“If you reach a half million, we will place ourselves at your side”

The opposition in Belarus is shattered. Can an economic crisis help them get democracy in Belarus?

After the elections in Belarus in December last year, the situation in the country has become chaotic. Crackdowns on the opposition have been violent and many people have been thrown into jail. Journalist and author Svetlana Alexievich is Belarus's most prominent journalist. She has written the hard-hitting documentary book A prayer for Tjernobyl, for example, and is one of the regime's foremost critics. The author Cecilia Hansson has interviewed her in Berlin, where she currently resides. In this interview she gives us her personal view on the situation in Belarus right now.

July 7 2011 Cecilia Hansson

How would you describe the situation in Belarus after the elections?
As a humanitarian catastrophe for the entire Belarus society. It’s usual that people who have had a high profile politically prior to an election are silenced afterwards. You are sacked from your job and sooner or later you leave the country. But the events following this election have been more radical than ever before. This time, anyone who had said anything that was at all critical of the regime was persecuted, assaulted or detained in custody. Initially 800 people were in detained in custody. Today the number is around 100. The people are naturally in shock.

It is also terrifying that the Stalinist machinery has been set in motion again as if nothing had happened historically. Today, you don't know if you have been betrayed or imprisoned by the authorities or by your own compatriots. Even in the smallest cities, a witch-hunt is occurring, initiated by ordinary citizens.

How has that come about, that Stalinist methods can so easily rise to the surface again?
It's difficult to say why there was such a big backlash this particular time. But it’s no coincidence that the other Eastern Bloc countries refer to Belarus as ‘Jurassic Park’. In other Eastern Bloc countries such as Ukraine, Estonia and even Russia, something fundamental has been changed, reforms have been implemented. But Aleksandr Lukashenko has preserved the old ways in Belarus. The wealthy people in Belarus today, who drive a Mercedes or Bentley, are mentally the same as during the Soviet period. It is now 16 years since Lukashenko came to power. The other Eastern Bloc countries have used those 16 years to build a new mentality, but this has not happened in Belarus.

How would you describe the Belarus mentality?
Geopolitically, Belarus finds itself today midway along the road from the west to the east and vice versa. Historically, we have consistently been subject to factors emanating from the backwash of some campaign or war. It hasn't been possible to develop the features that characterise an independent nation, because we have so often been dominated by another – by the Baltic States, Poland or Russia. The main aim of the Belarusian people was always just to survive. Things such as ‘freedom’ were never on the agenda.

Intellectuals in Belarus have always had a difficult time. During the period of Polish domination, the Belarusian people didn't hold any positions of importance in society at all. The educated in the population were oppressed. And after them came the Russians, who did the same thing.

Under Soviet rule, there were a particularly large number of acts of reprisal against intellectuals. My father studied journalism. It was common then that only 2 out of 20 teachers would still be there when the students returned after their summer holidays. All the other professors and senior lecturers had either been removed or executed. It was a whole generation of intellectuals who were wiped out by Stalin.

Even during the Second World War, the country suffered a huge loss of educated people. At that time, huge numbers of Jews were executed, and among these were many intellectuals. There were huge losses in general during the Second World War. Of a population of 10 million, 2.5 million Belarusians were killed during the war. So our nation's fate has not been a particularly happy one.

Is there any hope for Belarus? What would it be in that case?
The EU's decision to invest more money in Belarus is good. If it does happen, we can build up structures for commerce and industry. But I don't know if it will be possible with Lukashenko in power. Our hope lies in the new generation. One cannot expect that older people would be able to change very much.

But Belarus's main problem lies in its own people, who are not prepared to protest. It's only the young people who are prepared to go out on the streets today. All the older intellectuals who have tried to do something previously have left the country. Many of the young have fled, too. But there are those who want to and are trying to create something new in Belarus. Young intellectuals, who are also working for the correct use of the language. In the villages in Belarus, people speak a mixture of Belarusian, Polish and Ukrainian. The language and other nation-building characteristics don’t exist at all.

All the people want to do in general is to be consumers. They have lived a hard life. But now, for example, they can travel to Bulgaria on holidays. Or buy different kinds of sausage. In the past, people have had to fight for the barest necessities.

The people don't understand what this thing called Freedom is that the opposition keeps going on about. Their lives began in Stalinist terror, and then there were seven more years of terror after the Second World War. The necessities of life were always scarce. And then came Chernobyl. These are the kinds of things that make up their lives. They don't know anything else. Being able to be consumers is a new experience for them. Previously, I thought that capitalism was an illness that would soon pass. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be so.

When I was in Belarus last time, I travelled around in the countryside. I talked with many different types of people. When I met the people in the villages and talked about freedom, they didn't know what it was about. “Look here, we have shops in this village that are full of goods. What freedom should we need? We have everything that we want.”

Many intellectuals are bitter and ashamed of their compatriots. They want to build another kind of life, and use derogatory terms for their compatriots such as “idiots” or “dust pans”. I think it’s dreadful to use names like that about one's own compatriots.

Our hope lies in the young generation. Obviously they have been affected by the news of the revolts in Northern Africa. But the older generation have quite a different experience of revolution. They saw the Orange Revolution in Ukraine which failed. So they are more cautious. And they are happy to receive the money that comes from Moscow.

