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Alyaksandr Milinkevich on June 5 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, June 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who led street protests in Belarus after the October 2006 presidential election, was recently voted out of his post as the head of the Belarusian opposition coalition. RFE/RL's Brian Whitmore spoke to Milinkevich on the sidelines of the Democracy and Security Conference in Prague.

RFE/RL: Do you think that, looking at the newly worsening relationship between Russia and Belarus, the opposition in Belarus has opportunities it didn't have before? Also, do you think that, because of the schisms in internal Belarusian opposition, it could lose those opportunities?

Alyaksandr Milinkevich: I think that in Russia, the attitude towards our country is unambiguous. For most Russian politicians, it's very important to keep Belarus in the Russian political and economic spheres of influence. This is why Russia behaves the way it does. It turns off the gas to remind Belarus that it's dependent, then turns it on again when Belarus starts borrowing from Russia and paying it back with the help of its own resources. Of course, Russia can be an ally in the fight against dictatorship because evidently Russian politicians are tired of [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka. But I think that Russia's goals differ somewhat from those of our democratic opposition. Our goal is a free Belarus, a democratic Belarus whose main strategic goal is integration into Europe. In the strategic sphere, these goals are, of course, different. I want to reiterate that Belarus must have a good-natured and fair relationship with Russia, but we insist on principle that our nation must remain an independent state.

RFE/RL: Given the state of relations between Russia and Belarus, are there now both opportunities and dangers for the Belarusian opposition?

Milinkevich: First of all, Russia is a less predictable country today because democracy is on the decline. Reliable, stable, and nonthreatening countries are democratic ones. I want very much for Russia to return to a democratic path of development. This is very important: they are our neighbor. Nevertheless, I think that the main force that will change the situation in our country is us. Support from Western democracies is very important. It's very important for Russia to realize that, as a regime, it can never have good relations. But it is upon us to bring freedom to Belarus.
"It is not surprising that even under conditions of dictatorship, when everything Belarusian is suppressed, nevertheless the feeling of nation grows."


RFE/RL: Do you think that as a result of the schisms in internal opposition that were evident in your latest congress in Minsk, you will lose your opportunities? What are the consequences of this?

Milinkevich: Of course, one has to fight dictatorship together, with a common fist. Not everyone thinks so. Certain party leaders say that the time to unite will be the presidental election, but in everyday life one can work for the benefit of one's own party rather than for a common cause. I think that this is a mistake because under dictatorship, one cannot just work for one's own party. Isolated parties and civil organizations will be destroyed. But I wouldn't say that we have a schism, we just have different perspectives on strategy. I am for an active strategy. I am for a strategy in which we approach people. I am not prepared to wait for another election, which are useless anyway. Our voices aren't counted. Elections for us are merely another informational campaign, a mobilizing campaign. But they are in no way a means of acquiring power. In our country, we cannot change the government through elections. How can we change it? Through street action, through acts of civil disobedience. This was the case in many countries, as I said today. It was the case in Poland during Solidarity, it was the case in Czechoslovakia, and many other countries. If they don’t want to listen to us at elections, they must listen to us in the streets. That's my position. But certain party leaders say, "Europe is offering a dialogue with the regime. Let's participate in this dialogue." I'm for the dialogue, but I think it will happen later, when we prove that we are a worthy partner." The regime doesn't want to sit with us at the negotiating table. We are not a political subject from the point of view of the regime. We have to prove that we're a force.

RFE/RL: Do you think that there are elements of the regime with which you can negotiate and collaborate? The authorities are not a singular entity, and looking at other revolutions, there were always situations in which the opposition collaborated with some elements. Is this possible in Belarus or not?

Milinkevich: Of course the authorites are not homogeneous. There are people there who don't like the current situation. There are people who understand that the country is approaching a dead end. There are dissenting sentiments even in the police, even in the special services. There are many intelligent, educated people there. But I think that the fear in the bureaucratic elite is so great, much greater than in society, that the bureaucratic elite itself will not come to an agreement. The bureaucratic elite itself will not create a turnover. And also let's remember that our bureaucratic elite is entirely appointed, not elected. When the mayor of Kyiv supported the Orange Revolution, he did so because he was elected by the people. He wasn't afraid of the prime minister. We don't have people like that. Our authorities are desperately afraid of their leader, even though many don't like him. We must demonstrate this force, we must start to overcome, and then many of them will be able to take the risk and cross over to our side. But we are the ones who must begin this process.

RFE/RL: What really stands behind the schism in the opposition? It it just different views, or is there some intrigue?

