As Belarus prepares for a presidential election next month, few doubt longtime leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka will win reelection. Still, economic setbacks and souring ties with Moscow have hurt his popularity, and the opposition says the man dubbed as "Europe's last dictator" can be unseated. One of the leading opposition candidates, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, spoke to RFE/RL's Claire Bigg.
RFE/RL: You've spearheaded a campaign called "Tell the Truth!" aimed at promoting debate about Belarus's problems. Has it affected the political climate ahead of the December 19 election?
Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu: We set up the campaign precisely to change the political climate, to help the opposition reach beyond its usual electorate, which represents about 20 percent, and we reached this goal. The campaign is "civic," tied neither to the opposition nor the authorities. We've done everything to position ourselves as a civic campaign, and we were successful.
RFE/RL: You've said you "decided" to win the election. What makes you so confident?
Nyaklyaeu: The current situation in Belarus differs significantly from the previous elections, in 2001 and 2006. Russian influence has grown, and there are tensions stemming from the relations between Lukashenka and the Kremlin. They're chiefly based on mercantile goals, on Lukashenka's search for money.
Whether we like it or not, our confidence in the future depends on our good relations with Russia, a country from which we import raw materials and to which we export our products. Right now it's the only possible market for us, and therefore, the only way to preserve salaries, pensions, and finance the social sphere. But that's begun to waver, and the population no longer supports its social contract with Lukashenka, who's begun to feel insecure. We were able to perceive that and to occupy part of a niche traditionally occupied by Lukashenka -- that of a person, a president closely cooperating with Russia, particularly in the economic sphere. That's how we were able to get part of his electorate onto our side.
RFE/RL: You've suggested selling Belarus's strategic pipelines to Russia if you become president, and there are rumors that your election campaign was bankrolled by the Kremlin. Do you consider yourself a pro-Russia candidate, as some have described you?
Nyaklyaeu: First, the 'Tell the Truth!' campaign receives no political -- I stress, political -- money from Russia. Second, I've said that I accept the presence of Russian capital on equal terms with that of all other economic players. I need to see transparency in the money that flows through my country, and if I ban Russian capital from our market, money will come through other channels -- offshore zones. That means assets purchased by a Belarusian businessman, in fact, won’t belong to us at all.
RFE/RL: Who finances your election campaign?
Nyaklyaeu: We have several sources of financing. We receive money from Russia, meaning from people based in Russia. Some of them are Belarusians, others are not ethnic Belarusians but had businesses in Belarus and refused to play Lukashenka's unfair, corrupt, and criminal games. I lived abroad for a quite long time, in Scandinavia, and people in the West have also agreed to help us. Our third source of financing are Belarusians, people who each donated literally a few kopeks.
RFE/RL: Last week, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she hoped Lukashenka would win the December 19 poll, arguing that his presidency would safeguard Belarus' independence and limit Russian influence in the country. How did you react to that statement?
Nyaklyaeu: That's precisely why I came to Prague, to discuss [the statement] with the Czech foreign minister. We spoke about it for an hour and a half yesterday. From Prague I travel to Poland, where I'll discuss the issue with Polish Foreign Minister [Radek] Sikorski, who has held direct talks with Lukashenka.
If Europe recognizes this imitation of an election as genuine, it means that in the future it could recognize the imitation of democratic processes as genuine democratic processes -- something Lukashenka is already trying to accomplish.
RFE/RL: Do you plan to travel to Lithuania, too, to take up the issue with authorities in Vilnius?
Nyaklyaeu: I think it would be awkward for me to go and interrogate the Lithuanian president. But I expect there will be some kind of official statement on this issue. At any rate, I'm glad I came to Prague. The Czech foreign minister reassured me, he said there is a common European Union policy that doesn't depend on the sympathies or antipathies of one individual EU country, let alone an individual politician.
RFE/RL: You've called on Belarusians to hold mass protests on Minsk's central square if authorities fix the presidential elections. Do you think a repeat of Ukraine's Orange Revolution is possible in Belarus?
Nyaklyaeu: When we talk about gathering on the square, we mean peaceful resistance against falsifications, to which Lukashenka is certain to resort. Belarus must come out of dictatorship only the way it entered it -- through elections. Only elections will foster dynamic development in our country. We will use lawful means to achieve change in our country, we will work tirelessly to end dictatorship and bring democracy.