- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Alexander Kozulin made international headlines a few weeks ago after being beaten and detained by authorities for trying to enter a pro-government rally in Minsk. A former rector of Belarusian State University, he is a controversial figure in Belarus. Some say his campaign is financed by Moscow. Others say he joined the efforts of the leading challenger Alexander Milinkevich to boost his own standing within the opposition. Regardless, he is a populist who often uses religious appeal to fire up the opposition supporters camped out on October Square. Around 1 a.m. the night of March 20, he arrived in the square to applause and shared hot tea with youths bundled up to stay warm. Cfr.org’s Lionel Beehner spoke with him about whether the opposition has any real momentum going forward and what is next for the pro-democracy forces in Belarus, given President Alexander Lukashenka’s recent reelection to another five years in office.
You received just a few percent of the vote. Milinkevich received only 6 percent, according to the official count. Has the Belarusian opposition lost momentum? And how long should people remain here in the square?
Until we become free. Belarus has breathed in the air of freedom already and we don’t want to breathe in the stuffy air of dictatorship, violence, and humiliation. We’re fed up. We have to understand the president is the people’s servant and not their ruler. In a twenty-first century civilization he has to understand this and forget the Soviet past and forget his collective farm habits.
Are there enough people here to really make a difference?
Belarus has lived for twelve years under this dictatorship and we have to look back on our history, for example, with Hitler and Germany, but the problem is not in Lukashenka’s personality but that of Lukashism. People are gripped with fear. They said everyone who came to the square would be shot or imprisoned for twenty-five years. I consider that an act of state terrorism. But the people today are not afraid. We are like people from the Czech Republic, Poland, the Baltic States, and Ukraine: We’re not afraid of tanks and violence; we’re afraid of prisons and having no freedom. We’re tired of living in a spiritual prison. We understand after this there will be mass arrests.
How can Washington help the situation in Belarus?
Let me express my gratitude for the State Department’s solidarity with Belarus. We know that Belarusian mass media shows Americans as the beasts from hell and the most evil people in the world. But we know it’s untrue. And the fact that the State Department has not validated the elections and demands a runoff is principally important for us. It’s very nice that America is pushing democracy not only in Europe but also in a small country like Belarus. Right now we are being held like we’re in a concentration camp and we cannot exist without help from America.
What about relations between Russia and Belarus?
Thanks to personal interference from Putin yesterday, mass violence was avoided. So I thank him. Lukashenka is like a frog in the Kremlin’s throat. And it’s time for Russia to say no to this dictatorship in Belarus.
It seems that the opposition’s support is primarily youth groups like Zubr [Bison]. Is that the case, and how do you attract older Belarusians to your cause?
The word Zubr is kind of insulting word in Belarus so you won’t see many of its supporters here. You see instead the students of Belarusian universities. Youth is always our future and do not live in the past. The older generations can live with it but the youth cannot. The youth is always the cataclysm of change and these changes are inevitable.
But still, at least 50 percent of Belarusians support Lukashenka. What explains his massive support?
You have to understand that Belarus has suffered a lot in history and we’ve had wars going back and forth through our territory. Those Belarusian people who stand up for freedom and independence never succeeded and always were killed. That’s why we have that feeling of fear and it’s very serious.
But we have the feeling that things are improving. In the past two months, before the election, Lukashenka’s 60 [sic] percent [of popularity] was achieved by fear. For the moment, he can account for 40 percent, no more. It’s absolutely clear he’s not a legitimate president because he does not have the support of the majority of the population. Before March 19, European civilization somehow took the view that he was a half-legitimate president. But now, he went into the category of the last dictator of Europe. And that fact cannot be argued. But what happens to dictators we all know very well.