Alexander Milinkievich: 'voting in Belarus oft means ending up jobless'

Article published on March 23, 2007
Article published on March 23, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The leader of the group of opposition parties in Belarus and Sakharov Prize winner on the need for close collaboration between his country and the EU

Belarus, considered by many as the last dictatorship in Europe, is a country in which there is no place for either criticism of the government or legal opposition. Since 2006, Alexander Lukashenko (president since 1994) has banned the use of the .by domain, so that creating webpages in Belarus is illegal. Moreover, internet cafés are obliged to keep a 12-month history of pages visited by users.

Alexander Milinkievich lost the presidential elections of 2006, the results of which were recognised neither by the USA nor the EU, after – officially – getting barely 6% of the votes. He was imprisoned, along with other representatives of the opposition parties, for protesting against electoral fraud. In December 2006, he won the Sakharov Prize, awarded by the European parliament to people and organisations who fight for freedom of thought and expression. In February of this year he sent a letter to incumbent dictator Alexander Lukashenko with the aim of re-opening dialogue. His symbolic gesture was the declaration of 25 March - a day in 1918 on which Belarus declared its independence from Russia – to be the national day of his country.

Above all, the people

According to Milinkievich, in the fight for power, 'people come first. The most important, as always, are the young, since the future lies with them. Referring to the EU’s support of Belarus, he confirms that negotiations are taking place: 'You have to talk to everyone differently, insisting in each case on the questions that each group think are fundamental.' The problem with the EU, he says, is that: 'they prefer petrol and oil to the rights of human beings.' He is convinced that it’s 'not worth irritating Moscow,' - 26% of the gas consumed in the EU comes from Russia. Milinkievich also believes that Europe does not understand that 'you have to shake up the system, help society; let’s not forget that the blockade of Cuba pushed it into the soviet union’s arms. Sanctions affect society and the economy, but somehow governments always find a way to survive.' At the present time, Belarus doesn’t figure on the agenda during Germany’s term in the European presidency. Then again, it would seem there are decisions - such as the denial of visas to high-level Belarusians - that are not universally respected. It’s not unusual to find members of the Belarusian parliament in Brussels.


Declarations of aid and support are as contradictory as the question of visas: when Poland was included into the Schengen agreement in 2006, Brussels officials established that Polish visas for Belarusian citizens would cost €50 or €60 instead of the €30 they had been up until then. 'It’s a very painful thing, like a new Berlin wall. Lukashenko’s dream is coming true: the country is going to be left isolated because there are so few who are allowed to leave.' The next problem is the lack of cohesion of the political opposition. Is it possible to create a powerful groundswell of public opinion? 'It’s a very big problem,' Milinkievich stresses. 'After the elections, I tried to create such a movement, but it’s clear that it has to come from below. The political parties can’t win on their own; there are many – around ten – that are not united. This division is very dangerous.'

Milinkievich feels that the most important thing is to fight together against the common enemy: the incumbent regime: 'Those who don’t want to get involved have no right to veto.' He stresses again the importance of young people: 'they have to join us. Without them, we regress ten years.' However, the decision many make not to get involved in politics is understandable: 'going to vote in Belarus often means ending up without a job.'

Amicable divorce

When he speaks about the relationship between Belarus and Moscow, he makes it clear that it is by no means a case of total enmity. 'The press wants us to believe that there is nothing but a profound aversion on Russia's part. But Putin is banking on the reconstitution of the empire - beginning with Belarus. At the same time, Lukashenko publicly and offensively provokes Putin. Moscow would like someone democratically elected to be the one leading Belarusian back into the fold.'

Last December, Russia threatened to cut gas dellivery to Belarus if they did not agree to pay more than double for it (from 47 dollars to 10 dollars per 1.000 cubic metres). It's an explosive subject: 'If the Russians' proposed solution were accepted, then at least half the companies would be working for no profit. It would be like asphyxiating them, but not completely. A programme of solutions should be created together with Lithuania and the Ukraine, and should establish an alternative energy plan in case of loss of the pipelines.'

So, how can this difficult unification with Russia be carried out? 'I’m in favour of an amicable divorce. The plan did not work out because it was a political marriage, not an economic one. Russia should be one of our strategic partners, but not the only one. Unfortunately, most people – including the majority of Western politicians – are incapable of seeing beyond the dichotomy: either the EU or Russia. Our entry into the EU is a long-term geopolitical aim, but it could also have positive consequences for Russia.'