Belarus on the Brink?


EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Belarus on the Brink?

DATE: 20 August, 2:00pm – 3:00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Nigel Gould-Davis, Natalia Kaliada, Bill Browder, Siarhei Kharytonau



Dr Alan Mendoza 04:41

Okay, I think as people are coming in we can get started. Welcome to Henry Jackson Society special event Belarus on the Brink. I’m Alan Mendoza, the director of HJS and we’ve got a great panel to discuss. Something we all feared would happen but hoped would not. An election in Belarus that has turned nasty because suspected irregularities have been identified, and protesters have rightly come out to demand a free and fair elections, they’ve been repressed brutally by the dictatorship of Aliaksandr Lukashenko and we are unclear at present, of course, what is happening on the ground, and what may happen in terms of a response from the regime and from the democracy movement, from Russia and indeed from the West. So to try and unpick that today, we have an excellent panel of speakers who will give their thoughts on the subject and I’ll start with Natalia Kaliada, who’s Director of Creative Politics Hub and co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, which is a campaigning Theatre Company. She is an award-winning theatre maker, writer and director, but had to flee from Belarus on account of her previous human rights activities. So, welcome Natalia. We then got Nigel Gould-Davis who is Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). Prior to his IISS fellowship, he taught International Relations at Mahidol University in Thailand and, of course, was in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before that, where he was Ambassador to Belarus amongst other projects and positions. And then we have Bill Browder, who is no stranger to any of us here at HJS, a good friend of the society and the CEO co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management. The man, who, I would say, has done more to instill fear into the minds of dictators than any government because of his pioneering work and in memory of the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the Magnitsky sanctions campaign that he has spearheaded globally around the world. And doubtless we will hear more about what what might be applied in the Belarus case as well as Russia, which we’ll talk about as well. And last, but certainly not least Siarhei Kharytonau who is a media expert at iSANS. ISANS is a leading Institute, International Strategic Action Network for Security. And he brings to us a sense of what is happening on the ground. So we’re going to start, actually, with Natalia and Siarhei, I’m going to ask you to give everyone attending a sense of the latest developments. What is happening, and what can we expect based on your observations, looking at what’s happening on the ground, Natalia, I’ll start with you.

Natalia Kaliada 07:33

Alright, hello, everyone. It’s a great pleasure to be with all of you here and when there is such an opportunity and importance and urgency to bring attention to Belarus. Finally, it is recognized that Belarus is exists. We’ve been trying to explain that it exists for 26 years of dictatorship, but probably because of my previous job when I was working for American government and moving nuclear weapons out of Belarus making Europe very safe, we did the mistake, otherwise everyone will know where Belarus is located because it would be a major threat to Europe and democracy. But even without nuclear weapons, Belarus now in a position that has now becomes already a threat to European safety and stability, and democracy in general, beyond European borders. And I think we need to start from the moment that starts to happen, like two three months ago, when the first arrest started to happen. And it’s exactly when our group started to have an initiative to put sanctions in place before elections in Belarus. Exactly for the purpose to avoid any bloody crackdown that happened on the 9th and 10th August. And of course, knowing how politicians work, it’s always reactive. It’s not proactive. And having that experience with Belarus for many years when we [build] to politicians that they need to put all of it on time. Unfortunately, we got to the point of the 9th August, and it’s exactly what we expect to happen. It was falsified. And it’s exactly the percentage that he announced, we knew it’s exactly what will be announced. Unfortunately, he went, and he crossed that line. He crossed the first time that line in 1999 when major political opponents been kidnapped and killed by official desk [what] and after that some sanctions were put in place. But even that time with European Union it was difficult to talk because they’ve been saying that it’s not enough people killed in Belarus, and those who did it, unfortunately, still in power and delivered all those major repressions that are delivered the last week. I’m sure you will not be surprised that all those repressions continue to be delivered every single day in Belarus. People are taken one by one, quietly, not on a large scale. But for now we know that about 33 people are missing. And we know the case when people have been sitting in jail, and it was a dead body in that cell. So this is the situation that we have now in Belarus. I was in jail in 2010. I was threatened to be raped. I was beaten up for 24 hours, staying with my hands back to the wall. And that particular moment it was that threat to be raped. But now rape is happening against women, girls and men. They are cutting pieces of bodies in order to rape by foreign objects. And somehow everyone is appalled when something is happening in China, but somehow when it’s happening in Belarus, the same level of torture that is happening now in Europe is not recognized at that level as it has to be recognized. And dictator went beyond any red lines, and he violated all possible lines that people could sustain and manage that. And now we need to understand that it’s vitally important for mediation group and started from the last Sunday. I work all the time, 24/7, to get the mediation group in place in order to start negotiations about transition of power. But, again, and again, politicians are losing time, not having a clear picture, not understanding exactly how Belarus is different from Russia and Ukraine. And again, touching based on Alexei Navalny. I will not rule out that he got poisoned exactly because he was streaming everything what was happening in Belarus. And because if we take down dictate in Belarus, definitely for Russian people it would be a major signal to start to do in Russia.

Dr Alan Mendoza 12:13

That’s very interesting. And I’m sure I and everyone are horrified by the details of your own detention and indeed by the the details of torture you revealed just now. And I think you’re right to have made a comparison with places. Thankfully we are an organization that’s always been alive to the realities of Belarus because it’s on our doorstep. It’s a European dictatorship essentially on the continent of Europe.

