One should not forget about Russian troops in Belarus.
Supporting the gunmen and self-proclaimed “republics” in the east of Ukraine, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin does not forget to suppress any ideas of federalization and separatism in his country. At times he puts this fight on dissent in the international format. Thus, the Federal service for the oversight in the spheres of communications, information technologies and mass communications (Roskomnadzor) has blocked in the territory of Russia the access to the Glavkom web-site for publishing a news piece about the “March for the federalization of Siberia”. Similar “happiness letter”, demanding to immediately take down the news about the upcoming march came from Roskomnadzor to the Russian BBC service and Belarusian charter97.org.
The web-site’s chief editor Natalia Radzina like no one else knows the methods of Belarusian authorities used to fight independent media, Ukrainian Glavkom reports. She repeatedly faced arrests and beatings while covering opposition events. On the day of presidential elections in Belarus in 2010 the charter97.org office was crashed by special police units. Radzina was arrested and put in KGB jail – she was charged with organizing mass disturbances. After two months spent in jail the journalist was put on house arrest, but in April 2011- before the trial – she managed to secretly escape Belarus. In 2011 she got political asylum in Lithuania, and in July this year she received a residence permit in Poland.
In an interview Natalia Radzina told how the media outlet plans on fighting the authorities of the two countries, about the “underground lives” of journalists in Belarus, and why Ukrainian politicians must not rub elbows with Lukashenka.
- Natalia, charter97.org has always been famous for being a bur in the throat of the authorities in Belarus. You underwent raid, the equipment got confiscated and the employees arrested. Now the media is in the way of the Kremlin. Roskomnadzor has blocked an article about the “Siberian republic”. What official reasons for that did they claim to be? Is there access to the rest of the web-site from Russia?
- We did not received any official explanations from Roskomnadzor. We were notified by аmazon.com, where our server is, that by the decisions of Roskomnadzor two pages of the web-site were blocked, which refer to the event in support of the Siberian People’s Republic. Only two pages.
But in a few days it came out that a provider Rostelecom blocked our whole web-site. Since certain Belarusian providers buy internet-traffic from Rostelecom, the web-site got blocked in the territory of Belarus too.
- Which providers specifically blocked charter97.org in Belarus?
- These are Velcom, MTS and the “Business Network”. We immediately reached them for explanations.
The web-site is blocked in Belarus as is at state institutions – according to the “black lists”, composed by the so-called operative and analytical center at Lukashenka’s administration. This means that we are already blocked at state institutions, at plants, universities. But the authorities cannot block us in the territory of the whole country. But due to this situation over Rostelecom, certain providers got us blocked exactly in the whole territory of Belarus.
- Do you intend to fight this?
- It is absolutely pointless to appeal to any state institutions both in Belarus and Russia. There is no use of it. There is a dictatorship in Belarus, in Russia there is an obvious authoritarianism. Even more so that the history of the charter97.org web-site shows that the authorities try to deal with us in various ways: starting from the attempts to block the resource legislatively and up to brutal ways. Up to a murder.
But for now we are waiting. If these providers do not unblock the web-site, this will be another evidence showing that the authorities are destroying the last remaining pieces of the freedom of speech in Belarus, the freedom of speech, which has practically left no more in Belarus.
- How few independent media are there now in Belarus? How is it for the journalists of those media?
- There is no freedom of speech in Belarus. Lukashenka started deliberately eliminating the freedom of speech in 1994, as he came to power. All the television channels got monopolized, all the radio stations, gradually non-state printed media outlets started getting shut down. In the end, before the 2010 presidential elections there was a wide-scale attack on the Internet. They started eliminating the freedom of speech on the Internet precisely with the charter97.org web-site, because of its tough criticism of the authorities. It all started with criminal charges being filed for publications on the web-site. Then they started doing raids and confiscating the equipment. During one of the first raids a got beaten. New criminal charges were getting filed. In the end, in September 2010 the founder of the web-site Aleh Biabienin was murdered. He was found hung at his summer house. It was an obvious pretence, but the authorities, of course, claimed it was a suicide. On 19 December 2010 I was arrested as the web-site’s chief editor under the article, which was applied all independent presidential candidates – “the organization of mass disturbances”, and I was facing up to 15 years in prison. I was in KGB jail, then under house arrest and before the trial I had to escape Belarus.
