We first talked with Alexander Milinkevich two years ago.Them he was the candidate for the opposition standing for president in Belarus: an election in which Alexander Lukashenko was returned to power. Despite huge political pressure, Milinkevich has continued to extol the merits of democracy over dictatorship. He has tried to persuade the Belarus government to carry out economic and political reforms which he deems essential. Without these reforms, he says, Belarus risks losing its independence.
We asked him, does the present situation in Belarus mean it is moving even further away from democratic principles?
“I would say that there is a certain status quo,” said Milinkevich. “Some political prisoners have been released, but then, straight away, others have been rounded up. The most important thing is, that apart from repression, in the economy, there is no reform. In terms of investment we are one of the worst countries in Europe. Our economy has not been modernised; its not efficient and certainly not competitive. We would need two to three years to correct that. This is hugely important for the opposition, the ordinary people and the present government. I really think that if we don’t do something about this now, Belarus could collapse.”
What does he think provoked a new wave of repression against opposition activists?
“Our government thinks like this: “Okay, we can make some concessions for a better relationship with the West.” It doesn’t realise what is being demanded are just European norms. But the regime is scared of losing control, especially away from the capital, and it wants to show that it is strong, and that it owns everthing, and everyone. The arresting and imprisoning of people is its attempt to emphasize its power. I think they have got it all wrong, because jailing political prisoners doesn’t show that a regime is strong, but that it is rather weak.”
When the rulers of Belarus talk about the West they separate Europe and the United States. Is this because of Washington’s hardline position towards Minsk?
“It is their right, and it corresponds to how they see the modern world. I believe that economic sanctions, as they have been used so far, do not work. They close off a country. And for my country, Belarus, keeping things the same and adding outside isolation is a bad thing. Especially as the country is isolating itself. I am in favour of opening up the country. I think that attempts at dialogue must continue despite the recent difficulties. But it must focus on concrete things, with a step-by-step approach, by both the Belarus government and the US and EU. Before everything else, we must talk about freeing political prisoners. From the EU side there needs to be offers of economic aid tied to reforms.”
You have proposed to President Lukashenko that he seek conciliation in relations with Europe. was that proposal rejected?
“There’s been no answer yet. I am quite calm about it, but I would like to have a response. Because we are the citizens of the country. We might have different political views but we are all responsible for our country: me, a worker, a professor, and above all the president.”
You recently met the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. What did you talk about?
“This was a very important meeting, because from July 1st 2008 France will hold the presidency of the European Union. That means France will have the chance to expand the present initiatives. It is very important for me that, concerning our country, there are new propositions towards an open co-operation. On the other hand, also from my point of view, it is important for our government to understand that there is a good chance of cooperation. We have always had good relations with France. Other countries are ready to improve their relations with Belarus too. Mr Kouchner said that France would initiate certain steps, but it would also want to see some movement from the Belarus government.”
How can you do your work now in Belarus?
“I cannot express my views on state television; I am not even allowed in the building. They only let me say my piece on air every five years, if I stand for the presidential elections. I am not heard on the radio, not quoted in the newspapers, but I make up for that by travelling all around the country. In the last two and a half years I have visited 30 cities. Yes, they arrested me, questioned me then let me go, fined me, and even slashed my car tyres. But I go on anyway, visiting people’s homes because the people need to talk openly, to speak the truth, and they need hope.”
This Autumn Belarus will hold parliamentary elections. Can members of the opposition take part?
“We can and we will. This time we are imposing conditions . For example, when an opposition candidate runs for election then there must be someone within the electoral commission watching over the counting for him. In recent years there have not been any representatives of the opposition there, just government officials counting the votes. They must also have free access to the media. And they must not be fired from their jobs, or fined, or put in prison. All that must be stopped. If these conditions are met, and we get some opposition MPs in parliament, I think that will be the first step to cleaning up Belarus’ political situation, and towards at least partial international recognition of the election.”
You spoke a little bit about Belarus and Russia moving towards closer relations. Is that threat still there?
“Yes, that threat still exists. I don’t think that the two will become one politically. But Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia is increasing all the time and is now very pronounced. This is because our own economy is not efficient; as I said, it’s not competitive. We have to borrow from Russia and it is the next generation which will pay the price. By 2010, or 2011, the amount owed will be so large that we will become practically a part of Russia, totally indebted to Moscow. That’s why I say we have to reform the economy as quickly as possible, all together — the government and us. And for this, our contacts in Europe and the United States are very important. They will benefit from an improvement of the situation in Belarus, by more stability, by democracy.”
How might the relations between Belarus and Russia change with the new president in the Kremlin.
“It’s difficult for me to reply to this question because we know very little about the politics of the new president. I imagine that probably, not much will change. It will be much the same as before. But it is very important for me, it’s my wish, that between Russia and Belarus there won’t be any attempts to build a new union. Pragmatic relations are what’s needed; relations which are advantageous for both countries, bilateral treaties, all those things which are the norm in a civilised world. And only these sort of relations should exist between Russia and Belarus.”