Tatsiana Karatkevich: “We need more of a truly European spirit in Belarus”
Our concept for the interview with Tatsiana Karatkevich was supposed to show the context of the Belarusian election race – the divided opposition, a politician accused of collaboration with Lukashenko’s regime and a first officially registered female candidate for the position of the head of Belarusian state. We expected a strong personality, perseverance and a feminist approach – a symbol that could be easily read by Western European audience. Were we surprised? We hope the interview answers this question. However please bear in mind that the current Belarusian political environment resembles more Poland from the first half of 1990s than a modern democratic state that a EU citizen is accustomed to.
As Mikhail Statkevich, one of the opposition leaders, maintains, “Tatsiana Karatkevich is nobody. She has the backing of Andrei Dmitriev, a mediocre and mean person who betrayed all opposition activists in Belarus and has collaborated with the KGB”.
Tatsiana Karatkevich: This kind of reasoning is symptomatic for the opposition in Belarus: if you are successful in politics, then you must be collaborating with the KGB. This was the case with Milinkevich, whose political activity brought good results, but who otherwise would be accused of whitewashing the regime policies and of being a ‘project’ of the intelligence services.
As for the oppositionists, we need to remember that they have been on the political scene as long as Lukashenko himself. They seem to have forgotten what direct work with people is all about.
I doubt that Statkevich forgot that. Right after being released from prison, he started to organize demonstrations and pickets.
The difference is that I do it every day, whereas Statkevich has staged demonstrations no more than twice throughout his campaign. Unlike me, he cooperates with people who have no intention to get involved in the election process. In doing so, Statkevich actually acts in favour of the currently ruling government which has long promoted the idea that elections are of no significance.
There is, however, a considerable difference between Statkevich’s actions and your own. His demonstrations attract hundreds of people. In contrast, your rallies, such as those in Dubrovna and Orsha, usually attract a poor turnout.
The demonstrations organized by Statkevich take place in the 2-million capital city of Minsk. They attract about 300 people, 100 of which are KGB agents sent there to take control over the situation. I don’t wish to compete with anyone in terms of the number of meeting attendees. At present many potential voters in Belarus declare they will not go to the polls, and instead they are going to boycott the upcoming elections and wait for the political climate to change.
In my opinion, if Lyabedzka and Kaliakin had collected enough election signs, they wouldn’t have encouraged the boycott; instead, they would now be focused on carrying out their election campaigns. It was later, after they had failed to collect the election signs, that they would talk more openly about falsifications at the stage of election signs collection.
What’s the source of that enmity among the opposition leaders? What’s the reason why the BPF (opposition movement Belarusian Popular Front) first endorses you to later change its mind and withdraw that support?
A part of the opposition which has irremovable leaders within its structures is weary of no prospects of success.
Who are you referring to in particular?
Lyabedzka, Kaliakin, Statkevich…They are all irremovable leaders.
Could you still explain why part of the opposition withdrew its endorsement?
One possible explanation is sheer envy. It has to be made clear, however, that the BNF has no one single stance on the issue of my candidacy. It’s not monolithic. 6 of my 30 statesmen are also BNF representatives. One of them is Igor Lyalkov, the current vice president of BNF. Officially, what the BNF did not approve of in the context of the upcoming presidential elections was the fact that I wasn’t willing to readily recognize the Belarusian language as a national official language.
Would you seriously consider collaborating with the Lukashenko regime?
As a matter of fact, we collaborate with the state on a regular basis. If any problem arises in Orsha, we report it to the local authorities and we do our best to influence their decisions.
Are your efforts effective?
By all means! For instance, in the last parliamentary elections, we had a very good candidate, who was a former vice chairman of the Minsk city council. I can call him any time and give him an update on the current problems in our local area. He would always listen to me and even intervene if needed. This is what it should be like.
Do you ever encounter any kind of obstacles (posed by the regime) that hinder your political activity?
