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“My Belarus is disappearing, and the West is silent”


Pavel Latushka
Pavel Latushka Source: dw.com

In his interview with DW, Pavel Latushka appeals to the West to develop a strategy regarding Belarus and hopes that they will at least indirectly recognize the Belarusian emigration cabinet.

DW: Is Belarus lost for the nearest future?

Pavel Latushko: I do believe in changes in Belarus. However, whether this will happen depends on many factors. An important element could be the development of a support strategy for Belarusian society, which should be created in the European Union and the United States. The absence of such a strategy leaves Belarus in the hands of Russia. The only country that has a strategy for dealing with Belarus is the Russian Federation.

DW: Aren't you concerned that the democratic world is currently preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and may not be focusing on Belarus?

Pavel Latushko: It is evident that the most pressing issue currently is Ukraine and the war that Russia initiated with the support of Belarus. However, if the democratic world had recognized Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the President of Belarus in 2020 and if a democratic government had been established in Minsk, would Putin have risked aggression against Ukraine? Perhaps yes, but certainly not towards Kyiv, as this attack was launched from Belarusian territory. Therefore, in order for Ukraine to succeed and to prevent future threats, it is crucial to comprehend the role of the Lukashenka regime and take appropriate actions.

What does it mean?

It has been three years since Belarusians took to the streets to reject Lukashenka, oppose his dictatorship, and demand freedom. In 2020, Lukashenka ordered the shooting of protesters, resulting in fatalities. Over 60,000 Belarusians were arrested, and thousands of them were imprisoned. In 2021, he initiated a war against the EU by exploiting migrants and orchestrated the hijacking of a civilian plane belonging to Ryanair. In 2022, he ceded Belarusian territory to the Russian army to facilitate aggression against Ukraine. In 2023, he allowed nuclear weapons and the Wagner group to enter Belarus. Will the West wait for Lukashenka's next move? In a few years, neighboring countries like Poland and Lithuania may be surprised that Belarusians perceive them as enemies.

Are these perceptions a result of propaganda?

Yes. A powerful Russian-Belarusian media conglomerate has been established to convince Belarusians that Ukraine is an enemy. The same approach will likely be taken with Poland, transforming Belarus into a sphere of Russian influence. However, the majority of Belarusians do not desire this outcome. We seek democratization, not Lukashenka's rule. Our aspiration is to be part of Europe, not Russia. During the recent conference of Belarusian democratic forces, a resolution was adopted stating that our strategic goal is to join the European Union. While this may take time, historically, culturally, and mentally, we view ourselves as part of Europe.

Undoubtedly.

Unfortunately, the situation remains challenging, considering the closure of approximately 1,300 non-governmental organizations in the past two years. Political parties and independent media outlets no longer exist. Some may argue that it is because we do not fight. However, thousands of Belarusians are imprisoned, and Lukashenka continues to detain more individuals each day, with Belarusians being sentenced to lengthy prison terms, even up to 20-25 years.

While changes in Belarus ultimately depend on us, the Belarusian people, it is difficult to envision swift progress without international support, as was the case with Poland during the first Solidarity movement.

And do you anticipate receiving such support from the West?

The West must demonstrate its strength and readiness to fight for democracy and freedom. Dictators only understand the language of force. Therefore, the strategy must address the issue of holding the regime accountable for its crimes. Lukashenka is suspected of committing three of the most serious international crimes: aggression against neighboring countries, war crimes including the deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied territories, and crimes against humanity. Working alongside our Lithuanian partners, we have gathered evidence concerning 136,000 victims of crimes against humanity in Belarus. The only crime Lukashenka has not yet committed is genocide.

How should the West respond?

There should be strong sanctions, ones that are not as weak as they currently are, and most importantly, they should not differ from the measures imposed on Russia in relation to Belarus. Lukashenka's behavior allows him to transform Belarus into a hub for smuggling goods to the east. Imports into Belarus are still increasing, with the majority of these goods ultimately going to the Russian Federation.

What kind of sanctions against Belarus could put a halt to this situation?

