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Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, poet and opposition candidate, talk about the need for change in Belarus.

Election Interview with Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu

Visiting Warsaw in November 2010, during a tour to the neighboring countries, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, gave the following interview for Baltic Worlds’ correspondent Peter Johnsson. November 2011 the poet and former opposition candidate to Lukasjenka is not allowed to leave his house and to be in Stockholm to receive the Tucholsky Award. The Tucholsky Award is presented each year by Swedish PEN to a persecuted, exiled, threatened author or journalist. The Award is named after the author Kurt Tucholsky, who in the early 1930s fled to Sweden from the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany.

Published on balticworlds.com on november 30, 2010

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Ten candidates were officially recognized and registered in Minsk last week for the presidential elections in Belarus on the 19th of December. Seven of them can for sure be said to belong to the opposition campus against Aljaksandr Lukasjenka, the person who has ruled the authoritarian Belarus for the last 16 years and himself is seeking reelection on the 19th of December. Two of the candidates may be regarded hares of the regime, whose role it is to draw away votes from the real opposition.

Among the opposition candidates are the leader of the Christian Democratic Party, Vital Rimasjeuski, Ryhor Kastosyov from the Belarusian National Front and Mikalaj Statkevitj from the Social Democratic party Narodnaja Hromada.

According to independent opinion polls it’s a man of letters, a former literary critic and former president of the Belarusian PEN club, the poet Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, who seems to be the strongest contender to Aljaksandr Lukashenka.

According to some polls he has a stronger position than the president in Minsk and some other big cities. The main question in this election is, however, if elementary democratic rules are going to be respected. The last two presidential elections have not been accepted by western observers or any western European organizations as democratic. Most observers believe that the elections on the 19th of December will be rigged.

During a visit to Minsk this month, when they met with president Aljaksandr Lukashenka, the Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski and the German foreign minister Guidop Westerwelle, representing the political interest of the EU, promised to support the fragile Belarusian economy with 3 billion euro if the election would be free and democratic. This was said with the intention of putting pressure on Lukashenka. His was that all elections in Belarus since he took over have been democratic and that there are no reason whatsoever why he should falsify any election result.

The crucial difference today is that Lukashenka can no longer count on unanimous support from Moscow. Russia has stood behind Lukashenka since he came to power 16 years ago. For the first time since then, the tone of the Kremlin is now different. President Medvedev has openly criticized the rule of Lukashenka, and with the new modus vivendi, with U.S, Nato and the European Union. Russia would be likely to see Lukashenka more as an obstacle than as an asset.

Visiting Warsaw last week, during a tour to the neighboring countries, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, who stressed this new “geopolitical” situation, gave an interview for Baltic Worlds’ correspondent Peter Johnsson.

Peter Johnsson: Why have you, a man of the pen, decided to go so deep into politics that you now are running for the presidency of your country?

Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu: I am taking part in the elections in order to drastically change the political situation in our country. My hope is that the changes which have already occurred in other countries in our region will take place in my country too. The political system in a democratic country must be based on a triangular division of power. In Belarus it means we have to change the constitution. A new constitution must be formulated and put into effect. Such a constitution must even theoretically exclude the introduction of a new dictatorship, it must be so formulated that no one will be even tempted to try to do that. Politically this is the most important point.

In the economy we also need deep reforms in order to free new economic initiatives and modernize the country. If we shall have a chance to change the life of ordinary men we have to both solve the deep political problem and introduce economic reforms. I think these are reasons good enough to run.

PJ: But what are your chances to win the elections? We all know the situation and the history of the previous elections 2001 and 2005. According to neutral observers those elections were both rigged.

UN: I think for the first time since Lukashenka came to power we have the possibility to win the elections this year. The situation is different compared to 2001 or 2005. First, it is evident that a great part of the population doesn’t want to live with this regime any longer. According to independent opinion polls the support for Lukashenka in the big cities, for instance in Minsk, is today only 21 percent. It’s true that the support for me is lower, today about 18 percent in the whole country. But this should be compared with the 18 percent of the votes which the candidate of the opposition, then the only oppositional candidate, received at the day of elections five years ago. And we still have a month to go before the elections. What is important is that, according to the polls, only 7 percent of the people who say they will vote for me belong to the traditional oppositional voters. More than 10 percent are voters who have supported or voted for Lukashenka. We have put as our goal in the elections to win over voters from Lukashenka. According to the polls we have already made significant steps in that direction.

