Two years have gone since our Square.
One of the heroes of 19 December, head of the election campaign of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov Dzmitry Bandarenka, gave his view of these events, of life as a prisoner and as a free man, and of what can be done, in an interview to charter97.org.
- Dzmitry, the past year of your life has been full of events. It began in jail, went on in a relative freedom in Belarus, ended in emigration. Let’s start from the very beginning, the prison. The first six months – how were they?
- I struggled to survive. I won’t go into details describing my condition, but it was hard. It was about physical survival. A human body has a limited capacity, and all the stress, previous arrests, assaults during demonstration, rallies, a rather difficult election campaign, - it all left its trace. And let’s not forget the “special” conditions of the KGB prison. I spent one month in the brutal jail in Valadarski street. I had to undergo a surgery. I was transferred to the Magiliou reformatory. I reached my physical limit…
- What kept you going?
- In the beginning it was the direct resistance, because when you see your enemies face to face, it automatically makes you fight for your rights, your view of life. It becomes an incentive.
Then the new people. In prison, there are many interesting, bright people. I always knew that not all of them are criminals. To talk to these people, their different point of view gave me stimulus to survive. What is interesting about these people is that they care about Belarus’ fate, about its future, they discuss the situation in the country and the ways to improve it, they share their plans for life. Even in jail there can be spiritual life, sometimes rather rich. There are lots of outstanding personalities with unique minds.
Contacts with other people and support from the outer world kept me going. First of all, I mean my wife, daughter, my friends. I knew from newspapers and radio Svaboda that I am not forgotten. And of course it helped a lot to be able to attend catholic public worships in the Belarusian language held in the reformatory.
- When you were in prison, many people said: the authorities take revenge upon Bandarenka for the mass rallies that he had organized in Belarus during all these years, and they won’t release him because he can again organize the people today when the country is in an economic crisis.
- I know what I’m worth, I know what I have done in my life, but the strategy of the KGB and the police is different. Sometimes they said – we know who you are, we know what you’ve done. But as a matter of fact, they had a different task – to suppress, to convince that nobody needs you, that what you do is useless, that everyone has forgotten about you. I never felt that they kept me for what I had done. They just fought against me as against an enemy, as a manifestation of the Belarusian life.
In the KGB jail I realized that they are Satan’s servants. Their objective is to steal a human soul, to force the person to give false testimonies against their friends, family, to make them deny their ideals and principles. I saw clearly how these monsters, just like on Bosch's paintings, try to take a human soul. They have no ideology. As a matter of fact, they are really small. Their only concern is the number of stars on their shoulder straps, a salary bonus, money. It has nothing to do with any national or state interests, honor, dignity, principles.
- Basically Sannikov’s team became the number-one target for the authorities. Why?
- Because on 19 December we broke their scenario. During interrogations, KGB officers were yelling: ”at 19:30 the election was already completed, and you ruined everything”. They thought that they could simply “shut off” Niakliaieu, and that would be the end of it all. They were shocked by the scale of the rally and the opposition’s intention to negotiate with Sidorski. After that Lukashenka got the actual data of how people had voted. Even those who had voted ahead of time didn’t give their votes for Lukashenka. I believe that there were special voting stations where the votes were counted without fraud; there, they knew the truth, how many votes there were for Sannikov. That explains the reaction.
- And how many votes were given to Sannikov?
- I think it was 25-30%. Moreover, Niakliaiu got more than 10%. Many people voted for other candidates. 9%, according to the official data, voted against all candidates. Lukashenka gathered not more than 40%, or even less, in the entire country. That’s where all this hysteria comes from.
- You mean that Sannikov made it to the second round?
- Exactly. Foreign Ministers of the European Union said that the second round of voting must be held in Belarus. Everyone knows that Sannikov should have been in the second round. Observers that worked at voting stations in Minsk and other cities registered that he was leading among the democratic candidates with a big gap, losing only to Lukashenka.
- At the same time, they say that Sannikov’s team had nearly no money, unlike some other candidates.
- I don’t want to discuss other candidates. I admit that we were short on funds. In the KGB jail they tried to make me answer where the money was. Then they realized that there had not been any money, and it came as a big surprise. But Sannikov is a person that the people really needed. It was obvious from the first days, when we started to collect signatures. From the beginning of the election campaign people went after Sannikov, they arrived from all over the country and queued just to give their signature. Sannikov had gathered a strong team from the entire specter of democratic forces. Meanwhile, Lukashenka didn’t have anyone, but teachers from schools, kindergartens and universities were forced to give their signatures for him.
There is a certain pendulum, people vote for a brighter option. Rude and rough Lukashenka got a new opponent – diplomatic, calm, intelligent, noble person with a rigid character and life views, a self-made professional. People felt that.