Of course I do. For example, the venues for our meetings, which have been approved by the state, are very inconvenient. On the one hand, for propaganda purposes and for the sake of keeping up appearances, all our events in Minsk are held in very nice locations. On the other hand, our meetings outside the capital city take place in the shabbiest areas. It happens sometimes that local people are warned not to attend such meetings.
Let’s consider the following scenario: Lukashenko wins the elections, but they turn out to be falsified. This, in turn, leads to general protests similar to those that occurred five years ago. If such a scenario comes true, will you take to the streets and join the protesters?
Most likely I won’t be calling for protest. Our present legal system does not allow for peaceful protests. Of course, I will be fighting to nullify the falsified votes but through peaceful means, to avoid any violent response on the part of the militia.
In your opinion, what reforms should be introduced in Belarus in the first place?
First of all, we should establish a parliamentary system based on a true separation of powers. Besides, we should create a better climate for the private sector, introduce a two-term limit on presidency and reform our educational and healthcare system.
What is your attitude towards capital punishment?
I am totally against it, but in such a divided society as Belarus this issue seems a bit more complicated. Most people in Belarus are in favour of the death penalty, but I think that its revocation is just a matter of time and social debate.
I have a question about Poland. How do you imagine the relationship between Belarus and Poland?
Our relations with Poland should be built on a general cooperation agreement with the European Union. We would also endeavour to initiate a bilateral Polish-Belarusian collaboration to introduce an administrative reform following the Polish pattern. My another priority is to draw up a project of the local border traffic between Poland and Belarus alongside reducing visa restrictions in order to encourage more Polish people into our country. Finally, it is essential to involve Belarus in the Bologna process.
What is your take on the problem of Polish minorities in Belarus?
It goes without saying that the Polish minority should have a right to receive education in the Polish language and a right to cultivate its culture.
With respect to its foreign policy, Belarus seems to be balancing between the West and the East. In your political agenda, you also emphasize the importance of “friendly relations with neighbours”, proposing a strong collaboration both with the EU and Russia. But sometimes one cannot escape choosing one of the options. Would you be more willing to strengthen ties with the EU or with Russia?
Partnership with the EU seems a distant prospect for Belarus. That is why the main goal of our country should be to normalize the relations with Europe. Also, one cannot ignore an overall national mood. Belarusian citizens tremble at the prospect of any dramatic moves toward Europe, fearing that such sudden political shifts could eventually end up the way they did in Ukraine. At present the European direction seems very unlikely, and so it’s crucial for Belarus to maintain friendly relations with Russia alongside taking small steps towards closer integration with the EU.
Could you name three things that the EU seems not to know about Belarus or should change in its approach to Belarus?
Firstly, there have been intensified talks going on between the EU and our government, which is a good prognosis for our future mutual relations. It’s important for us, too. However, one cannot forget about a clear-cut division that exists between the state and our civil society. Clearly, it is this civil society that should be a harbinger of democratic progress. That is why the European Union needs to adopt a twin-track approach towards Belarus.
Secondly, Europe has expressed little interest in Belarus. We need more of EU projects to be realized in our country; we would also be glad to welcome more people from EU member states to Belarus. In this context, the 2014 Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships in Mink proved surprisingly beneficial in that they created profound opportunities for development to our country in terms of reinforcing our Belarusian identity and pride. Thanks to that event, people in Belarus finally came to realize they are distinct from Russians.
Is there indeed a world of difference between Russians and Belarusians?
Yes, there is. The Russians are totally insane. They seem uncultivated and irreverent. When going abroad, Belarusians like to stress they are not Russians. That is why we need more of a truly European spirit in Belarus.
What would happen to Alexander Lukashenko if you won the elections? Would you put him behind the bars, protect or let him leave the country?
I would certainly not allow him to leave Belarus without facing consequences of his rule. He should be granted protection, and his newly built residence, or his prison, could serve as his asylum. Then, he should be guaranteed a legal, fair and civilized trial.
Translated from Polish to English by Mateusz Marecki.