Natalia Kaliada 12:39

Unfortunately, for example, even yesterday, EU Industry Commissioner, and when we talk about how informed Europeans are, it is appalling when EU Industry Commissioner is saying that Belarus is saying that Belarus is not in Europe, Belarus is in between Russia And Europe, and we are talking about proper agenda and proper politics towards Lukashenko. I mean, it’s a joke, a serious joke.

Dr Alan Mendoza 13:10

It also betrays a complete failure to understand any European history. But anyway, thank you, Natalia. Siarhei, can you give us a sense of what’s happening on the ground? What’s driving people out there? What is the level of oppression? And how do you see this sort of playing out? Is it gonna be stalemate? Or is there gonna be, you know, sort of, the two models here, look at Venezuela, for example, ending up in stalemate, whereas Ukraine earlier in last decade, led to a change of government. What’s your feeling on that?

Siarhei Kharytonau 13:41

Well, what we’re facing at the moment is a very concentrated image of dollars in history in the last 26 years, and the driving force behind the protests is, in first instance, the fraud that happened in the elections, and it became very obvious to everyone. There’s talks that Lukashenko always had his 51% in previous elections, and he still had some supporters, even though the elections were frauded. This time we see a perfect sample of stunning elections when people were told to go and vote so that it wasn’t possible to fake the elections. Myself, personally, I went to the elections first time in the last 12 years. And I stood in the line for two hours to put my ballot in the box. And I met so many people who went to vote for the first time in their life, and these are the people who are in their 30s and 35s. So after people found out that, although they saw lots of supporters of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition, in the end, the Elections Commission says that Lukashenko gets his 80%, in the west of the country, he gets his 92%. It was such an unexpected level of fraud, that people went crazy, people went really angry about it. And what happened next was the violence that was started by the police. And the violence was fuelling in the subsequent protests after August 9. The protests still continue. And we already know that there’s at least three confirmed cases of people who are killed by the police in past elections crackdown. There’s people missing, there’s at least 346 cases of torture, of severe torture that was recorded by iSANS team from the leaked medical documents. And this is something that gives people the understanding of the place where they live. The population does not want to live in the country of torture and violence any more. And now the driving force is getting back fair elections and removing violence from the country. After the violent dispersal of the protests started, Lukashenko lost his credibility inside the country and outside the country. This is very important specifically inside the country, because previously he was considered the authority. At this particular time, Aliaksandr Lukashenko is the oppositional politician. He’s not the authority any more, because he’s in opposition to the majority of the population. This is a very important factor and he understands this by himself, which means he has no support behind him. The only support that he has is the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Minister of Interior, which means he is not going to leave peacefully. He’s not going to go just because he lost. So at this particular time, we already know that there’s at least two groups of Russian advisors who were delivered to Minsk. And in the last three days, we’re witnessing a very clear change of messages and the sort of Ukrainization of the media field and the Ukrainization of terms and messages that Lukashenko himself gifts. So there’s now the topic which never existed, the topic of the opposition of Belarusian and Russian language. Now, it became a serious problem in the eyes of the government. And there’s an effort to divide people from the west and from the east of the country, which also never existed. So in fact, we’re seeing an incitement of hate, which may lead to violent conflict, which means now there are two ways the situation can move through. One way is either the martial law is being introduced and the country turns into disaster with something that may later erupt into a civil war. On the other hand, there’s an opportunity for dialogue and the opposition is ready [for the damage that are pulling up for a Dalek and peaceful] transition. All protests are, first instance, peaceful and the opposition aims to achieve changes through the peaceful protest. This is very important. Another thing is that now there’s calls for Belarus to be a part of what can be recognized as sort of modern Finlandization of the country. It’s absolutely clear that no binding international negotiations should be taking place over the head of Belarus and over the head of Belarusian and politicians. And by that I mean Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her team. She’s already called up for the Coordination Committee, which is, to a certain extent, a legal representative of the Belarusian people. So all the legalization and all the legitimization of a politician and Belarus is now taking place through the public presence and public support, which is very visible, and you cannot deny this. And that’s why Lukashenko and his team are now introducing sort of anti-Maidan movement that took place in Ukraine before. So they are introducing Ukrainian anti-Maidan movements localized and turned out into the sort of Belarusian version of these movements, which is very disturbing and which causes open conflict between the people in the street. This is becoming very dangerous. The third thing, the West has to provide very clear message to Belarus and the Belarusian people themselves are very welcome to the West. It does not mean that Belarus should get a notification that you guys are joining the UN, NATO tomorrow. This is not what happened. There should be a very clear support plan and we might call it, just for the sake of example, Belarus Marshall Plan. This means technical support, economical support. There is no way the West can show Belarusian people that It will be another failure, that it will be another long revolution that does not give any results. And very importantly, the Belarusian case should not be compared to the case of Armenian peaceful transit or the case of Ukraine, because as what what we’ve seen in the last 26 years, and especially in times of the Eastern Partnership, Belarus has its own political culture, which was almost non-existent, but it’s now exploding. Which means that there has to be a tailored plan, very tailored plan, which can be somehow built up on the platform on the Baltic States. So Belarus should be recognized as the fourth Baltic state in that terms rather than the one of the six countries of Eastern Partnership. Because if not, now, there might not be another chance to to make things happen. As simple as that. And on this height of Russian interference it’s already clear that Russia has its engagement into the situation Belarus with the political advisors, military advisors, and most importantly, media advisors, who came to Minsk to substitute the workers of the state television. State television remains the main source of information for most of the population and when we hear things from television about the people who are willing to prohibit the Russian language, the people who are willing to, you know, beat the children from from eastern Belarus, just because they live in the west. All of these messages are a copy paste from what we saw six years ago in Ukraine, and it’s very dangerous and Russian interference is already there and the West has to be very fast with his decision on how to neutralize that.

