Belarus will hold presidential elections on March 19.
The incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled since 1994 and is running for a third term. The opposition has decided to present a united front and Alexander Milinkevich is the candidate.
But virtually all Belarussian media is under state control and Milinkevich has not been able to appear on television there. He believes that European support is vital and so, during the past week, has visited Poland and France, where he caught up with EuroNews in Paris.
Q. Mr Milinkevich, welcome to EuroNews. What is the goal of your visit to France?
A. Our main goal is to try to make sure France does not remain on the outskirts of Belarussian affairs.
We know that there are some big problems with democracy. Plus France is a very influential country in the European Union and we hope for its help. The “moral” support is already there and we hope for help from the independent media. In Belarus the state-owned media is really an instrument of propaganda. And in these circumstances it is very important to gain the support of independent TV stations and newspapers. We must develop youth programmes, eradicate repression, respect people’s rights and move to democratic elections.
Q. How can Europe help the development of democracy in Belarus?
A. During the elections Europe will send observers, for example. Europe will watch to see if the laws are respected. It can’t be indifferent to what happens in Belarus because it is, after all, a neighbour.
Sometimes people say the situation is Belarus is calm, quiet and it is not necessary to get involved. In fact under a regime like that in Belarus there is never calm, it is not stable, at any time something could happen. And that’s why Belarus must become a democratic country.
Q. Your main rival – Lukashenko – constantly tries to frighten people by saying, in particular, that if he was no longer president life in the country would stop. What changes would you make if you won?
A. If we came to power we would, first of all, set about destroying the fear. The humiliations which the Belarussians experience; living in an atmosphere of fear, the loss of their dignity, are the main causes of all our problems.
We would make sure that fathers returning home will not be afraid their salaries won’t be enough to feed their families, that mothers won’t be afraid for their children’s futures, that businessmen won’t be afraid to get involved in business, that students won’t live in fear of being sent o work in places like Chernobyl. The problem of fear in Belarus is very serious but we would destroy this fear.
Q. In Europe, life in Belarus seems stable and calm. There is no war, no ethnic conflicts, people get their salaries, their pensions. Why is change necessary?
A. Man doesn’t live by bread alone. Yes, in Belarus, there is not total famine. People earn their money with difficulty, they come to the shops, see the terrible prices. But the humiliation that I have spoken about must be eradicated. Someone who is not free cannot create, cannot live a good life. But if you talk about stability, there is nowhere more stable than a cemetery, but who aspires to that sort of stability? Those in power are for stability, but we are for development. We know where we must go and what must be done so that people can live freely and well.
We will have good relations with Russia – very sure, open and honest and we will build the same relationship with the West. Belarus is the bridge between the East and the West. That’s the advantage of its geographical position and we will make the most of it.
Q. Lets imagine that the elections have taken place, the results announced. The most likely outcome is that Lukashenko will still be president. What will happen then?
A. I know that those in power could not win an honest election, because it’s not just about counting voices but about preparing the ballot. The opposition has had practically no access to the media – that remains a state propaganda tool. We wouldn’t be on the television, except, thank God, you invited us. But these are unequal conditions, and they must be equal. If they were, the regime would never win. So that’s why there’s fear and intimidation, although he is the most fearful.
Q. We hear many different things about you – that you’re an agent of the Western secret services, a Jew or a Catholic who is trying to quash religious foundations in Belarus. How do you respond to that?
A. I am calm because they are only lies. And when those in power sense uncertainty they constantly invent new things. Calling me an agent of the West is simply ridiculous. I am a patriotic Belarussian who loves his country and that’s why I am standing in the elections. I am from an Orthodox family and I am Orthodox. I am not a Jew but a Belarussian. You know, our people have known for sometime what is true and what is not.