The sanctions should be robust, targeting the financial system and halting trade. It is crucial to weaken the economic structure of Belarus in a way that brings the Lukashenka regime to its knees. I speak as someone responsible for sanctions policy in the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus. The West can demand the release of political prisoners, as there are thousands of them, and many are dying. On July 11, artist Ales Pushkin passed away after being transferred from prison to a hospital due to the lack of medical care provided in prison. Lukashenka has prohibited the provision of medical assistance to political prisoners, and this is a terrible tragedy. However, the global press seldom covers these issues.

What will happen to the Wagnerites who were brought to Belarus?

There are still several hundred mercenaries from the Wagner Group present in Belarus. Based on the information we have received, some of them have left the service, some have signed contracts in Russia, and others have been dispatched to Africa to carry out orders from the Kremlin. The remaining individuals have entered into agreements with the Ministry of Defense of Belarus and the private security company GardService, which was established in 2019 by Lukashenka's decree. However, due to the restriction that foreign citizens cannot serve in the military or private security companies, Lukashenka has issued Belarusian passports to them.

What are your thoughts on the border fence?

I view it as a tactical decision rather than a strategic one. As a diplomat, I understand that every country must prioritize its security. However, we must also consider the need for a strategy that will guide Belarus towards becoming a democratic nation. Once that goal is achieved, the necessity for a border fence will diminish. If not, there is a risk that in a few years, aggression may be directed towards neighboring countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, or even Ukraine.

Currently, the latter scenario seems more likely.

Present-day Belarus is an entirely totalitarian country. Even its own culture is being dismantled. The September repertoire of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, which I previously directed, now includes only one performance in the Belarusian language. All the others are in Russian. This theater has always exclusively staged performances in the national language of Belarusians. Changes are also being planned in the field of education. A new narrative is being constructed, suggesting that we have always been aligned with Russia. But this is untrue! We were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and we were the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This is our history.

What about passports?

Lukashenka has signed a decree stating that Belarusian citizens residing abroad will no longer be able to apply for new passports at consular offices. Once their old passports expire, they will be required to return to Belarus to obtain new ones. It is crucial to remember that after the protests in 2020, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians fled to countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Germany. For them, returning to Belarus could result in imprisonment. Lukashenka has established a special commission to investigate their cases. A prerequisite for obtaining a new passport will undoubtedly be a written confirmation recognizing Lukashenka as the president and a request for mercy.

Will passport applicants be required to comply with these conditions?

Yes. Lukashenka has publicly stated on numerous occasions, "On your knees! Get on your knees and ask for forgiveness, ask for mercy!" And now he intends to implement this scenario. Many Belarusians, understandably, will choose not to return to the country, which poses a significant challenge for our EU partners in terms of how to handle the situation of hundreds of thousands of Belarusians whose documents have expired. We have a solution. As a government in exile, we have already developed a new passport for Belarus, which has been reviewed by the European Commission and the Commissioner for Migration Policy. However, the approval of our passport lies in the hands of national governments such as Germany, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, and others. We urge them to recognize this document.

Could government recognition come first?

Recognition of our passport would, in effect, signify recognition of the Transitional Cabinet. Not directly, but it would still be a precedent on a European scale. It seems to have been forgotten that in the past half-century, no leader in Europe has expelled such a large number of their own citizens from the country. This is a form of political cleansing. My Belarus is disappearing before our eyes, and the West remains silent.

Was the transitional cabinet established as a government in exile? And if so, did it seek recognition from other countries?

This is a complex matter because the condition for recognizing a government is having control over the country it represents, or at least a portion of it.

However, during the Second World War, there were eight recognized governments in exile in London, including Poland.

Our situation is different. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was elected as the president of the country but was unable to assume her duties as Lukashenka forced her to flee abroad. The West encounters difficulties in recognizing the government it formed as the legitimate representative of Belarusian society. Of course, we are constantly in discussions with our partners regarding this issue. Perhaps recognition will occur gradually, such as through the acknowledgment of our passports. It is important to establish as many factual elements as possible to support our cause.

Thank you very much.

Aureliusz M. Pędziwol Interview taken on September 6, 2023 at the XXXII Economic Forum in Karpacz.

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