The Lukashenko regime is completely dependent on the state of its relations with Moscow. Lukashenko receives a sum of money equivalent to €4 billion per year from Russia. And the people are satisfied with that, because the shops are full. But the moment that Russia abandons Lukashenko, he will have no resources any longer. The only thing that can motivate the people to go out onto the streets in protest is empty shops. So the key to the prison cells in which the opposition are locked up is in the Kremlin. And the people in the Kremlin, well, they have their own motives. Naturally, they do not want Belarus to move closer to Europe and are prepared to use both carrots and sticks.

What importance does the opposition have?
It is difficult to criticise people who are sitting in jail. But in the elections, quite simply they didn't have a chance in hell. First and foremost, they could not even agree on a common candidate. There were nine candidates and none of them had profiled themselves particularly strongly. When they all got their stint of airtime on TV, none of them stood out particularly, and none of them said anything that really touched people's day-to-day lives. All of them just criticised Lukashenko.

One of the candidates, Vladimir Neklyaev, is a poet. It's completely grotesque that a poet stands as a presidential candidate in a country of farmers. It isn’t appropriate for the people.

After the candidates’ TV appearances, I happened to get into conversation with a taxi driver, a simple person. He said that he didn't understand a word of what the opposition wanted to give him. On the other hand, Lukashenko promised him and others in the same situation that they would be able to earn more. That's comprehensible, and that's what you want.

In other words, the political opposition is very weak. In addition, you couldn't say that the nation’s geniuses are found in the opposition. The smartest people have either fled the country or are involved in business enterprise. You cannot achieve the same results in politics as you can in business.

The nine presidential candidates had urged the people to congregate in Independence Square on election day. But those who want change in Belarus don't want to achieve it through revolution but through reforms. Many were afraid, because no one knew what would happen at the square. So in the end it was only young people who gathered there.

Why did it happen like that?
You need to understand what it means to live in a totalitarian regime. It’s about total control. My daughter is a teacher. Prior to election day, the headmaster of her school called a meeting of his staff. All were given the task of trying to influence the students. They were to say to their parents not to go to Independence Square on election day. That it would have negative consequences if they did. I recognise these mechanisms. Making use of children is a common device used by dictatorships.

Were you yourself in Minsk on election day?
Yes, I was on my way to Independence Square but never got there. It was -15° C. I was ill and had to go home. My friends were stopped on the way, were not allowed to get to the square.

Several days after the elections I was sitting in a cafe with some good friends and discussing politics. Suddenly a man who had been sitting at a neighbouring table got up and came over to us. A police officer who had overheard our conversation. He said: “There were 20,000 people in the square the other day. Five thousand of them were my fellow police officers, who checked you and stopped you from entering. Even if there had been 50,000 of you, we would still have taken you down. But if your numbers would reach a half million, we´ll place ourselves at your side.”

In other words: many people in Belarus are fed up with Lukashenko. But they are also afraid of a change of regime. In addition, there is no tradition of protests in Belarus. People only go out on the streets in protest if they have economic motives for doing so.

Lukashenko appropriates for himself a lot of the country's capital. But he also gives the people the opportunity to finally own something. When I was in Minsk in December, I was surprised that there was so much traffic on the roads. That’s something entirely new.

So people have reason to like Lukashenko?
Yes he is cunning. In Russia and in Ukraine, the kolkhozy, the Soviet-style collective farms, have been dissolved. That hasn't been done in Belarus. They are functioning and they are successful. Lukashenko has not either sold off the factories. And they are also working well. Trade and industry functions in general much better in Belarus than in its neighbouring countries. In addition, Belarus is not a class society. There is no small class of super-rich people as in many of the other Eastern Bloc countries.

Lukashenko wants to demonstrate that socialism still has potential. Particularly when one is being paid by Moscow. Without this aid, the country would never survive. But in fact, there has been no socialism in Belarus for a long time.

For me, what Lukashenko says is an absolute nightmare. But to the people, it sounds sensible. As a politician, he is like an animal. He has good instincts, senses what the people want to hear. And he speaks their language.

Many of the intellectuals in Belarus today are like the “Decembrists” – the intellectuals in Russia who worked for reforms in the early 1800s. They had no idea about how to talk to the people. They spoke French and wanted to influence the people – who consisted largely of illiterate serfs – with ideas from the French Revolution. Naturally, they failed.

You have called the people growing up in Belarus today a confused generation?
Yes, an indicator of this is that Belarus is at the top of the suicide statistics among all the former Eastern Bloc countries. It's difficult to find meaning in life. Lukashenko is doing the best he can. He is trying to create all kinds of symbols. For example, he is trying to introduce the Komsomol again, the old Communist Union of Youth.

He has even ordered the building of a wall outside of Minsk, claiming that it was a defence levee against the Germans during the Second World War. But everyone knows that there never was such a levee. Only four days after the outbreak of war, the Germans had arrived in Minsk.

Lukashenko's attempt to build a mythology is not working, quite simply. Young people today have access to the Internet and know a lot about the world. At the same time, a symbolic monster is being built up around them.

A large number of young people are leaving the country. They travel to the west, to Russia, to the Baltic States – it doesn't matter where. Just that they get away.

You describe a situation that feels hopeless. Is there anything one can do?
People should be preparing already for the next elections. There is no time to lose! After their defeat in the elections, the opposition groups are quarrelling with each other. They are not prepared to co-operate. They long to be liberated, for the EU or America to tackle the problems in Belarus. But what would they do? Send troops? Solutions like that are out of the question. The change must come from within the country. We must become independent.

The only solution for Belarus is if economic problems arose. So that charismatic people could come forward and take action to try to solve them. Today there are no such people in the country.