Dr Alan Mendoza 21:53

Thank you. That’s quite a comprehensive run through of the situation and indeed some of the things that may need to happen. Nigel, let’s pick up from that with you. Obviously you’re an experienced Belarus watcher, Russia watcher, and you’re familiar also with Western responses. What do you make of what Siarhei said, for example, about the response and also what is your view on what is likely to follow up from both a Western perspective, both the Russian perspective?

Nigel Gould-Davis 22:27

What we’ve seen unfolding Belarus since the election has both been inspiring and appalling. We’ve seen this astonishing eruption of hope and of peaceful demands for change. Let’s recall, without any sort of well established organization and led by a reluctant candidate that’s managed to challenge the entrenched power of a brutal authoritarian leader. And this is a movement without distinction, without division. Literally from border to border in towns great and small. It’s a defining moral and psychological movement in the history of the country. This is a European country. And this is a European movement in that country. And I’m very clearly of the view that we should understand what’s happening in Belarus as a combination of a 30-year cycle of change across eastern and south-eastern Europe that began in 1989. in neighbouring Poland, in fact, and in the second half of that year, we saw the toppling of regimes as a consequence of peaceful people power that then spread to the Balkans and culminated in the removal of Milosevic in 2000. And we saw two successful mobilizations, again, peaceful in 2004 and 2014, in Ukraine. So we need to see Belarus as the last part of that process. We’ve also seen the real horrors, of course that Natalia eloquently described. And this is worse, it seems to me, that there’s a common variety of authoritarian roughness of just detaining people and locking them up. There’s a genuine sadism in the culture of the dark heart of the regime. Horrifying to us, but also horrifying to Belarusians themselves. And it’s been one of the reasons that support has for change has escalated even beyond the large numbers who originally involved. In effect, what we have now is an occupation regime. We have the state and its organs of repression, alone against pretty much everyone else. And the word for that sort of situation is occupation. Now on the matter of the external perspective on this, I do believe that we are entering a new phase in this already rapid process of change that is defined in part by the greater involvement both of Europe and Russia. On the European side, yes, it’s quite wrong what Thierry Breton said, the Industry Commissioner. I suppose, heartened by the fact that he is Industry minister and he does not decide these things. And I’m much more impressed by what sort of Ursula von der Leyen said, very, very forthright, in terms of the, following the virtual summit yesterday, in terms of concrete measures. So the EU, it offers carrots in the form of aid, modest sums, indeed, so far. And I am very sympathetic to the idea of a Belarusian Marshall aid. That’s a very, very impressing idea, indeed. Also, in particular, support in the meantime to those who suffer economic deprivation as a consequence of not working and bravely leaving their jobs. Including from these big state-owned enterprises. They need to be supported, [easily] made clear that this support for change will not demobilize as a consequence of privation. And secondly, there’s the sticks of sanctions and we can go on to talk about that. That’s a very important perspective. I think in all these matters, it’s important to understand what the Belarusian movement for change wants. It’s important for the EU to respond to what they think the EU is best placed to do to support them. But the third thing, which is as it were non-material, but symbolically, immensely significant, is the absolute unequivocal view. And von der Leyen was very strong on this and other states have been as well, member states of the EU, that these were rigged. Even some of the media now, and I’ve done a lot of it in recent days. Often the prologue is allegedly falsified elections disputed by the opposition. No, this is the EU itself saying absolutely unequivocally that these were rigged. The implication of that is that Lukashenko is no longer the legitimate leader of the country. And that symbolic and political act I think is very, very important. Even Hungary, Orban has been the most sympathetic country and he the most sympathetic leader towards Belarusian Lukashenko personally has sided with this, you saw the Visegrad group, make their own statement along these lines. So that’s that’s all very important. On the Russian side, yes, I said earlier that I think of this as a European moment comparable to 1989. And I think what we’re seeing now is Russia’s efforts to turn 1989 into a 1956 which is to say to intervene in some way to present peaceful autonomous change that would bring a popular government to power. So just a small history lesson for people twice in that year, 1956, such movements, one in Hungary, one in Poland erupted. In the case of Hungary the Soviet Union intervened with tanks, in the case of Poland they put pressure on the leadership, did not ultimately intervene, found a local leader who managed to square the circle of being both a nationalist and a communist – Wladyslaw Gomulka. So I have always thought on these matters, it’s not a question of whether Russia will be involved, it’s how and by what means and in what form. And we’re already seeing now that, the point has been made well by others already, the creation of these malign narratives to justify something that is potentially pretty frightening and threatening. And the precedents for this, in the case of Ukraine, also be mentioned, are not encouraging at all. It may be the case that they already have sources of influence within the Belarusian elites. It’s a difficult skill but important question what links are there between elements in the Belarusian security services, for example, and Russia itself. But make no mistake, I think it’s not an easy situation for Russia, I think they have struggled to to understand what’s going on and how they can best secure an outcome that they want. But let’s be clear, also they see an outcome that they want as not something compatible with Western interests or Western values. There’s a zero-sumness, I’m afraid, at the heart of their thinking. The Armenian, I fully agree, the Armenian comparison here does not work for many, many reasons. One is the simple fact of geography, there is no common border between Armenia and Russia. But also Armenia just does not carry the symbolic significance as an Eastern Slavic state ruled by a long serving authoritarian leader. Lukashenko has been in power 26 years, in four years time, when Putin sees re election, again, is almost certainly expected to do, he will have been in power for 24 years. So there’s a domestic resonance potentially, in Russia, what’s happening in Belarus. So that’s another reason for Russia to want to act.

