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Paval Latushka: A Belarusian Diplomat Turned Protester


Paval Latushka has served as ambassador to a number of European countries.

For years Paval Latushka was a devoted politician and civil servant. He was a spokesman at Belarus's Foreign Ministry, the country's culture minister, and then, toward the end of his bureaucratic career, served as the ambassador to a handful of European countries. He was rarely, if ever, in the limelight.

That changed after Latushka, who had been working as the director of Minsk's oldest theater, supported his striking staff and joined the protests against the result of Belarus's August 9 election, which was widely perceived to be rigged in favor of the country's strongman president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Considered by many to be more eloquent than your average Belarusian bureaucrat, Latushka said that seeing protesters emerge from prison covered in bruises had convinced him to follow actors and staff at the Janka Kupala National Theater and join the protests.

On August 17 he was fired -- and shortly afterwards, the 47-year-old joined the opposition Coordination Council, which was set up a day later with a stated goal of ensuring a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Belarus.

After his dismissal, supporters greeted him with applause and cheers outside the theater, calling on the authorities to reinstate him. Many of the theater troupe's members resigned in protest, some of them personally handing their notice to the country's culture minister, Yury Bondar. While tainted as a member of Lukashenka's regime, Latushka won over some of his critics by speaking in Belarusian, rather than Russian, and supporting Belarusian culture.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Belarus Service on September 2, Latushka said he was fired from his position as the head of the theater on Lukashenka's instructions after "unprecedented pressure on the theater staff and demands [for me] to deal with the actors who expressed their…positions."

Continued Pressure

In his new role as a member of the seven-person presidium of the Coordination Council, the pressure from the authorities hasn't let up. Along with other council members, Latushka had been questioned by Belarus's Investigative Committee after the prosecutor-general opened an investigation into the council, claiming it was attempting to illegally “seize” power.

Two members of the council's seven-member presidium, Volha Kovalkova and Syarhey Dyleuski, are in jail for allegedly violating the law on organizing mass events. And Lilia Vlasova, another member of the council's presidium, was detained by police from the financial-crimes unit on August 31.

Risking Careers, Belarusians Defy Authorities To Take Political Stand
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WATCH: Risking Careers, Belarusians Defy Authorities To Take Political Stand

All of this, Latushka said, is an indication that the "rule of law has ceased operating" in Belarus. "We are starting to get used to the fact that armored personnel carriers are on the streets and the defense minister declares that he will carry out any order, even illegal." On August 23, Defense Minister Viktar Krenin said that protesters would be dealing with the army and not just the police if any war monuments were damaged or destroyed.

Since the disputed election, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets to protest the results, calling on Lukashenka to step down, release all political prisoners, and hold free and fair elections.

For Latushka, the pressure has become even more personal after he was publicly -- and obliquely -- called out by the president himself.

Speaking in the western Belarusian city of Baranavichy on September 1, the Belarusian president answered a question at a news conference about civil servants who had joined the opposition.

“They have always been like that. I know who you're alluding to," Lukashenka said. The president then went on to describe a former official, widely believed to be Latushka, who he said had begged to be a minister and then asked to be sent to France to be the ambassador. On his current role in the opposition, Lukashenka said that the official "will answer to the law. He crossed a red line."

Latushka's is not the only high-level defection. A senior police officer, a Foreign Ministry official, and Belarus's ambassador to Slovakia, have all defied the authorities to support the protests.

Latushka, who served as Belarus's ambassador to Poland, France, Portugal, and Spain, rejected Lukashenka's charge that he crossed a red line by joining the protests and the opposition council.

"I didn't cross a red line because I am on the side of conscience and loudly protested against violence and lawlessness," he said. "I want the government in our country to be elected, not self-appointed. More and more officials will leave their posts, choosing the side of truth rather than lies."

"We do not intend to violate the Criminal Code, the constitution, or to seize power, but only to establish a dialogue between the government and society," he added.

'Father Figure'

Rejecting Lukashenka's public remark that he had tried to be a father figure to the unnamed official, Latushka said: "My father, who unfortunately, is no longer of this world, always taught justice, [and] to be guided by moral principles -- and I have tried to do this all my life."

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.

One glimmer of hope for the victims of the postelection crackdown would be any sign that the perpetrators will be held to account. Belarus's Prosecutor-General's Office has announced that it is setting up a commission to investigate the brutal quelling of the protests.

UN human rights experts said on September 1 that they had received reports of 450 documented cases concerning the torture and ill-treatment of people held in custody since the election.

However, Latushka said that the authorities will need to follow through on those investigations, otherwise they might be opening up a "Pandora's box" that could destabilize society and lead to further economic woes.

"Can the state function in such a state?" he asked. "No, it can't. The line has already been crossed, and I think the situation will be resolved soon. There have been many such examples in history. We know how they ended. They ended in change. And we have these changes coming."

Written by Luke Allnutt and based on an interview conducted by Valery Kalinovskiy,
a correspondent for RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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