- 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.
One of the Belarusian opposition’s few elder statesmen is former physicist Stanislav Shushkevich. As chairman of the parliament in 1991, he was effectively Belarus’ first post-Soviet head of state. (His signature is on the December 1991 document formally dissolving the Soviet Union.) Shushkevich has fared poorly in elections since then but has remained an active behind-the-scenes operator in Belarus’ opposition politics. He was directly involved in the campaign of opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who lost overwhelmingly to incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka in Belarus’ March 19 presidential poll (ElectionGuide.org), which he says was "absolutely falsified." Independent monitors say the election was far from fair.
Cfr.org interviewed Shushkevich in his Minsk apartment, a humble place outfitted in traditional Belarusian red and white flags, which were banned in Belarus in favor of a Soviet-style flag. He discussed the disputed election results, life under what has been termed Europe’s last dictatorship, and what he says are the premature stirrings of a peaceful revolt in Belarus similar to those in Ukraine or Georgia.
What are your impressions of the protests on October Square in light of yesterday’s presidential elections?
First of all, the election results were absolutely falsified because recent sociological polls showed Lukashenka had not more than 40 percent support. I understand these were polls done by American firms like IRI [International Republican Institute] and Gallup. So what you see is a farce when Lukashenka holds a press conference and declares victory. I was not on October Square last night but for the last month, I appeared forty-five times before voters in support of [opposition leader Alexander] Milinkevich. I know the mood in Minsk and, well, let’s just say Lukashenka only has between 20 [percent] and 25 percent support.
The major question is to stage protests because of the support Lukashenka receives from Russia. Protests are incredibly difficult to organize because Russia supports him with all its might. He is a very convenient man for Russia. The fact that he de facto spars with the West is fine with Russia. Russia doesn’t have to do anything but can appear in line with international law. Lukashenka can behave as he wishes; he’s a very rough person.
What should the United States do to help bring democratic reforms to Belarus?
If they finance any structures of civil society, then I don’t know about it. And of course, moral support is important all the time. But honestly, I think the Americans do not know what’s going on in Belarus. The U.S. Congress and Senate don’t understand anything.
It’s clear there are now a higher percentage of votes against Lukashenka. And this is where a mechanism of manipulation has been worked out. The elections began five days before the actual election day. The protocol of these early voting procedures can be easily manipulated to reach the percentage set by Lukashenka before the elections, and they [Lukashenka’s supporters] want to exceed the plan. The target was 76 percent and they came out with 83 percent. It’s a total farce.
What do you think of Milinkevich’s campaign?
It’s been a very good campaign, and I was an active participant, but it was run without access to mass media: radio, television, practically no newspapers. Therefore, it had to be a door-to-door campaign and, as such, was very efficient given how much the mass media agitated against his efforts.
It seems for the first time in Belarus’ post-Soviet history, the opposition is united.
Yes, this is true. Ninety percent of the democratic opposition is united. Only one person is not. [Fellow opposition presidential candidate] Alexander Kozulin, is not united.
What kind of person is Kozulin?
I’ve known him for thirty years. In the past, he was such a toady of the authorities. He squeezed students so [hard] and would throw them out of university if they were against Lukashenka. When he invited me to an anniversary event, I didn’t go because he is so pro-Lukashenka. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything positive about him. He’s a fallback option of Moscow’s and operates with [Russian state energy firm] Gazprom money.
Milinkevich is a totally different person. He is highly educated and very dignified and his approval rating went from 1.5 percent to 30 percent. If there were a representative exit poll, he should receive 30-odd percent and 40 percent should be for Lukashenka so there would have to be a second round of voting. And Milinkevich would definitely win the second round. And, as you see, a considerable percentage is for Kozulin because he staged a protest appearance, so I would think Kozulin would get 6 [percent] or 7 percent. So that would be the picture in a free and fair election.
What happens now?
There will no unrest because there is too much force that will suppress anything that happens. I didn’t go to the demonstration myself but I support it.
How important is the role of youth groups in bringing democracy to Belarus?
They are very important. But I want to say the following: Did I ever tell them what to do? No. The youth want to be independent. When they ask me questions I try to answer them but it’s difficult for me to tell you what the youth will do and how they will react. I advise them to stay nonviolent. There are many good youth in Belarus but we have the whole state system, education and etc., and when they videotape the young people, after that, they throw them out from the university. And I’m unable to help them. While there are cases when young people go abroad and get their education abroad, It’s a delicate question because they learn that it’s necessary to have a certain form of protest that may not be suitable for this time. If a young man wants to get educated, we have to find the funds and methods to give him that education and find the suitable forms of protest. By word, head to head protest is not good in our country recently. All our complications are coming out of the fact that our dictator is being supported by Russia. The gigantic Russia supports the small dictator in Belarus. It’s very hard to be against it. They help him politically, economically—any help possible.
What is the role ofUkraine, given its orange past, inBelarus?
The situation in Belarus is the opposite of that in Ukraine. First, we have no opposition party present in parliament like there was in Ukraine, which had almost 50 percent support in the Ukrainian Rada. Second, we have no free mass media. When the West supports us morally, I always say that when Bush gives us money, it goes toward radio freedoms, broadcasting in the Belarusian language to the Belarusian people. This money also goes nowhere because the transmitter is in Portugal, and the broadcast is very bad quality. So that’s a problem. And Lukashenka’s regime tells the people whatever they want, like Hitler did.
Tell me a bit about the role Russia will play in all this?
Putin is a very educated person and an espionage professional from the KGB. Lukashenka, on the other hand, has a primitive education. For example, Lukashenka says that he grew up on [Belarusian novelist Vasili] Bekov’s poetry but Bekov never wrote poetry. So Putin treats Lukashenka a bit like someone he doesn’t respect. He says this from time to time openly. Lukashenka is very patient because in all difficult situations Russia helps him. Belarus currently has two military bases for Russia. Lukashenka depends on Russia for cheap gas and oil in return for this base and army that is actually Russian. So that’s the deal. Recently Putin does not confront Lukashenka much because there is this farcical union between the two states.
Political freedoms aside, we hear about Belarus’ economy, which relative to its neighbors is doing well, and the stability Lukashenka has brought. Are people better or worse off in Belarus than they were, say, ten years ago?
In general, they’re better off, but not much better. I traveled around Belarus and there are a lot of people who live in poverty and have no prospects. Compared to Poland and Lithuania, it’s much better there than here. Besides, people feel morally quite differently there than in Belarus. Belarus’ recent successes, economic data and so forth, are not as great as reported. It all depends on Russia’s injection of capital. For example, there were gas debts—roughly $5 billion—and Russia forgave them. I’m optimistic that this kind of farce cannot continue.