Dr Alan Mendoza 30:26

Great. Thank you, Nigel, that’s very helpful because then you’ve pivoted to the external focus, that is a nice way to bring Bill in. Bill, give us your thoughts, you’ve obviously watched Belarus for a long time as well. You’ve seen the process there, and you’ve worked with people in the opposition movements, and you’ve pioneered sanctions that have targeted people. What should we be doing, in your view, where should we be going? And in fact, before you begin, if I just say, everyone else within about 10 minutes, we’re going to move to audience questions. I see some questions already. And if you want to ask a question, please submit it on the Q&A function and we will try and get through as many as possible for the time goes. So do start sending them in. Bill, over to you.

Bill Browder 31:05

So I can hear Natalia’s frustration about the lack of Western interest and I’ve known Natalia for a long time and we’ve been working together to try to create more Western interest but from where I’m sitting, the Lukashenko regime has made everybody in the West interested now. And I’m in touch with politicians all over the world and when, you know, Belarus was kind of a backwater as far as everyone was concerned, it was the second problem after Russia in that part of the world and now all of a sudden, it’s the first problem. It’s like right front and center. And I think that the reason for that is the breeziness of this falsified election. You know, to say that he got 80% when the numbers are 80% the other way, I think really has moved everybody clearly in the country but outside the country as well. And then what has absolutely sealed the fate of the Lukashenko regime are these unedited videos and audios of people being tortured, people being abducted, and the absolute brutality and violence and we’re living in a world now, where everything is on Instagram and on Twitter and on YouTube and it’s everywhere and we can see it for our own with our own eyes. And so it’s hard for me to envisage a scenario where Lukashenko survives what’s happening. It’s hard for me to imagine. I mean, first of all, the language coming out of all of the governments. You know, Dominic Raab said it several days ago. He doesn’t recognize the results of the Belarus elections. The European Union has said the same thing. Everybody is talking about sanctions. Magnitsky sanctions are easy to impose on Belarus. Belarus has no economic power to threaten anybody with. Belarus has no political power to threaten anyone with. And so it seems almost certain to me that the election results won’t be recognized by the West. That there will be severe sanctions against lots of people coming from the EU coming from the UK, coming from the United States, coming from Canada against the Lukashenko regime. We also know that the Lukashenko regime has been saying, this is not like treading new road, the first ever sanctions against anybody on an individual basis even before Magnitsky sanctions were in place, was the EU sanctions against the Lukashenko regime. And so it seems to me that that’s got to be coming out. And it’s hard for me to predict what the people of Belarus do. But I can’t imagine based on everything that I’ve seen, that the people of Belarus are going to allow this, I just can’t imagine a scenario where it goes back to the previous status quo. And so the only big uncertainty is what does Russia do about this? And that’s an interesting question. And I would argue that Putin is skating on pretty thin ice as it stands right now. He has an economic collapse going on in his country. Not that we don’t here, but he’s got one there. People are sick and tired of military issues in Ukraine, in Syria. And so I don’t think he has the same degree of freedom that he had before, to roll in Russian troops into Belarus and restore order. I just don’t see that. I can see that really going horribly wrong for him. And I can see, how risky that move would be for him. And so, I mean, it’s hard to predict these things, but it just seems, you know, Russia will do all the plausibly deniable stuff until the cows come home. They’ll they’ll send in military advisors, they’ll send in people with bags of cash, they’ll send trolls and internet and all that nonsense. But as far as a military intervention, that’s got such downside for Putin. It just seems it would be crazy for him to do that. And then coming to today’s horrible news about Navalny, I actually think that the reason why Navalny was poisoned now is because of Belarus. I think that Putin is watching Belarus and here you’ve got a situation, and if my analysis is correct that it’s not going to go back to the previous status quo, more than likely, you’re going to end up in a situation where Lukashenko eventually finds his way out. Or I should say that people find a way of kicking him out. And if that happens, and there’s a decent chance that it does, that’s Putin’s worst nightmare. Because unlike the Arab Spring, which was thousands of miles away, this is right next door in a totally comparable situation. A sclerotic dictator faking everything for a long time, situation not improving for the people. And if Belarus can get away with it, Belarusian people can get away with it that is like the green light, if there ever was a green light, for the Russian people to try to do the same thing and Putin camp. He’s so so scared of that. And so what is he doing about that? He wants to take out anybody who could rally the people in Russia to do that. And I think that’s why Alexei Navalny was poisoned today.

