Interview with Aleksander Kwaśniewski
Belarus: "Women are leading the fight, which is incredibly inspirational!"
March 14, 2021
Tags: Belarus, Democracy, Eastern Partnership, European Parliament, European Union, geopolitical competition, Lukashenko, Russia, women
By Ania Skrzypek
Fundation of European Progressive Studies (FEPS)
Director for Research and Training
The former Polish president Alexander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005) has long been an advocate of regional cooperation in central and eastern Europe. During his presidency, he not only oversaw his country’s accession to the European Union (2004), but just a few months later, when the ‘Orange Revolution’ began in neighbouring Ukraine, he became a mediator there on behalf of the EU. As president, he had numerous occasions to get to know his counterpart Alexander Lukashenko from another neighbouring country, Belarus – on a political, as well as on a personal level.
Ania Skrzypek: In the immediate aftermath of the Presidential elections in Belarus the situation seemed very dynamic. Now, half a year later – despite the repressions, despite 35.000 arrests and almost 250 people who have been detained as political prisoners – the popular demand for change is still there. How to explain this incredible power of perseverance?
Aleksander Kwaśniewski: The determination of the protesters is remarkable. And it also shows that this is the resistance of a younger generation. They are well educated, have been abroad and often worked in Poland and other European Union countries. They see the differences and they are brave. Their whole life until now has been in spent in the era of Lukashenko, with his style of ruling, lies and unfulfilled promises. They want change, fundamental, democratic change, and they will fight, regardless of the repression. This is the historic moment of this generation. In addition, women play a huge role in the protests. In Belarus, they endured many troubles and humiliations for a long time. And they had a calming effect in homes and on families. When they saw that Lukashenko had exceeded the limits, they went on the streets and showed unusual determination. They really are an example to many who are less brave, or determined, that one must fight. This also means that Lukashenko’s tactics to fatigue or to frighten the society – or to deceive it by some compromise concessions – may not succeed.
AS: In February, we witnessed the ‘All Belarussian People’s Assembly’, which seem to have fallen short from what had been hoped for. Despite his promises, President Lukashenko carries on and his speech on the day itself suggested that not much had changed in his state of mind. What can be realistically expected in the weeks to come? Can there indeed be a moment in which an actual transition would begin?
AK: Lukashenko’s game is to change something while retaining maximum influence for him and for his people. However, he has two problems. One is the protesters, which I have mentioned before. They don’t get fooled. The second is Putin, who demands – and continuously reminds via Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – that Lukashenko should leave in connection to the constitutional changes being put in place. What matters is whether the Russians have prepared a successor to Lukashenko. If so, the process may speed up. If not it might take longer. Putin will do everything to make sure the change is not identified with the success of protesters in the streets, as this would be a threat to Moscow – especially in a moment when the Navalny case is in the headlines. If after Ukraine, Belarussian citizens would be deciding on the directions of changes – that would be unacceptable do the Kremlin!
AS: To go a step back, what happened around the elections last summer?
AK: There are several reasons for the political crisis. Firstly, the elections there were falsified. The difference between this presidential election and previous ones is not very important because previous elections were falsified too. However, this last election was not only falsified but Lukashenko effectively lost it.
Secondly, another critical element lies in the role played by the younger generations: Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years, which means that all Belarusians under 26 have grown up under Lukashenko. And they are afraid that they might die while he is still in power. That is why the voice of the younger generations is very prominent. Young generations know the European Union better than older generations, and they can effectively compare differences in the quality of life between Belarus and the EU.
Thirdly, one of Lukashenko’s biggest advantages was the relative economic growth of the Belarusian economy in previous decades. But in the last three years, due to the economy’s structural problems, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the weakening of Russia’s economic support, the expectation of economic prosperity has significantly diminished. These are the three most important explanations of the eruption of such unprecedented demonstrations, and of the reinvigoration of a formerly weak civil society.
AS: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has become a symbol of the opposition as the Coordination Council is trying to unify the opposition. How has a 37-year-old English teacher become the symbol of the political breakthrough?