By the way, the position of some independent websites was obscure. They claimed that since there was no “common” candidate, all independent candidates were similar and were to be provided the same amount of coverage – Tsiareshchenka, Kastusiou, Sannikov. Some analysts made mysterious forecasts that there would be no Square, that there was no leader. But it became clear during the meetings with voters – there is a leader, and it is Sannikov. The meeting halls were full!
I spoke with Milinkievich’s team once and asked them what the most difficult during their nation-wide trips was. Apparently, it was the envoys of the special services who ask inconvenient questions, try to break the scenario of the meetings. But not a single meeting was sabotaged during Sannikov’s trips. People were glad to see him and his team. The provocateurs were simply afraid of voters’ reaction, that’s what the atmosphere was like.
- But what about the result? Sannikov spent a year and a half in prison, he had to leave the country. He was indeed very famous. People made their choice – Sannikov could have become the Belarusian president that the country needs. What can be done with this potential today?
- We still have Sannikov, and other strong political and intellectual leaders. The opinion of the Belarusian people and Belarusian voters is known.
I believe that the economic disaster of 2011 was a “service” of Lukashenka and his government. On the other hand, partially it was done to make people think only how to survive, to keep their savings, to store food at home – to focus on other things and stop being a nation.
There is a term of “political people.” In Rzecz Pospolita, Great Dutchy of Lithuania, and other countries, the people consisted basically of the elite, while the population, peasants, lived to survive. Yes, today we all have the right to vote, but as a matter of fact only few care about their country and are ready to fight for it – just like 200-300 years ago.
This mechanism was started up in Belarus. There is no middle class; those people who have benefited from the IMF loan, mortgages, some minor household loans, now realize that everything is relative, and nothing actually belongs to them – neither apartments, nor cars, other things that they purchased for the borrowed money. And they stopped thinking about the politics, about Sannikov. They only thought how to save themselves, to save their family, survive and keep their jobs.
But we know and the authorities know that Lukashenka is not popular anymore, and this is most crucial. He keeps his power with batons and violent suppression of people. It cannot last long.
- The moral position of the West remained rigid. The West made accusations and imposed certain sanctions.
- Lukashenka has no faith in words. When he sees that the goods turnover with the West is rising, that he’s getting more money, that he can afford his special services, while the nation’s salaries fall, - he is insane. He saw that the West would not take decisive actions to help the opposition. Lukashenka was afraid of that for a long time, but then he saw that it is not happening – and it calmed him down.
The problem is, that we have never had a serious international ally. In 2011 after his political loss at the elections Lukashenka lost economically, but we had no serious international partners who could support Belarusian democratic forces instead of giving a helping hand to the dictator. Limitations on potassium were abolished, purchases of oil products from Belarus increased.
- Today we hear politicians calling to impose sanctions on export of oil products and potassium from Belarus, but European politicians say it is impossible because it is difficult to reach an agreement of all 27 EU countries.
- In my view, the problem is not only about the sanctions. We need a professional and intelligent approach to the situation in Belarus. Maybe we don’t need the sanctions after all. Maybe all we need is support of the opposition and civil society. We need investments in modern mass media, to provide Belarusian people with free information.
The sanctions are not a real threat. During the last two years, the trade with the dictator has doubled. No significant diplomatic steps have been taken regarding either Lukashenka or Russia. And the most important thing is that all the conversations about the support of the civil society and opposition in Belarus are mere twaddle, because all the discussed support, dozens of million dollars, is nonsense. For example, Belsat has major funding problems, along with Radio Racja, Euroradio, many independent website and other papers.
The problem is that neither the EU nor the US has a clear strategy regarding Belarus.
- 14 political prisoners are in jail today. When you were in prison, what did you expect from the West, what were your hopes?
- It was obvious for me that in 2011 Lukashenka’s regime could fall.
Once I noticed that people from the KGB were scared. I had no information at first, but then I found out that the European Parliament adopted a resolution “On Tortures in Belarus”, that gave a clear warning to the people who shamelessly violate the law that there is no expiration term for the crimes against humanity. Each and every of them got a warning, and I could see its effect on everyone in the KGB staff, from an official to a guard. It was a powerful step, but equally powerful steps should have followed. And if Belsat, for example, had started working 24 hour per day, if Radio Racja had strengthened its signal, if human rights organizations had got more help… And what did we get? Exactly the opposite: EU countries helped Belarusian authorities put the most influential Belarusian human rights activist in jail. That was the solidarity that we got.
They blame it on some officials, but it would have never happened with a plan. We were demonstrated that Belarus still was on the periphery of the European politics. The countries of Europe, probably with the exception of Poland and Sweden, don’t care about Belarus. But it is important that outstanding politicians get involved in the Belarusian case, like European Parliament member Marek Migalski, congressman Christopher Smith, Lithuanian MP Emanuelis Zingeris, some media, human rights activists, just people who care, people from the world of culture, world stars who together with the Belarus Free Theater walked out to rallies with portraits of the Belarusian political prisoners.