Dr Alan Mendoza 37:10

Thank you, you took us on the territory I wanted to go. Does anyone else have a comment before we move over to the floor about the Navalny situation? Because of course it’s we’ve seen this playbook before. And Bill’s put a suspicion as to why it might have happened. Natalia, let’s start with you.

Natalia Kaliada 37:35

Yeah, as I said at the very beginning, I have absolutely the same hopes. As Bill just mentioned, Navalny was putting everything in terms of informing population in Russia about what’s happening in Belarus because even without saying directly, what people could do in Russia, he was just giving examples of what people must do in Russia just looking at Belarusian situation. And of course again and again, we need to understand that dictatorship in Belarus will not finish dictatorship in Eastern Europe by only killing, not physically, but removing from power Lukashenko. Because the end of dictatorship in that part of the world in that geopolitical knot will be finished in Kremlin. And that’s why for years we’re dealing with that geopolitical knot Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. And it’s necessary to understand that it is that safety that is connected to Europe. And Putin, I agree that, I guess, but I can’t rule out that possibility that he could invade, but absolutely not possible now because he is observing. He never supported any weak horses. He only supported strong horses. It’s only happened with Assad once. And now Putin observing the whole situation, but he is giving again a warning shot. This is exactly what’s happened with Oleg Sentsov, who is Ukrainian filmmaker, who was arrested in Crimea. And he was the only well known Crimean citizen. And he was arrested, and he got 20 years in Russian jail, and his Ukrainian citizenship was taken from him and given the Russian one, and he was a hostage in Russia. So this is another one, in short, and this is not the first time when Putin is doing. Vladimir Kara-Murza, the same situation. Not many years ago, just recently. So he’s repeating and repeating the same steps. But what is also interesting to understand that when Putin came to power and it’s happened 20 years ago, Lukashenko already was there for six years. And I know Putin will hate that idea, but I consider Lukashenko his mentor, because he put all steps, how to repress people. And the only thing that was given here for many years, that if you don’t stop small dictator of the country with 10 million population who is former collective farm director with no money in place, and if you don’t stop him, then Russia will develop the most sophisticated dictatorial, authoritarian system. And this is exactly what’s happening. So we need to think globally, not locally. It’s not about Belarus any more. Of course, it’s about safety there, but it’s about safety and stability of geopolitical knot.

Dr Alan Mendoza 40:50

Interesting points. Thank you. Nigel and then Siarhei.

Nigel Gould-Davis 40:54

Just a point about Navalny and the Belarusian context, yes. I’m reluctant to join dots. But that was the first thing that occurred to me when I saw the news this morning. And in this regard, I think it’s worth recalling when Boris Nemtsov was murdered. He was completing a report on Russian involvement in Ukraine. So I’ll just offer that point of comparison.

Dr Alan Mendoza 41:22

Thank you. Siarhei.

Siarhei Kharytonau 41:24

Now, I have two small remarks. The first one is about the sanctions, when we were discussing sanctions against Belarus. I think it must be clear that we mean personal sanctions among the people who were involved into repressions and the frauds during the election. So we do not mean sectoral, industrial sanctions whatsoever. Because these will not work. We’re talking about personal sanctions targeted against the police, against the OMON, against the people who were involved in fraud and those databases being created right now to list all these people and we’re talking. We do not talk about 20 or 30 people as was in the past, we’re talking about thousands of people who were engaged in frauds and regressions as well. And regarding Alexei Navalny, he was very active in his coverage of Belarusian things lately, and I think with a great degree of lightness, we may say that today’s events are related to the Belarusian cause.

Dr Alan Mendoza 42:30

Thank you. And I’m gonna open up to questions. In a moment we’ll start bringing people in to the conversation. In the first round, we’re going to start with Lord Balfe. Yes, you’ve unmuted yourself. Please ask your question. We will then move on to the next question. There will be four questions in this round and then, panellists, you may want a pen for this because you will have four questions. You can pick whatever you would like obviously to discuss and we’ll go through that connection. So we’ll go Lord Balfe, Ian bond. Then we will go to [a receipt. Lots of it’s] of course from Chatham House. And finally we will go to Valaria [Jasmine]. So that’ll be all for in this round. So over to your Balfe.

Lord Balfe 43:14

The first point is what is going to be the role of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in this? She’s reported as not being particularly hostile to Russia in the Sunday Telegraph. The second question is, can there be a solution without at least the tacit agreement of Russia? And leading on from that? Wouldn’t it be sensible for our main aim being to get Belarus into the Council of Europe, the last European state that is not in it, but we really do need the main because one thing you can do with countries that are in there, as we’re currently doing with Russia, is point out the error of their ways.

Dr Alan Mendoza 44:04

Thank you very much. And now we can bring Ian Bond in to ask his question.

Ian Bond 44:12

Thank you very much. I mean, just on that last point, I assume, that it’s still the fact that Belarus has the death penalty is still going to be an obstacle to bringing them into the Council of Europe. But whether they ever to abolish that, I think, I agree they ought to be straight into the Council of Europe. The question that I wanted to ask was, I mean, it does seem today that there are signs that Lukashenko is managing to force some of the strikers back to work. And some strike leaders may have been arrested. If he can force the big state-owned factories back, will he have won, and what can the opposition do? To keep the strikes going, do they have the resources or the the political methods to be able to keep the workers out?