Milinkevich: Of course, it's a different view, as I said, on strategy. It's different with different leaders. Additionally, in Belarus there is a battle not only for freedom but also a battle for the preservation of independence. And different political leaders have a different view on the geopolitical decision of our country. Some look to the east, and some look to the west. Some say that independence isn't the greatest value, but for me it's sacred. Of course, we're different, and when we were united during presidential elections, we said, "Now we're not arguing about platforms, about the geopolitical decision. We're not talking about what Belarus will be like later. We're only saying that now we must change the situation, we must destroy the dictatorial regime." And it's normal that such wide coalitions like the one we had, in the period between administrations, shatter to pieces. But we'll continue to collaborate regardless. We're not enemies, and I don't see a tragedy in this. It is natural because such a wide coalition is artificial, it's an imitation of solidarity. I think that today it's natural to be in groups with differing views that collaborate with each other.

RFE/RL: When you look at the former Soviet Union, there have been differing directions of development, some towards democracy, others away from it. In the Baltics, it's clear. In Russia, it became clear that it is no longer a democratic government. Georgia is more positive, as is Ukraine. What explains this difference?

Milinkevich led street protests after he failed to defeat President Lukashenka (RFE/RL)

Milinkevich: When I am asked, "Why do you have a dictatorship? The Baltics and Ukraine don't have one, but you do," I see the biggest problem in Belarus today is that, in our country, the nation isn't fully formed. In the time of the Russian Empire, then in the time of the Soviet Union, we turned out to be the most denationalized people, a people that was deprived of the knowledge of its roots, a people that was deprived of a language, a knowledge of its history. Belarusians have a very beautiful history, but most of them don't know this history, they think that it began with the great October Socialist Revolution. And when the nation isn't fully formed because it was deprived of historical memory, of a culture, it becomes very difficult for this nation to go through reforms. There are Lithuanians who were with us in a common state for 1,000 years. We were in the same empire, then in a different state, then in one common state. A very similar history, but Lithuanians had 20 years of independence between World War I and World War II, and during that time they formed a national spirit. Lithuanians feel that they are a family, but not all Belarusians do.

RFE/RL: This is the major factor?

Milinkevich: This is a very important point, this feeling of family, when trials come, when it's necessary to get through a difficult juncture, when it's necessary to overcome hunger and cold to achieve a worthy goal. And in these situations, the feeling of nation, the feeling of a people plays a major role.

RFE/RL: What can you and other opposition leaders in Belarus do to create these feelings of family?

Milinkevich: It is not surprising that even under conditions of dictatorship, when everything Belarusian is suppressed, nevertheless the feeling of nation grows. However, it comes not through culture, history, and language, but through a feeling of statehood. We have our own state, it defends us, it benefits us, and people start to have a civil patriotism. When we are in power, we will add to this patriotism national, historical, and cultural patriotisms. I think that the nation will endure this difficult journey. Sovietization in the Belarusian Soviet Republic in the USSR was the most beastly. They tried to make Russians from Belarusians, and this was the tragedy of our nation. So I think that the current process is a very difficult one, but there is no alternative.

RFE/RL: I noticed yesterday that you spoke at length with opposition politician Garry Kasparov. What connections are there between the Russian and Belarusian opposition at the moment?

Milinkevich: We know each other reasonably well, although I only met Kasparov here. We have a good relationship with the Union of Rightist Forces and with Yabloko. The Russian democratic opposition is going through the same path that we went through. We call this process in Russia the "Belarusization" of internal Russian politics. Everything that our authoritarian regime came up with in its time is repeated in Russia, with a five- or seven-year delay. And yes, unfortunately today [the opposition parties] are not in power. They usually aren't even allowed into local government. Nevertheless, they have influence, though today's Russian government marginalizes democratic forces. And more and more they resemble us. They often talk about the street. If you can't affect change through democratic elections, then you have nothing left to do but to go out onto the street. The only thing is that I am a firm proponent of peace street [demonstrations]. I don't want blood, I don't want violence because if there is violence, we won't attract more people, they'll become scared. We need to show that if you go out on the street despite your fear, people don't die there. Someone might get hit with a club, but not many people land themselves in jail. As a result, the less fear there is in the street, the more possibilities there are. So I'm for peaceful street [demonstrations]. Russian democrats have to collaborate with us because we have a lot of experience, they even say so themselves. And, of course, we also depend on their support. Two neighboring countries with a long history of cooperation have to live as friends, have to live with respect for each other. I hope that in Russia it will become quickly understood that nothing will be gained by mistreating Belarus. One needs to respect the right of every nation to have an autonomous state and build relations -- economic, cultural, and otherwise -- but one needs to start with economic not with slogans, propaganda, and myths.
Politics In Belarus

Demonstrators in Minsk on March 25 (RFE/RL)

WHAT HAPPENED? Belarus scholar Vitali Silitski and RFE/RL Belarus analyst Jan Maksymiuk took a look a how Belarus has changed since mass demonstrations in Minsk in March 2006 failed to produce meaningful change in that country.


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