PJ: We are four weeks before the elections. What can you do? How will your organize the campaign?

UN:  As you know we do not have any access to the main media which are controlled by the regime. We have only got half an hour to debate with the other nine candidates, that is with all the candidates except president Lukashenka. He will not take part. That’s the way he now plays the game. We shall discuss among ourselves and not put any questions to him. 

PJ: And do you think you will be allowed to have a normal election campaign with meetings throughout the country?

UN: It is already clear that we will not be allowed to freely organize our campaign. They force us to campaign in places in the towns where few people will be present. In Minsk there is such a place where the opposition normally gathers in order to cry out their anger before being dispersed by the militia. That is where they tell us to hold our meetings. I am going to protest against this and demand to have the rights which are put down in the constitution, i.e. the same rights as Lukasjenka.

PJ: How would you like to characterize the present regime? Is it a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime? What is your definition?

UN: You are asking if it is a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime. I know one thing for sure: it is not a democratic regime. The power is in the hands of one person and the system is like feudalism. Not only the power but also the wealth is concentrated in one pair of hands. He decides who shall get a share of the pie. He has the spoons in his hand and he feeds those who, according to him, are good people with a big spoon, and other people, who according to him are less good, with a little spoon. And to people like me he does not give anything. People in Belarus do not want to live like this any longer. They want to have their own spoon and their own pie which they own themselves. And this is what we tell them, what we promise them. Today there is a group of people around the centers of power who receive their share of the pie. But we tell even them: you have children, grandchildren; what will happen to them when the pie has disappeared from your plates?

PJ: How do you explain Lukashenka’s rather big support so far?

UN: In order to understand this one has to go back into the history of Belarus. One must understand that people before have never lived under so good material conditions as today. Today you have something to put over your shoulders, today you have something to eat, and there is no war. It is not a long time ago when they lived in the Soviet Union where it was worse than now. Many people, foremost in the provinces, have nobody to compare their own lives with.  They think that the salary they get from or thanks to Lukasjenka, those 100 USD, is a big salary. And it is indeed difficult to explain to them that this is not money that they have got from Lukasjenka, but money they have earned themselves with their hard work. People cross themselves piously and praise the Lord for having a salary. Later I come and talk about reforms and a new world. People are afraid and don’t know what will happen. Maybe it will get worse? I understand that this fear does exist. That is why we don’t rage against Lukashenka, we don’t shout out everywhere that he is a dictator and so on. We look into the future. Our whole program is dedicated to the future. We are not telling people: look how bad it is! We tell them what we want to do in order to make their lives better.

PJ: In Minsk, in Grodno and some other bigger cities you have an audience. What about the villages, the small towns in the provinces?

UN: Out in the provinces, be it in the western or the eastern part of Belarus, the support we have is much less than in the cities. One must understand that in the provinces people have not the same access to information as in the cities. In the countryside you still have that small radio-receiver with a turning knob, looking more or less as it did before the Second World War. And then a TV-set with only the first state controlled channel. And in this radio and this TV-channel of Lukasjenka people are being told every day that they are living in the centre of Europe and being the most happy people on this continent, that everyone around Belarus likes them and that Russia will give us oil and gas and the western countries other things we need for our daily life. People are listening to this and they think: Oh my God, how good it is!

In Minsk and some other big cities it is of course very different. There is another life and even opposition papers.

PJ: I suppose it might be true that a majority of the voters, at least in several referendums and presidential elections, have supported him, a point he underscored himself a couple of weeks ago during an interview with some Polish journalists. Today, you say, the situation for Lukashenka is different?

UN: It’s a fact that he told the journalists from Poland that it has not been necessary for him to falsify the result of any elections. I think this year it is a fact that he will have to resort to a falsification of the result because he will not be able, without this, to win the elections in the first round. The reason is that this year he has more or less the same support as the candidates belonging to the opposition campus. It’’ true, we will not be able to defeat him in the first round even with fully democratic   elections. But neither is he able to defeat us during the first round. So if the election results are not falsified there will be a second round with only two candidates: Lukashenka and one candidate from the opposition.