Dr Alan Mendoza 45:12

Okay, thank you. And if we move on to [resume.] (name of the speaker)

[Name of the speaker] 45:34

Thank you very much for opportunity to ask the question. Clearly we see Russia pushing the narrative about the conflict into geopolitical terms bringing in actually Ukraine where everybody agrees the situation is different. Lavrov, specifically, scares also, I think Belarusian protests and people and this is the main fear that Belarusians have actually many of those who are backing Lukashenko. They say we don’t want to have war. And Siarhei spoke about this dangerous radicalization. So I have two questions. Do you think that anything that can be done? Because what Russia was doing in Donbas over the course of two weeks, and many journalists were there to observe, saw how Russia managed through media to radicalize people into fighting. It’s real, you know, I don’t want to bring horrible examples of Rwanda genocide, but we know that you can manipulate people into violence. So are we thinking about possible remedy to that? And the second question, I don’t know if there’s an answer about who is Russia really backing as the replacements to Lukashenko, or they’re waiting for such person to emerge as possibly even violence happens and somebody steps in to being a mediator and gets this public support and trust. Thank you so much.

Dr Alan Mendoza 46:55

Thank you, very much. And [Valaria] if you would like to ask your question.

Valaria [Jasmine] 47:04

So my first question is to Bill Browder, could you please comment, what do you think about the US response that we have seen so far to the situation in Belarus? And my second question, if I may, I would like to ask Natalia and Sergei, how strong the state propaganda remains on the main media channels, how many people believe it and how many people have seen the tortures, the videos and pictures of the horrible tortures by the security services in the country. Thank you.

Dr Alan Mendoza 47:42

Great, thank you. You can take whatever you’d like. I’m going to start with Siarhei. Pick whatever those you’d like to and we’ll try and get through them all.

Siarhei Kharytonau 47:52

Well, all of them are really interesting. Let me give you like two or three sentences responses to each. Regarding the role of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, she remains the symbol of protests. And this is clear to everyone. There is no something that can be called the opposition because here we have the national movement, which yet has no clear leader whatsoever. Sviatlana remains the symbol of progress, and this is her power. Regarding the protests in factories and strikes. It’s not up to the opposition to decide what they can do to the workers. It’s up to workers to decide whether they are ready to move forward and whether they are ready to reach what they want. They’re ready to see Lukashenko leaving. Because they’re not doing this for Sviatlana, they’re not doing this for the opposition. They’re doing this for themselves. And it’s the first time in 26 years when the people are taking the political responsibility on themselves. So you cannot just stand and wait saying, you guys go and I stay and you bring the change now. Well, this is something that is very unusual for the protests in Belarus and for the people in Belarus. Now everybody says, if it’s not me, then who? So if I’m Lukashenko will continue repression against workers the only viable option they have in their hands is to continue the strikes, because otherwise the repressions will continue and they will grow. Regarding the Russian backing. There are certain facts that make us believe that one of the former candidates is a Russian proxy. Merely because of his participation in the joint headquarters of the opposition, but talking for himself. Secondly, whenever this candidate travels across the world and makes certain calls or voices on positions, the first place for these things to pop up a Russian media And this is something that is causing real concern. Until the elections, there was a long talk by Lukashenko and proxy parties, let’s call them this way, that after the elections of August 9 Belarusian leadership, or past leadership with Lukashenko as the head of the Belarusian state, there will be a constitutional reform that would enlarge the rights of the parties and will enlarge the role of the Parliament. Now we see the [accusation] of at least two parties that we may call Russian proxies or pro Russian parties in Belarus, and I’m talking about the [LDAP] and RPTS. These are the two parties that are now forming, well, there are certain facts that give us a reasonable understanding that these parties will work as pro Russian back up in the territory of the country while one of the persons in the joint headquarters of the opposition serves as the, say, external ambassador of pro Russian forces. And this is something that is very dangerous and has to be considered when any kind of negotiations regarding the future will be taking place.

Dr Alan Mendoza 51:31

Thank you, and we’ll move to Bill.

Bill Browder 51:34

And so one of the questions was to comment on the US response to Belarus, and compare that with other people’s response. And I’m not sure that I would judge any country by the speed of their response because sometimes the best responses come slower than the ones that come out quicker. Having said that, I was very impressed that the European Union that almost never has anything to say about any human rights abuse came out very strongly before anybody, saying that they were going to impose sanctions on the officials involved in all these terrible atrocities. And I mean, it’s hard to even communicate how significant the fact that the EU said anything is. You know, you just read the statement you say, of course they should have that’s the right thing to say, but the EU never has anything tough to say about anybody. And so the fact that the EU has done this is very significant. The fact that the British government has said the same thing. And so the US has not said anything other than sort of expressing concern about the election, the legitimacy of the election. I’m not aware of any statements about individual sanctions. I may be wrong on that because I haven’t been studying their statements about it, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. I mean, Belarus is sitting in a very weak position, as far as bullying countries about sanctions, and so I think that there will be sanctions and the fact that the elections aren’t being recognized is a very strong thing. And I think that another question which was very interesting was, who is Russia backing in this whole thing and it’s worth pointing out that Lukashenko wasn’t playing ball with Putin. Putin wanted to sign some type of like union agreement with Belarus that was his original stay in office forever plan. He wanted to create a new country, the union of Russia and Belarus that he could become president of and then he wouldn’t have had to redo the Constitution. And all this nonsense of re rewriting the Russian constitution so he could serve more terms was the result of Lukashenko basically saying no. And Lukashenko has played hard ball all the way with Putin, and so he’s not the amiable partner that Putin would really want to have there. And so it’s really kind of a complicated situation because Putin doesn’t want to be fighting  for Lukashenko but at the same time, he doesn’t want Lukashenko to be deposed. And so it’s all very, it’s not an ideal situation for Putin at all. Whatever he does, he has to, it’s sort of the lesser of various evils. And there’s no obvious sort of Yanukovych type of candidate in Belarus, who has any possibility of running the country. And so I think it’s a tricky situation for Putin, for sure.