Today our web-site operates from Poland. It is absolutely obvious that it is impossible to work freely and without the censorship within the country. People, who keep working there (I am now speaking of the few independent media), are, of course, heroes. But everyone understands: if you want to criticize the authorities, the editorial office should be taken out of the country, while the network of reporters should work underground. This is the only possible model. Charter97.org reporters work exactly in this way. If someone finds out that a journalist works for an independent media, criminal charges will follow.
- You mentioned the presidential elections 2010 in Belarus and the arrests of oppositionists and journalists under the article for “organizing mass disturbances”. On the election day from 10 to 60 thousand people came out to protest the rigged election results. It seems like within the recent couple of year the protest movement has faded in the country. Has anything changed in Belarus in connection with the Ukrainian Maidan?
- Of course, the heroic example of Ukrainians inspires Belarusians and Russians. Today it is absolutely obvious that changes in our countries are impossible by any other means. There will be no changes via elections, because dictators do not give up power in elections, they manipulate the elections. There is no other way, but to seek changes via public protests and street manifestations in our countries – Belarus, Russia, Ukraine.
Another thing is that there is a certain disappointment in the Ukrainian authorities. Belarusian came to the Maidan (just like during the Orange Revolution too). Moreover, Belarusian died in the Maidan. Today the fact brings up alertness and disappointment that the new Ukrainian authorities keep having close relations with Aliaksandr Lukashenka. It is not what Belarusians died for. We hoped that the new Ukrainian authorities would not stain themselves with such ties to a dictatorship, that they would support pro-democracy forces in Belarus. Today they are their only reliable partner.
- Is Belarus’ own Maidan that will bring changes possible in the country? When? Having received a residence permit in Poland in July, you wrote that you hoped to return to a free European Belarus, before it expired. Do you think three years are enough?
- I am sure that I will return to a free European Belarus, and it will be much sooner than some think. In three years it is possible. One should understand that there one threat today – the Putin’s regime. While Putin’s regime is in power, it is very hard to achieve genuine changes in Belarus or Ukraine.
But on the other hand, in order to fight the Putin’s regime, it is necessary to eliminate the Lukashenka’s regime and liberate Belarus, because this will greatly undermine the position of the Russian president in our region.
- What is the main difference between the Putin and Lukashenka regimes?
- Putin’s regime always follows the steps of the regime of Lukashenka. Belarus has been a beachhead, and testing ground for repressions. Putin, for starters, observed how dissent could be suppressed in one small country by gradually killing opposition leaders, shutting down independent media, dispersing protest manifestations and falsifying elections. He also made an assessment of the West’s reaction. He observed, how exactly the West reacts to this all. He was that that West was practically helpless. Apart from some symbolical sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, nothing was undertaken.
This all untied the hand of Putin’s regime. All the repressive laws, adopted today in Russia, have long been adopted in Belarus. All the repressive measures, applied against the opposition in Russia today, have been survived by the opposition in Belarus.
So, in principle, the regime of Putin and Lukashenka are the same. It is only the question of the scale of the country they rule.
- The latest wave of sanctions on the part of the West did not convince Vladimir Putin, did it? In your opinion, what can stop Russia’s president in his undeclared war against Ukraine?
- There is a hope that sanctions will escalate. It is necessary to expand them in order for Putin’s close circles and Putin regime’s apologists, who today support its aggressive policy toward Ukraine, understood that this will not remain unpunished. Today it is necessary to introduce precisely sectoral economic sanctions, and understand that Putin cannot longer be an ally to the West. He has gone too far. He has shown his all aggressive essence, and it is absolutely clear that he will not back off.