Let’s not forget about the role of poet Byron in the Greek war for independence. At that time no empire was interested in Greece leaving the Ottoman Empire. But after Byron had come to Greece and died fighting for its independence, the public opinion in Europe changed, and the governments had to deal with the fact that the lord, the great poet gave his life for the freedom of Greece. The same thing is happening right now: stars and world-famous public figures are involved in the fight for Belarus’ freedom, which it gives us hope and makes governments react to the situation in the country.
- But I get the feeling that a politician’s memory is short, and many people in the world started to forget what happened in Belarus on December 19, 2010.
- That’s not the point. We saw an “Arab spring” that changed everything drastically. If there had been peaceful rallies in Belarus before that, in the Arab spring thousands of people died fighting for freedom. Dozens of thousands have already died in Syria, but the West does basically nothing. Because there is neither a strategy for Belarus, nor a strategy for Syria. They just wait for it to get solved.
There was a “concept of stability” saying that there should be a circle of stable nations around the European Union. They supported neighbor-dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Serbia, Belarus, Algeria. This concept is wrong. It is meaningless to support dictators. The people will depose them in the end, which creates the arc of instability if there were no significant investments in the democratic forces of these countries. The present unstable situation in the Mediterranean, the defeat of the “Orange revolution” in Ukraine, revanchism in Russia, the Belarusian dictatorship’s aggressiveness are all the result of the West’s failure to react accordingly. Dictators get billions of dollars from their trade with the West, while democratic forces are mostly left to survive on their own.
Let me share my opinion. I believe that there was a conspiracy between Lukashenka and certain forces in the West according to which he was supposed to allow a relatively liberal election campaign while the West was supposed to recognize the results of the elections, and new financial flows would come to the dictatorship to sustain the much-discussed stability. But here, Lukashenka’s technologies overestimated their capacity. One month of relative freedom created a public “mirror” and it became clear that nobody supports the dictator. The plan collapsed. When Lukashenka saw the scale of the protests, he started unbelievable repressions – otherwise hundreds of thousands of people would have come out to the streets of Minsk the next day, and the entire Belarus would revolt. That was the light and the energy that the Belarusians exuded on 19 December. Happy peaceful people were walking in the city and chanted “Leave! Leave!”.
A liberalization of Belarus will not happen again. Lukashenka will never get rid of the fear of December 19.
- Former Foreign Minister of Slovakia Pavol Demes believes that in dictatorships, the West should support, first of all, those who fight for human rights. In this case changes can be possible.
- There is an old conflict between positivists and romantics. Romantics of Rzecz Pospolita and Great Dutchy of Lithuania were ready to fight for freedom, armed if necessary: from time to time they organized revolts, they went to prisons and guillotine, to Siberia. New generations came and saw them as heroes and examples despite their loss. And there were Litvin-poets Mitskiewicz, Slovacki who worshipped the struggle and rebel. The positivists said that we must build a nation, do little specific things. This conflict is still going. I cannot say what is better.
What should we do today? We should spread information in any ways, and we should support those who suffer from repressions. But we must also think how to preserve our language, how to publish books on the Belarusian history, we should support the expression of the Belarusian thought in the cinema, music, literature, fine arts. I would say that we should support every living thing. What is the fight against dictatorship for me? The dictatorship is dead, but here we have life. We must support life.
- How has the nature of repressions in Belarus changed since December 19, 2010? How has the work of the special services, power structures changed?
- Even in the Soviet Union there was an ideology, some kind of corporate ethics and rules. And the KGBists who survived Stalin repressions and made it to Brezhnev times realized that mass repressions can be dangerous even for them. The KGBists who survived the perestroika realized how dangerous it is to follow orders of crazy governors – sooner or later everything will be disclosed, archives will be opened, and the names of the punishers will be published in the popular Ogoniok magazine, will be mentioned on the TV, will be made known to the public.
The first directors of the Belarusian special services were smarter: they survived the perestroyka and acted differently. Then the team of Vitsia Lukashenka took their place. Uneducated people with no principles, they only recognize money, power, possibility to command others, to demonstrate their white-trashy uniqueness. These people are dangerous. And a part of them would shoot peaceful people if given the order.
The special forces have been entirely “idiotized”. These people should be brought up on such principles as the love to the motherland, patriotism, honor, dignity, service. But it is nothing like that. They see the example of their leader who organizes masquerades, puts a fool’s military costume on himself and his child and makes people nod. Even in the Soviet Union nothing similar happened.
- So this is even worse than the fear of some protests?