Dr Alan Mendoza 54:45

Thank you. Nigel, would you like to be next and then Natalia and then we’ll go to another round of questions.

Nigel Gould-Davis 54:51

I’ll just amplify that last point of Bill’s. So Lukashenko and Putin have a famously bad relationship. It’s close, but dysfunctional and has been for a long time. I personally have always found it very interesting to observe the body language, literally, the body language of the meetings of those two people and watch Putin radiate discomfort when that happens. And one reason for that is that Lukashenko is not doing Putin’s bidding. It’s one of the paradoxes of this whole situation. Lukashenko should be an ideal neighbour, for Putin. He runs an Eastern Slavic state. He is authoritarian and harbors no sympathy whatsoever for Western values. That should be a nice and stable status quo for Putin, something he can happily live with. And yet it’s Putin and Russia under Putin that has sought to change that status quo incurring Lukashenko’s unhappiness by trying [to real] Belarus into a more subordinate relationship to change the status quo. So what’s at risk here? I think, in part, and this whole situation we find ourselves in now, is not that Belarus’ relationships might change. It’s really that Putin’s ambition to change the relationship might be frustrated. Putin’s ambition for a union state that really means something more than paper that really does mean the effective integration of Belarus, at least they factor into Russian control. That’s what he fears losing, in part. So to some of the other just the other points so Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s role, yes, she’s a figurehead, of course. She’s been less inspiration than the sort of the lightning rod the enormous demand for changes that’s grown. She’s, it seems to me, her campaign during the election and her behaviour, conduct since the election has been flawless, just superb, actually, under immense pressure. She’s now in exile, of course across the border, but still able to communicate. She’s in a sort of connected world. She and the people she works with have, in a very complex and rapidly changing situation, have until now kept up the initiative. It’s they who have driven events, and it’s Lukashenko and his people who’ve been responding to them and actually making mistake after mistake in doing so. And it’s no small achievement to have maintained momentum of that time. The question is what they can do next. The latest move was to announce the Coordination Council ready for negotiations. There’s no alternative to her, it seems to me, at this point to, to lead that. On [Speaker] question about divisions and so on. Yes, I think, again, one of the achievements of this nationwide movement now is unity. No real cracks have appeared. In fact, wider and wider groups have been drawn to it. And if you’re trying to combat that, as Lukashenko is and as Russia increasingly is now, then one of the ways you do that is by fermenting division. By trying to set these elements or parts of this whole against one another. I think harder, in the case of Belarus, there is [Speaker’s] point about the Donbas as well taken, but there is no Donbas or Donbas equivalent in Belarus. The country is pretty much united, and there’s certainly no sort of strong discernible cultural contrast that could be put to malign use like that. One more point, if I just could very briefly, on sanctions, I think that a policy issue worth raising, and it’s important to be sort of understood and discussed. So we know, of course, about the potency of the Magnitsky acts in various countries, America and Britain and others, and that’s an important instrument. I just come back to the point I touched on earlier, it’s very important that Western actions by which, and here we meet EU actions, and, you know, the interesting point about the situation is that the EU is taking the lead, not the United States. I mean, that was to Bill’s point. It’s very important that everyone understand what Belarusians themselves want from this. So just to pose the question, so we saw Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya recently in one of her videos, appealing to the security forces and saying, if you join us, you won’t be punished. You’ll be forgiven and no one will say anything against you. It is a very smart move, because one of the things that might hold the existing regime together is its fear of punishment. That he’s got more to lose by defecting and from staying where it is and trying to fight to the end. So I just pose it as a genuine sort of policy question. How quickly should those sanctions be introduced? And is it entirely consistent for, on the one hand, for [ticket is going] to be saying, well, you won’t be punished if you join us if you abandon this decaying dying regime. And on the other hand, for Western partners to say we’re going to punish you. I think that’s a question worth discussing.