AK: Frankly speaking, Tikhanovskaya ended up taking on this leadership position largely by chance. The real leader could have been her husband, who is currently awaiting trial. Such a movement needs a leader, and she is trying to be this leader even though it is not an easy task for her as she lacks past political experience. I have been asked many times about the similarities and differences between Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and the current protests in Belarus. There are some similarities: a growing and energised civil society in both countries, for example. However, Ukraine’s civil society, even back in 2004, was much stronger than that of Belarus today. Another similarity can be found in the role of young people.
But there are also numerous differences. Firstly, in 2004 one of the leaders of Compromise in Ukraine was President Leonid Kuchma, who had just finished his second term and was extremely engaged in the quest for a political compromise for the next five years. We had a third round of presidential elections in Ukraine and Yushchenko was elected. In Belarus, however, the most important competitor is the president himself. The second difference is the lack of opposition leaders. In 2004, in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the opposition movement was extremely strong and could count on very well-prepared and experienced leaders. In Belarus, despite the admirable courage of the opposition, most of the leading figures are not politically experienced. Tikhanovskaya’s decision to set up the Coordination Council was a good idea, as she definitely needs such support. I believe this council can produce leading personalities, also in the public eye. One of the members of the Coordination Council is Pavel Latushko – the former Belarusian ambassador in Warsaw while I was president. I hold him in high esteem. If Tikhanovskaya surrounds herself with more experienced people, I see some chances of improving the organisation, structure and leadership of this civic movement.
AS: Faced with peaceful demonstrations, Lukashenko’s response has been very aggressive, but there is immense perseverance in these protests. And there are two specific groups of protesters who are mainly being repressed: women and the movement of workers on general strike. Do you think these new engines will eventually force Lukashenko to step down from power?
AK: That is a key question. In the old Belarusian society, women’s stories – however important – were silenced. The crucial change we observe now is that women are not only organising to survive, but they are leading the fight. That is indeed incredibly inspirational! The second element that can be politically decisive is the role of the workers. A continuation of the striking movement in Belarus would be the worst news for Lukashenko. The Belarusian economy is mostly composed of state-run enterprises. If big factories stop operating in Belarus, that will have dramatic consequences on the economy.
The government has many instruments to pressure workers from state-run enterprises away from their opposition as protesters on the streets. It could stop paying salaries, for example, or threaten workers with dismissal, arrest them, etc. However, women and workers are the two elements that will determine how the protests pan out in the future.
AS: You mentioned the economy. Belarus has been strongly connected to Russia, but both countries have quite a strained relationship. Putin has announced that if the situation gets out of hand, Russian security forces might have to intervene. What should we expect from Russia in this situation?
AK: Putin has repeatedly said that one of the main goals of his lifelong presidency is to rebuild a great zone of Russian influence. He can name it differently – the Eurasian Economic Union for example – but the idea that still underpins Putin’s foreign policy is to keep a sort of empire, of which Belarus is an extremely important part. For Russians, the Belarusian people are a sort of younger brother, part of the same historical and cultural family. For most Russians, the prospect of Belarus joining the EU is unacceptable, even for very pro-Western individuals like Alexei Navalny. Putin wants to keep Belarus, and countries like Ukraine, Moldova and those in the South Caucasus and central Asia, in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Putin is not particularly fond of Lukashenko. He would prefer to replace him with other pro-Russia figures – not as a consequence of the ongoing street protests, but as a result of some kind of negotiation. The new pro-Russia leader would be compelled to hold free and fair elections within one or two years. I believe that is Putin’s preferred scenario and indeed, he counts on many instruments to pursue this goal. I believe Putin, and not the West or the EU, is the only actor that can effectively pressure Lukashenko to step down, as was the case with president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Another scenario would be that the continued protests and civil unrest force Lukashenko to request Russia’s military intervention to combat instability and alleged Western threats. Putin would then be faced with a clear question: how could he intervene militarily, without unleashing a strong anti-Russia resistance among the Belarusian people? Ukraine has taught him that each military action there sparks strong resistance against Russia. Ukraine therefore means the end of military measures from Putin’s side.
I would think the idea of Russian military support for the Belarusian regime has certainly been discussed, but I see Putin’s statements more as a warning than as a real proposal. Most importantly, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun that the plan to reform the constitution might be a sign of Lukashenko’s willingness to negotiate some kind of compromise. However, he warned that the West cannot be too active in this crisis if this possibility is to come about.
