Belarus' glimmer of hope: An interview with the opposition leader

By Riccardo Valsecchi.

Berlin - Aleksander Milinkevich, leader of the opposition during the 2006 Belorussian presidential elections and candidate for the next election, sat down with me to talk about politics and why he is a glimmer of hope for Belarus.

Aleksander Milinkevich is a tall and sturdy man, with a face dominated by large and red cheeks, blue and penetrating eyes. A relaxed but dogged expression is the predominant feature on the face of the man who represented the opposition during the 2006 Belorussian presidential elections. Milinkevich will also be a candidate in the next election scheduled for 2011.

Just as before, Milinkevich is up against the President Aleksander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko has been the President of the Republic of Belarus since 1994 when he won against former Prime Minister Vyachaslaw Kyebich. Since that time, he has ruled the country through authoritarianism, monopolization of economic resources, repression of freedoms of the press and of the opposition. The enemies call him "the last dictator of Europe," while followers refer to him as "bat'ka," meaning father. Belorussians prefer not to pronounce his name at all.

"We are too scared," says a young man who prefers to remain anonymous.

Brussels has opened the doors for the tyrant of Kopys, a small urban center in the Northern region of Vitebsk, where Lukashenko was born, because of the importance Belarus has in the distribution of energy resources from Russia to Europe; more than 30,000 km of underground pipelines crossing the marshy and cold country provide one-third of EU energy requirements. They are good reason for other countries to renew contracts and silence the consciences of those who had previously criticized the policy of the dictator.

In the past, Milinkevich has been a recipient of the Sakharov Prize 2006 for the Freedom of Thought, an award dolled out by the European Parliament to exceptional individuals or organizations fighting against oppression, intolerance and injustice.

Milinkevich has just returned from a short but intense journey between Brussels and Berlin, where he met politicians and businessmen interested in the future of his country.

"What's happening, it is absolutely unexpected," he said. "According to some independent polls, 60 percent of Belorussians would begin a process of integration with the European Community. This is a fact that the current government can no longer ignore. Belarus is an European country, with European traditions, culture and history. Obviously, to become part of the EU is a long way, but it is bringing in our people a strong hope of a democratic future."

Although the rapprochement with the European Union has put inevitable economic change in motion, the political repression is still strong.

"Even today, the prisons are full of political prisoners," Milinkevich said. "Hundreds of students are expelled from the university faculty due to the allegations of being dissidents and they are forced to the military conscription. My own children, who have been studying in a university in Poland since 2006, can not come back home because there is on their heads a conviction for draft evasion, despite their regular permissions for university studies."

From a political point of view, the situation isn't any better.

"The local elections took place in Belarus on April 25," continues the leader of the Movement for Freedom. "Even if it was a formality, because all the power is centralized in the hands of the central government in Minsk, they are an important test ahead of the 2011 presidential election. Provided that they could take place properly,because, as you know, all the members of the Electoral Commission are representatives or designated by the government."

Polling stations were opened in Belarus' local elections on Sunday morning to select the 21,300 members of the country's local councils which are still called "soviets." The results will not be available before April 30, but there are few hopes for the opposition; the opposition is even not represented among the 110 members of the Palata Pradstawnikow, the Belorussian parliament.

"The Belorussian parliament is the only one in Europe not to be elected but appointed by the government," said Milinkevich. After the 2008 Parliamentary Elections, Lukashenko claimed the opposition in Belarus is not necessary, because it is financed by foreign capital.

What is Milinkevich's opinion about the rapprochement between the European Union and the Belorussian government?

"Although someone has raised some doubts, I am really favorable," explains Milinkevich, "because it can only accelerate the process of democratization, due to the growth of the economic conditions, as well as due to the inevitable confrontation with other societies and cultures, which are the expressions of the democratic model."

Italy is leading the new European attitude. In November 2009, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was the first Western leader to visit Belarus since 1996. During the visit, Berlusconi said Belorussian people deeply love their President. "The electoral results talk clearly," reinforced the Italian leader. Lukashenko won the last election with 82.6 percent of the votes, although Western observers said the elections were rigged.

"Let's say that Lukashenko knows how to force people in order to have their love," said Milinkevich. "He's the only politician with access to the national broadcasters in a country where there are no free press and independent media; he has filled the streets and public places with his own images; he has repressed and imprisoned political opponents and dissidents. Could people say that they don't love him? As Lukashenko himself said on the national channel some days ago, rebuking his First Minister Sjarhej Sidorski, there is not any other politicians in Belarus except him."

"The truth is that the words of the Italian Prime Minister were absolutely inappropriate," said Milinkevich. "Such a leader, who is visiting an authoritarian regime, should consider the consequences of those statements and the use that the regime could make," he said. "The visit of Italian delegation has been the only one, since the dialogue with EU has been renewed, that has not even considered the possibility of listening the Belorussian opposition, like we don't exist at all. Many Belorussians, who look at Brussels like a possibility of change, were very disappointed, since the European Community should be based on the respect of the human rights - as it is written in its Constitution - not on the 'forced love'of the people for their own oppressor. It was the first time since 1996 that the political situation in Belarus was evaluated in the terms set out by Berlusconi. Many European countries, and Italy too, experienced the shame of dictatorship in the past and they should have not forgot what that means."

When asked for his thoughts on the Russian Federation, Milinkevich said: "Russia is undoubtedly an important partner for us. Russians are our neighbors and they have a key role in our economy still now," he said. "They have been financing our government with $4-6 billion every year. But it is time to turn the page. We cannot be held forever as the young sons of the great motherland Russia. We are an independent nation, we have an identity and we want it to be respected. Due to its inability to build a free market economy, our regime has always been subdued to Moscow, but this situation can not be tolerated any more. As opposition, our first partner must be the EU. Moreover, our goal is the restoration of the democracy: can you try to start a process of democratization taking as an example a country where the democracy does not exist?"

What do people of Belarus expect from Europe?

"Clarity," Milinkevich said. "We are giving a great hope in an European future, although we know that it is a long and arduous way. We expect however that the Europe Union has an unique and supportive behavior with us. Nobody has benefits when, on the one hand, the European Parliament asks our regime to respect the democratic standards, on the other hand, a premier of an European countries comes and makes such a contradictory and dangerous statement as the Italian leader made. It despairs thousands of Belorussians who are working and struggling every day for a better future -- a future worthy of being called human."


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