Dr Alan Mendoza 1:00:43


Natalia Kaliada 1:00:45

Yeah, I think I will exactly pick up from that point that Nigel just raised in terms of sanctions. Yes, exactly. As I said, like we’ve been trying to put those sanctions in place before election. Exactly to try to avoid crackdown and falsification and get political prisoners out of jails. But, unfortunately, we need now logically to deal with what we have and putting emotions aside. And here we need to think about sanctions as a very small step. It’s just a tiny step in comparison what could be done by international community now in Belarus. [So sanctions that could be put in place now, this is cure, possibility then to leave them if they joined peaceful population.] And currently we need to think about exactly not to think, but to act very quickly, in terms of negotiators group that consists of major names, who are able to convince him to go. And to organize free and fair elections without his participation. So we need just to take those steps in place. Because if we go and organize so-called free and fair elections with his participation, even with presence of OSCE, this is the first time when OSCE wasn’t in Belarus. But all previous years, OSCE was in Belarus and every single time OSCE didn’t recognize elections. So if we have those elections with his participation now, unfortunately, we need to get prepared for Zimbabwe development that already had in place when you have dictator then to the end of your life. What means that young population, and it’s exactly the revolution of generations that is happening now in Belarus, and they will simply leave the country because this is the generation that in five years already will have children. And it’s exactly what they’re saying that we want to develop our business, we want our children to live in free and fair country. In terms of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, before elections, she said that there will be no deep integration with Russia, there will be no Russian-Belarusian union. And this is the situation that we have. And she said that it will be pretty pro European country. Of course, when you pro European country, it doesn’t mean that you need to fight with your neighbour. So it will be peaceful country and you observe Belarusians how they acted. People are getting on the benches to send signs of support and solidarity. They’re taking their shoes off to get on the bench. They’re cleaning any trash after them. This is that particular nation that is perfect for reforms. And this is the nation exactly for European integration. And if we talk about American sanctions, I want to reassure that, first of all, sanctions that we managed to put in place in 2011, when seven presidential candidates been in jail and when 2000 people got arrested, that was 5000, less than now,  Lukashenka and Yermoshina are still on American list of sanctions. What is a good sign. The second thing we talk every single day with State Department and Congress, and State Department sanctions could go in place any single minute. In terms of Congress, Congress had Belarus democracy act for many years, by the aunt of the 2000 and 2004 and 2010. Belarus democracy act already is a legislation so there is no need for Congress to start that process again. And of course, in addition to it, we could put Magnitsky act so we could target from all sides very quickly, what will be a very strong message to authorities. Of course, ruling out any economic sanctions, what will bring population in even in a very difficult situation that now. If we talk about strikes, all leaders of strikes and even just members over different strike committees, and workers, they’re making non-stop video appeals on all social media channel, and the main one is Telegram in Belarus, and they’re saying we need your support, we need your moral support, we have families, we have children, and if we don’t have those salaries to be paid. There is a very simple mechanism of blackmail – it’s your salary, how to feed your family. And this is the question now after what Lukashenko announced yesterday that he is blocking the country financially. And he’s checking the cross-checking in terms of funding streams. So we need to come up, and again, we’ve discovered three months ago, that Western community needs to be prepared in advance of elections and think how to support democratic forces, as we didn’t do it on time. And again, we need just to react. So we need to react very quickly and understand how we’re able to support those people. If EU is announcing that all those money are put in place in order to support workers. Then the next question is how you will bring it to Belarus. That’s the next question. And those mechanisms are not in place. So for now, it can be maybe hot air in terms of EU and announcing that financial support. So what are those mechanisms, how to deliver? And of course, just to finalize that, if there are elections in Belarus, then Russia will just simply get a newly emerged candidate that will be full of Russian money that will be running. But of course, there is no question in terms of, like, why Russia needs to have their candidates. It’s Belarus, it’s a Belarusian independence. And we need to have, like, absolutely transparent presence of all observers who will understand that from the very beginning, not only at the voting point, we can’t allow that Russian soft interference or soft integration, because soft integration will mean one thing, it’s losing independence de facto. So if necessary, for the West, finally, after 26 years of doing nothing, to come up with a solution and showed to Putin that they are much stronger. And also we need to understand that Lukashenko has confirmed many times that he has amosaic psychoses and he has this very high phase of it, and we need to understand how he will act and we need to understand how we act in order for him not to move into even bloodier crackdowns. Yesterday, you know, that Merkel gave him a call call and he just simply didn’t pick up the phone. And after that he gave a call to Putin and he said, ‘Say to your Merkel, she can’t interfere into Belarus’. What it means, we must stand up as the world the United States, EU. Very happy that the EU is leading, last time it was America and UK. Stand up and show that very strong position and get prepared for an[exit plan for him and the right people in place, including [more Ibrahim] like very well known billionaire, who organizes functional of dictators and Belarusian people are very peaceful people, who will consider his peaceful leaving, not using a strong language now, what they will wish to him, but they’re ready to discuss trust and Reconciliation Commission, there are all those places that  we must put in place very quickly now, because otherwise he will reconfigure, restructure, and all his security forces who got awards and their names were on 25 page, will have some rest and they will attack again.

Dr Alan Mendoza 1:10:01

Well, Natalia, thank you. I think we’re over time now. But that was a very interesting way to end because you’ve given a bit of a roadmap for, you know, what we ought to be doing. And going forward, I think obviously has a situation very much in flux, that situation where, we can influence things if we involve ourselves in the right way. But as you said that the right way is about giving Belarus’ people the ability to give expression to their own desires. And that’s the the key at this moment in time. So I’m drawing our session to a close. I’m sorry, we can get around. By the way, there’s been some excellent questions. We will doubtless return to this because I don’t think this is going to conclude anytime soon. And hopefully we’re [including] the right way. But I want to just thank Natalia and Siarhei who had to leave actually early, Nigel and Bill for giving an overview of what’s happening on the ground, what’s happening internationally and potential ways that we can engage with that. So I’m sure all of you who’ve joined us, they want to thank, the office will want to thank our speakers. We will, like I said, reserve this subject and there’ll be another one very soon. So thank you everyone for joining. And we have enjoyed the rest of your days. Thank you so much.


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