The problem is that the opposition has very little reason to trust Lukashenko. However, I could envisage a round-table discussion between Lukashenko and Tikhanovskaya’s Coordination Council, together with representatives from Russia and the West – as happened in Ukraine in 2004. A timetable for a constitutional reform and fresh elections could be discussed.
Without Russia, or against Russia, no change will happen in Belarus. That is something the West should understand. If the determination of the people on the streets gradually declines, I am sure that Lukashenko and the different actors backing him will cling to power resiliently. That is Lukashenko’s scenario: to survive the ongoing political turmoil with a limited use of violence. Lukashenko hopes the protests will eventually die down because of fatigue among the population.
AS: There is the question of Lukashenko’s authority. Until now, election after election, Lukashenko has been the country’s indisputable dictator. That is no longer taken as a given.
AK: I know Lukashenko as I worked with him when I was president. We are almost the same age. He loves to come across as a macho leader. However, if you meet him privately, he is rather a realistic and pragmatic person. He may not be as realistic as before, but I would be curious to ask him how he envisions his end and whether he wants to end up like Yanukovych. Part of his personality is quite realistic and pragmatic, and we should appeal to this aspect of him.
AS: On 7 February we celebrated – if one can use that word – a day of solidarity with Belarus. But whilst so many manifested their support for Belarussian people in their fight for change in their country, there has been much criticism about the inactivity of the international community, including the European Union. Among the explanations is the argument that except sanctions on one hand, and support for civil society on the other, not much can be done. Is that the case?
AK: The European Union made the right decisions. Sanctions and help to civil society: scholarships, visa convenience, support for free media. This all needs to continue, and on an even larger scale. Politically, the issue is very difficult. The keys to the solution are primarily in Moscow. And the meeting of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borell with Lavrov showed where the EU-Russia dialogue currently stands. If the determination of the protesters in Belarus does not weaken, and Russian pressure on Lukashenko intensifies, then perhaps Lukashenko will be willing to enter himself into contacts and talks with the West, and EU diplomacy should be prepared for such a situation. In that case, a Belarusian version of a ’round table’ could be a solution. But that is just one scenario.
AS: How far should Western neighbours be involved? We see a lot of support from Lithuania, which is where Tikhanovskaya has fled. Poland has expressed its willingness to support the protesters financially, medically and logistically. However, when we look at the EU, the media assessing the position of the EU are at best prudent when it comes to Belarus. There is also a lot of discussion about what the OSCE should be doing. What do you think the EU’s position, and particularly the position of European progressives, should be?
AK: The situation is indeed very sensitive, and the actions undertaken by the EU should be very clever. Putin and Lukashenko are waiting for an excuse to say that they have to implement military force as a consequence of the West’s attempt to destabilise the country. There are not many European flags on the streets of Minsk, but there were in Ukraine in 2014. That shows that the Belarusians are very responsible. Today, if the main demand of the Belarusian opposition was membership of NATO and the EU, the situation would be even more explosive. We would give Putin and Lukashenko the strongest reason to act. And this response would be supported by the majority of Russians and even Belarusians. The EU’s attempts to liberalise visa regimes, and to support free media and NGOs, are fine. Exerting political pressure upon Lukashenko is very important. I deeply respect the role played by Lithuania and its Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius, a Social-Democrat. In my view, he is the most competent EU politician when it comes to understanding what is going on in Belarus, especially within Lukashenko’s camp.
One of the weaknesses in EU decision-making is that we do not have enough information. We have been very passive towards Belarus in recent years. European leaders have met Lukashenko, but we do not even know the people surrounding him. We do not know a more moderate leader who could potentially replace Lukashenko. This is my first piece of advice: listen carefully to what Linkevičius has to say!
With regards to the role of the OSCE, the EU should activate all the organisations of which Russia is a part. That is our only chance to have Russia around the negotiation table. In a nutshell, the EU should be active, and try to control the situation carefully. It should keep a relatively low profile as it has until now, and it should include other organisations such as the OSCE in the mediation.