East-European School of Political Studies was established in 2007 to develop civil society and unite Belarus’ new democratic leaders. It belongs to the network in which the USPS works. However, the Eastern European School is registered in Ukraine, and most of its seminars still take place outside authoritarian Belarus.
In 2009, Anna Krasulina, now the spokeswoman for Lukashenko’s main rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, became the alumna of the East-European School of Political Studies. The opposition team managed to reach people and start a large-scale protest against authoritarianism. After the election, thousands of people protested to defend their right to fair elections. Police violence didn’t stop the people.
What is Belarus fighting for, and why is the regime of “Europe’s last dictator” rapidly falling apart? Anna Krasulina gave answers to the Ukrainian School of Political Studies.
“Belarusian stability is a myth. This is stable poverty, stable starvation”
— Do people in Belarus support Alexander Lukashenko as a president?
— Lukashenko was supported when he had the resources to “buy” people: pensioners and state enterprises’ workers. You know, those state-owned enterprises that are extremely uncompetitive, their products are not sold – for example, the Tractor Plant. And people there receive higher salaries than university teachers. Of course, the workers were satisfied with this situation, plus or minus. But it was “bribing”. Lukashenko had enough money thanks to Russian infusions, oil transfers, and margins on oil products. We received oil at Russian domestic prices, and then it was processed at our plants and sold to Europe at European prices. Due to this margin, mostly, Lukashenko had support. Now, first, the price of oil has fallen sharply. Second, Russia has stopped selling at domestic prices because it has suffered severely economically itself. In the early 1990s, the Belarusian economy was quite competitive. We were a more economically developed country than Poland at that time. But during his presidency, Lukashenko destroyed the economy and science with his incompetent leadership. Russia has stopped supporting Lukashenko and his regime. And now the economy has collapsed. Lukashenko can no longer “buy” people. And “with him” remains only 20% of the population, who directly depend on him – it’s law enforcement agencies.
— Why has such a large-scale resistance started now?
— The economic situation is terrible. More than a million of the 4.5 million working population work abroad. Most of them earn money in Russia because they do not need visas and knowledge of a foreign language. Mostly, men go to work, and in villages and small towns, there are only women, children, and the elderly. People work for food and a roof over their heads. Recently, Belarus had a lower salary than Ukraine. And our prices have always been high. The standard of living has fallen sharply, even compared to Ukraine, which is at war. Belarusian stability is a myth. It is stable poverty, stable starvation.
People took to the streets against poverty, total disrespect from the authorities, against arbitrariness and injustice. During the coronavirus, the attitude of the authorities towards the people was especially clear. Lukashenko did not protect people, did not impose quarantine. So, people had to make horizontal connections. We learned to help each other during the pandemic. We sewed the costumes ourselves. We made the masks ourselves. There was no civil society in Belarus until last year. But the pandemic has shown people that they are capable of cooperating. People started to become a united nation. A clear example: the real statistics of deaths due to coronavirus in Belarus were silenced. Doctors were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The paramedic from Lida (the city in the western part of Belarus, – Agency) dared to name the real figures in his district. He was immediately fired. But in three days, people gathered for him an annual salary. When Belarusians began to support those who opposed the system, who were not afraid to tell the truth despite everything, then civil society’s principles were established.
— What is the difference between Belarus in 2010 and now? After all, then there were also protests, and the authorities managed to suppress them.
— In 2010 only those who demanded respect, the rights, and freedoms acted. They are now joined by those on the lower tiers of the Maslow pyramid – people who need security and food. There is no satisfaction of the basic needs of physical existence in Belarus now. There is not enough food, we do not feel protected. In 2010, the intellectuals and the opposition took to the streets. And now even factories are on strike.
“Everyone is now responsible for their lives and future”
— Now protests do not have a single leader. Do people organize themselves?