I would not exclude that he could win in a second round, but it is absolutely not sure. With a second round everything is possible. We saw what happened in Ukraine. Therefore a dictator cannot allow himself not to win in the first round of the elections. He will never accept that. Therefore the election results will be falsified. We have not a single person representing us in the election commissions. So who shall guarantee the democratic procedure. The foreign observes? They will be standing so that they will not be able to see the voting on the voting cards.

PJ: Having no members on the voting commissions, what can you  from the opposition do in order to check the result of the voting?

UN: Of course we are asking the foreign observers to do what is possible. And we are appealing to the countries in the European Union to send as many observers as possible. And we also ask them not only to come before the elections but also to stay at least a week after the elections day! We know by experience that as soon as the European birds have left the country the winter arrives to Belarus.

We ourselves will try to organize exit-polls throughout the country. This is one thing that we are demanding: the right to organize exit-polls.

PJ: As you said, and as many political observers believe, the official result will tell us that Aljaksandr Lukashenka has won with more than 50 percent of the votes on the 19th of December. What will happen in Minsk and other cities this time?  The 20th? The 22th or the 23th of December?

UN: People will take to the streets and protest. I have already said that I will stand up and demand justice. People cannot and will not just give in. These elections constitute a real chance to change the situation in Belarus, a chance to solve the problems with our own hands. We have to use this chance. If not it’s difficult to say what the next elections will look like – perhaps without anyone from the opposition. This might be our last chance not to disappear from the political scene. Today Lukashenka tells the European Union: Good, you have offered 3 billion euros. For that I will make Belarus even more democratic, he says. In reality, under his regime, there is no democracy, no democratization and he has no intention to introduce anything like that. His option today is another: for the money he is being offered he is ready to make a show with imitated democratic elections. He might even be ready to create new parties, one party might be even a real party and another perhaps nearly a real party. He wants to create an image of democratic progress, a falsified democracy so his ministers can meet with ministers from the West. But I can guarantee: With him there will be no democracy in Belarus. I understand the political dilemma of the EU. I understand and I agree that you have to keep a dialogue also with Lukashenka and if he makes even some very small steps in the direction of democracy one probably has to praise him for this. I agree: Belarus with Lukashenka should not be isolated. But in no way should the EU accept another falsification of the elections. Such an accept would mean putting a cross over the democratic opposition.

PJ: So what, according to you, should the EU do if the results are falsified?

UN: Fail to recognize the elections.

PJ: The two last elections were not recognized as democratic elections either?

UN: I know. But please remember, the situation for Lukasjenka today is different.  Then he had Russia behind his back. Russia supported him. Today he cannot lean back on the Kremlin any longer. This is a fact. Russia has already told that it will no longer pay for all his sandcastles or his false promises. Therefore, if the elections are not recognized by the western countries and the European Union and if he because of that doesn’t receive the money promised by the West, Belarus will end up in an economic catastrophe. That means social unrest and that means the end of the regime of Lukashenka. Therefore, not recognizing the elections this time will have other consequences than before.

PJ: So what, in your opinion, would be the reaction of Russia this time if the EU and the US would not recognize the elections and therefore not give the loan of 3 billion euros?

UN: I think Russia will in the beginning neither support nor disagree with such a verdict. They will leave Lukasjenka in a state of political insecurity. Remember that Russia also has some instruments that can be used in order to exert economical and political pressure on him. Russia controls the supply of oil and gas to Belarus and I believe that the leaders in the Kremlin, in such a situation, would have no scruples any longer to use those instruments. For Russia today, Lukashenka is unreliable and Russia would like to get rid of him. Russia has the same needs as Belarus: both countries need new technologies and a thorough modernization of their countries. The Russian leaders know that Lukasjenka is for them an obstacle when they are trying to remake their own relations with the West.

PJ: So democratization of Belarus is more in the hands of Russia and its leaders than in the hands of the politicians of the UE?

UN: Yes, that is what we are saying in our campaign.

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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