia are the elimination of Lukashenko's regime in Belarus. Even destabilization of his regime will force Russia to invest more in supporting Lukashenko.

In 2020, the Belarusian people took to the streets in protest and declared their desire to live in a democratic state, in a common European home. At that time, we noted the highest possible degree of motivation of Belarusians to fight for their rights, for the European perspective.

For almost four years, the Belarusian people have been subjected to the most large-scale repressions, which led to human casualties and to the deportation of a huge number of Belarusians. And at the same time, there is a perception in the Belarusian society that the partners are not interested in supporting the Belarusian people. I do not say this on my own behalf, I bring this thesis based on the information that we receive from inside Belarus, from the active part of the Belarusian society.

Belarusians often feel frustration because in response to the struggle for their freedom, for democracy, for supporting Ukraine, Belarusians have lost their lives. Many Belarusians have been killed, have been repressed, and are in prisons on sentences of more than 20 years of imprisonment. But there is no appropriate reaction against those persons who are guilty of committing these crimes. 

Therefore, it seems crucial to implement the following strategy of actions and concrete steps:

First. It is important for us to identify among the member states of the European Union the partner countries at the level of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Ministries of Justice, which would be ready together with us to carry out targeted legal actions to transfer the materials on crimes against humanity for consideration in the International Criminal Court in the context of deportation of at least 100 thousand Belarusians to the territory of the member states of the European Union.

According to the lawyers of the National Anti-Crisis Management, this approach is the most realistic in terms of raising the question of bringing Lukashenko to justice for the international crimes committed. This is an instrument of justice, influence on the presidential election, on the split of elites in the future. 

Second. Ukraine's support in initiating an arrest warrant against Lukashenko for war crimes related to the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to the territory of Belarus and their indoctrination is important to us. According to the National Anti-Crisis Management, our team, at least 3,000 Ukrainian children from 20 settlements were taken to the territory of Belarus between September 2022 and May 2023. We submitted two communications to the ICC in The Hague. 

The question of Lukashenko's responsibility for the war is of strategic importance. For today Lukashenko sells the thesis about his non-involvement in the aggression to the Belarusian society. And this is another strategic informational mistake. The international attention is not focused on Lukashenko's responsibility for the aggression, for the victims that the Ukrainian people bear. This leads to the perception among Belarusians that Lukashenka is not guilty of anything, is not involved in the aggression, and, on the contrary, does everything to establish peace.

The third element of the strategy. We need a program of support for independent media. Recently, we have noted a decrease in financial support for the independent media in Belarus. 

The fourth element of the strategy is to support the national identity of Belarusians, to support Belarusian culture in emigration, to create centers of Belarusian culture and education - the Belarusian National University, the National Theatre, other cultural institutions for preserving the national culture, its subsequent relocation to Belarus, and through these institutions to spread informational and cultural influence on Belarusian society inside the country.

The fifth element of the strategy. The Lukashenko regime has taken actions aimed at reducing the possibilities of the consular services of the European Union on the territory of Belarus; we are fully aware of this. At the same time, it seems important to jointly work out approaches that would allow more opportunities for Belarusians to visit the European Union, to obtain multiple-entry and Schengen visas. Greater openness of the European Union for the Belarusian society will contribute to the formation of a positive image of the EU among Belarusans.

The sixth factor of the strategy is the key one - the Belarusian people.

Closure of border crossings 

We are fully aware of the importance of ensuring the national security of Belarus’ neighboring states and understand the logic aimed at increasing control over Belarusian citizens entering the territory of these countries. At the same time, Belarusians perceive these actions as directed against them, not against Lukashenko's regime. Since, as I said above, there is no international responsibility, no large-scale sanctions are imposed, and this leads to the perception of Belarusians that it is the citizens of Belarus, and not the dictator, who are responsible for what happens in the country.

As a politician, I absolutely support all the actions of our partners aimed at strengthening national security and defense. The acquisition of F-16 aircrafts, leopards and other military weapons is certainly necessary and important. At the same time, I think it is important for us to realize that the main weapon is the people. The Belarusian people, who in 2020 opposed the dictator, who in 2022 opposed aggression against Ukraine. The Belarusian people, who are subjected to repressions on a daily basis, are our main weapon in the situation if the Putin regime and Lukashenko decide to reuse the territory of Belarus for aggression against Ukraine or one of the EU member states. And motivation is very important here. I think none of us would like to see a Belarusian soldier on the border with the European Union in a few years, who is ready to enter the territory of the EU. Therefore, purposeful actions to support Belarusians, exactly actions, are very important today.

I thank sincerely all our partners, the foreign ministries of the EU member states for their principled position in supporting our struggle for freedom.

The Eastern Partnership is an initiative that undoubtedly contributes to stimulating the European choice of Belarusians. But in order to bring this choice closer, it is very important for us to motivate Belarusians. The actions I mentioned above are only a part of a possible strategy. For us, of course, it would be a very serious step if the democratic forces of Belarus were given a place in the Eastern Partnership. It is difficult, but it is a very important political decision. We are ready to take this place, we are ready to intensify our cooperation within the framework of the Eastern Partnership.

It is also important for us to feel and understand that without civil society and democratic forces of Belarus today the issues of the future of Belarus cannot be solved.

We're stronger together.

 

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