— Yes. We set people up for this throughout the election campaign. At each meeting, we said: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is just a symbol of hope. She will not lead people to the barricades. If there are one leader and one plan in our country, it will be very easily destroyed. We said that we should focus on decentralization. Everyone is now responsible for his/her life and future. And everyone must assess the possible participation in the protests: whether it is going to a demonstration, organizing a strike, posting leaflets or shouting from the window “Long live Belarus!”.
— Thousands of security officers took to the streets together with people. How can you explain their aggression and violence against people from the very first minute of the protests?
— Fear. Uncertainty. They understood perfectly well that they had lost. The security forces were tasked with intimidating very strongly and sharply. Otherwise, society will continue to fight. People were beaten and tortured at the Okrestyna detention center. This was done deliberately to try to intimidate society and return it to the “stall”. But the authorities will not succeed anymore. People began to respect themselves. Now we are witnessing the formation of the people on the streets of Belarus.
— Which reaction and actions do you expect from the international community? How could other countries, including Ukraine, help Belarus?
— We expect from the international community, at least, recognition of the victory of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Non-recognition of the fact of victory of the Belarusian people will be regarded as disrespect for their choice. We look forward to all possible diplomatic and moral measures to support the Belarusian people, as well as an end to violence on the country’s streets. We stand for personal visa and financial sanctions for those who falsified the election results and gave criminal orders to beat, injure, and detain civilians.
“The regime has no economic basis to maintain its power”
— What is the strategy for further action if a transfer of power is carried out?
— The transfer of power will be absolutely certain. Here the question is only in terms. This should happen as soon as possible to minimize consequences. This is in the interests of the authorities that will be held accountable. The regime has no economic basis to maintain its power. You can mismanage your farm if you have a lot of money. The current government will not be able to contain the situation either economically or in fact. This means that they will have to admit that people have won.
After that, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya promised three steps: the release of political prisoners, the restoration of the 1994 Constitution, which limits the president’s powers and term, and third, that conditions would be created for presidential elections to be held within six months. Everyone who wants will be able to take part in this fair election. Then the people, having evaluated the programs, teams, and personalities of the candidates will elect a new president.
— Don’t you expect resistance from the parliament and the government?
— Our government and parliament did not have any powers before. There are specialists in the government’s economic department, but they could not do anything without the approval of the president. A few years ago, Belarus negotiated with the IMF on serious loans and debt restructuring. All steps and draft reforms have been agreed with the IMF. It remained only to get a “yes” from the president and sign. But at the last moment, Lukashenko refused. Therefore, specialists in the government did not have the opportunity to work. To avoid serious shocks, we have decided that the average level of officials (from the Deputy Minister and below) is likely to remain in place. But the country’s top management needs to change. Thus, we will have the opportunity to build the government and parliament’s work in a completely different way. Those who systematically and seriously violated the law will be brought to justice.
“Belarus is a European country. Now it will return to its origins”
— How does the Ukrainian Maidan differ from the protests in Belarus?
— In Ukraine, the protest was concentrated, mostly, at one point. We have all the streets of the city, sleeping areas are a “springboard” for demonstrations. The protests are “decentralized” because we understood from the beginning that centralization would be broken, that there would be no Internet, that roads would be blocked. We tried to convey it to people – and we succeeded.
— How did it happen in the country controlled by the authoritarian regime?
— First, we gathered a huge number of people at meetings. Such a large amount of people has not been on protest since the early 90’s. We talked to the people there. Secondly, we used Telegram channels. Previously, it was not possible to reach such an audience. Besides, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has a YouTube channel “Country for Life” created and developed by Sergei Tsikhanouskiy. We have learned to work with new digital tools. The desire for change enveloped the whole country, and our message spread very quickly.
— What is the political future of Belarus without Lukashenko?
— Democratic, European, civilized. In the twelfth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania already had the Magdeburg right and determined the European course of development. Belarus is a European country. Now it will return to its origins.
Ukrainian School of Political Studies and Agency for Legislative Initiatives support the people of Belarus in their intention to have a democratic country.
Solidarity with Belarus was also expressed by the Association of Schools of Political Studies, which covers a network of 21 schools in Europe and North Africa.