Russia has become an “evil empire” today, it would not give an opportunity to liberate from itself to such countries as Belarus and Ukraine. There is also a threat to the Baltic States – there is threat to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. His aggressive policy may spread farther.
- Do you suggest that “separatist movements” and “independent people’s republics” headed by gunmen may soon appear in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia too?
- I think here – in the territory of Latvia or Lithuania – it may go as far as to a military invasion.
- Should Ukraine beware of a military intervention in the nearest future?
- It is quite realistic that Russian troops may invade Ukraine.
- From Belarus?
- If there is an attack on Kyiv, it will come from Belarus. If you look at the map, you can see that an attack from Belarus, from the north, is the most convenient way.
It is another alert for Ukrainian authorities telling them not to ally with Lukashenka. Lukashenka is a very dangerous ally. He is a complete puppet of the Kremlin’s.
One should not forget that there are Russian troops deployed in the territory of Belarus, that heavy artillery units have already been pulled to Homiel. We wrote about this three years ago: Russian troops in the territory of Belarus. It was arranged under cover, they served in Belarusian uniforms. It was obvious already then that preparations were being made for such a scenario. Today they are staying absolutely openly in the territory of Belarus, in their own uniforms. I cannot tell the exact number, but it is a matter of thousands.
- How do Belarusian state media cover the events in Donbas today?
- In the same way the Russian ones do. There is no big difference between Russian and Belarusian propaganda. Maybe, in Russia propagandists only have a richer fantasy than in Belarus. But in essence there is anti-Ukrainian rhetoric on all official Belarusian channels.
- Ukraine is losing an information war not only in Russia and Belarus, but also in Donbas. Do you see, how this could be solved?
- Well, the situation there has improved a bit now. It is necessary to tell people, what is actually happening. And, probably, avoid the need to – as it is common for western journalism – to present two points of view. If we see massive propaganda on one side, this means that we may not represent this very second party – the separatists, the dictatorship. In their hands there is a huge propaganda instrument. They have a huge number of resources. That is why voice must be given to hose, who have no such opportunity – to pro-democracy adequate patriots, who are fighting for their country today. And one should not play these games of pseudo-independent journalism, because in this case one will have to play in the Russian and Belarusian propaganda’s playing field.
- Let’s speak of how the public perceived the conflict in Donbas. What do common Belarusians think of the war in Ukraine’s east? How strongly are they affected by the state information policy?
- The democratically oriented people in Belarus, of course, support the Maidan, they are wholeheartedly together with Ukrainians, they are ready to come to Ukraine, to support. Independent media pay much attention to Ukraine.
But as to the majority of the population, it is not all that good. It must be understood that Belarusians are between between Scylla and Charybdis – between Putin and Lukashenka. On one side there is massive Belarusian propaganda on all the TV channels, radio stations and a large number of official newspapers. On the other side there are Russian TV channels freely broadcasting in Belarus. There is a double dose of propaganda aimed at making fools of the population. It must be explained to people, that Putin and Lukashenka are two dictators, with whom our countries cannot have normal future.
- Do people in Poland, where you have obtained a residence permit, perceive this situation differently? How do they perceive the Russian authorities and Russians? You, most probably, have to speak Russian at times too. How do they perceive it?
- Once I had to answer the phone in Russian on Warsaw metro, and then I caught such glances on me that I wanted to openly say: “I am from Belarus! I did not down the plane”. Now I am in Lithuania – the situation is the same here. In general, in Warsaw I try to speak Polish or Belarusian. In Lithuania – since they do not understand Belarusian here – I immediately warn people that I am from Belarus. And the treatment strongly improves.
- So, it means that they treat Russian worse, doesn’t it? What does it look like, apart from sidelong glances?
- I did not observe any open aggression. But there was an eloquent case that happened to the Belarusian acquaintances of mine here. They stayed in Klaipeda (third largest city of Lithuania - Glavkom) in a hotel for one night, and then decided to stay one more. They called the same hotel and expressed their intention in Russian. They were told there were no rooms available, but when it turned out they were Belarusians, not Russians, they found a room for them.