- This is like the evil dead in the movie. It is hard to demand something from the creatures that came from another world. Zombies have their logic, behavior, they are unpredictable.
- The other day a Western diplomat said behind the curtains that Lukashenka’s disease is progressing, and that the end is near.
- Nobody lives forever, but I’m afraid that the Belarusian problem with Lukashenka will not end there. The “idiotization” of the force structures happened a little bit later, after it struck the power vertical. The question is, whether we are ready for changes. We should be ready to catch the power, we should have professionals who can take intelligent steps from the very beginning. We should have the staff to form the first democratic government, we should be morally ready for changes, we need the support of the international community. Every day those who are forced to work abroad and those who are in Belarus should be ready for new authorities.
- But today the opposition is searching for a candidate for the 2015-election.
- We have three years until the “election”, is there nothing else to do? We should think how to spread information, illegal printed materials, how to help families of political prisoners – these are the crucial things. I was shocked to find out that not all political prisoners got the required help, legal and material. Someone is recognized as a political prisoner, someone isn’t. Apparently, there are problems even there. But 300 NGOs will keep on arguing and reflecting whether they should engage in politics, instead of helping the families of the political prisoners. I believe that the preparation of the election 2015 is another provocation from the authorities.
- It has become much more difficult for the opposition to work in Belarus.
- We should develop a strategy that includes the changing circumstances. After 19 December, the situation changed drastically. A legal political activity in Belarus is basically impossible because the way the authorities fight the opposition has changed. It doesn’t mean that we cannot do anything. It means that we should fight the dictatorship differently.
- Solzhenitsyn said that a person is never as happy as the first year after prison. Why did you leave Belarus so fast?
- They thought they broke me. And for me, the most important thing was to remain myself. It is hard in prison: there you must obey, at least formally. When I was released I couldn’t be silent. I understood that I risked getting back to prison, but I tried to tell the truth about what I had gone through, what I had seen, and to assess the situation.
Everyone has read about the tortures in the Leninski district police department. It was there I was registered. After the threats announced by Lukashenka on the TV the pressure grew stronger.
I didn’t plan to leave the country. But when I went to Poland via Lithuania for the treatment, that very night the Swedish plane entered Belarus. The Swedes held the action partially dedicated to the website charter97.org. Of course, I don’t work with the website, but I am connected with the brand. It became obvious that if I returned I’d get back to prison because those funny generals who had missed the flight are trembling with rage and looking for enemies. And when I found out about the prison term of Dzima Dashkievich and new arrests of Parfiankou and Mauchanau who already were freed, I realized that Lukashenka decided to hold hostages in hope to trade them for new loans. I got out from the captivity and I didn’t want to play their rules anymore. I want to see my country free. Their methods haven’t changed, which means that we should change our approaches.
- Your grandfather was a partisan, and even a partisan unit was named in his honor. For you, the fight with the dictatorship has become the sense of life. How can emigrants fight?
- The logic is plain simple. After 19 December the authorities have been fighting with peaceful opposition as if they were terrorists. Any political leader who is active and somewhat effective will be neutralized by the authorities. That is why the decision-making center, the headquarters should be transferred to a safe place, and a part of the structures should become illegal. The Belarusian opposition should transform and use the same methods that the Polish Solidarnosc.
Our goal should be finding serious international allies for the Belarusian democratic forces. We keep on saying in the West that only democratic forces can guarantee the independence, can represent the Belarusian state. Any games, any appeals to give Lukashenka money (“or he’ll turn to Russia”) are stupid. Lukashenka’s regime is occupational. It destroys the national culture, education, national spirit and consciousness. We advocate for non-violent resistance, but the centers of decision-making and independent media should be moved to safe places.
- Are you opening the second front?
- No, this is not the second front, this is just another way to act. The situation has changed. What could be done in the country during the election campaign, before December 19, 2010, is impossible today.
Bandareknka, Sannikov and others could have left Belarus for a long time ago, and have a good life today. Nevertheless, they stayed, fought, went through prison, took part in demonstrations, took risks and organized the Square. We are not going to simply sit and wait, because there is certain logic. If we have fought for so long, we will continue fighting.
- But there are still many heroes in Belarus who need support.
- It is not about a total emigration. But as I was taught in the army, the role of the quarters’ commander is crucial. There are many people ready to struggle in Belarus. The way Mikalai Statkievich, Dzmitry Dashkievich, Mikalai Autukhovich hold on is incredibly important for the future generations. This is a fight of spirit. But it is nearly impossible to impact the situation and to lead the Resistance from prison. We should change our approaches. The Belarusian opposition must act as the Polish Solidarnosc, in similar conditions.
- Does your headquarters have a plan?
- What kind of plan?
- We don’t reveal our plans, we fulfill them. We link our lives to Belarus, and we believe in changes in the near future.