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Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, is often called “Europe’s Last Dictator.” And many say he’s living up to that reputation as he consolidates power and quashes dissent in the wake of a controversial election. With talk about overthrowing dictatorial regimes garnering headlines around the world, we look at life in Belarus and the challenges facing opposition activists.
- Alexander Lukashuk Director of the Belarus Service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
- Heather Conley Senior Fellow and Director, Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, what the U.S., Papua New Guinea and Swaziland have in common, a lack of paid parental leave. We'll take a look at the issue and how it affects U.S. families. But first, a nation under the control of an authoritarian regime. No, not Libya. We're talking about Belarus, where a major crackdown against opposition activists is underway.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBelarus has been ruled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko, who was once called Europe's Last Dictator by the Bush administration. He won reelection in December in an election that opponents said was flawed and now, protestors are facing criminal trials over their descent. Joining us to talk about the situation there and how the U.S. and Europe are responding is Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She joins us in studio. Thank you so much.
MS. HEATHER CONLEYThank you.
NNAMDIJoining us from the studios at Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Liberty in Prague is Alexander Lukashuk, director of the Belarus Service. Thank you very much for joining us.
MR. ALEXANDER LUKASHUKThank you, Kojo. And good afternoon, Heather.
NNAMDIHeather, I guess Alexander would like to hear a good afternoon from you personally.
CONLEYAnd good afternoon, Alexander. I hope all is well in Prague.
LUKASHUKThe only problem is that it's not afternoon here.
CONLEYOh, it's evening indeed.
NNAMDIWell, now that we've got that straightened out. For people who might not be familiar with President Lukashenko, first you, Heather, could you describe this president and what his leadership has been like?
CONLEYWell, he has -- truly does capture the Last Dictator of Europe quote. President since 1994, President Lukashenko has really controlled Belarus absolutely. It's a time warp. Belarus is certainly a throwback of the Soviet Union, a state-controlled economy. President Lukashenko has had an iron fist over opposition, civil society and it has been an extraordinary challenge for both Europe and the United States to try to bring about change to Belarus towards economic reforms, democratic reforms.
CONLEYWe've supported through U.S. assistance activities, European activities and we find ourselves sort of keep going back to the -- it's like "Groundhog Day" the movie. We keep going back through this awful vision and we're not being successful in moving Belarus towards a Western-style democracy.
NNAMDISpeaking of going back to this vision, Alexander Lukashuk, there was an election in Belarus in December and a number of people disputed Lukashenka's reelection. Was there evidence of fraud in the results, Alexander?
LUKASHUKOh, Kojo, it's not a question even of discussion. It's only a question of whether you look at the facts or not. Before it was so massive and it was so well-documented. It was on TV cameras. It was taken by flash -- by photo cameras, you know, with his video capabilities. A friend of mine, who's a TV journalist, interviewed one of the observers at one of the voting stations. And so she came in, she crossed out all the names and she wrote Lukashenko should go to Hague. And she showed it to the cameraman so he took a picture.
LUKASHUKThen she put it down in a box. And then, when they started to count votes, this vote was not among those so-called invalid votes. And she said, she was an observer herself, said where is this vote? I left it. They started looking for it, and it's on the camera, it was on the pile for Lukashenko. So there are many, many examples like that.
NNAMDISeveral former presidential candidates and dozens of opposition activists are charged with inciting mass riots following the election. Alexander, tell us a little bit about the trial process that's been taking place.
LUKASHUKSo far, more than 40 people are charged with inciting violence and 33 of them are in prisons. In the KGB prison, this interesting organization still is known by this abbreviation. It hasn't been changed. And several of them are in regular prisons. So only two trials so far took place. The first one was trial of (unintelligible) activist was charged with broken windows and he was sentenced to four years of hard labor.
LUKASHUKAnd the second trial started this week. It was trial of two Russian citizens. It was delayed because the accusation, the office of the prosecutor, evidence just fell apart. So they decided to change the charge. On the first of March, which is next week, we expect five more trials to start on the same day, first of March.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Alexander Lukashuk. He is director of the Belarus Service of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. He joins us from their studios in Prague. In our Washington studio is Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or you send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIHeather Conley, a lot of people here must be thinking, wait a minute, this guy had several opponents in the presidential election and after the election, he can simply round them up and try them -- round them, jail them, try them, incarcerate them. What kind of system are they operating in Belarus?
CONLEYYeah. No, it's extraordinary, in part, because the December 19th election, the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe, was invited to have a monetary mission of the election. Lukashenko allowed nine opposition leaders to "run," and I put that in quotes. And Alexander's right, it was a deeply flawed election. And then, when the protesters came, estimates -- and Alexander help me out here, between 20 and 40,000 came out on the streets. This crackdown was immediate. It was swift. It really focused on those opposition, the other presidential candidates. It has completely silenced the opposition.
CONLEYAnd so it is utterly shocking to have a country that borders a NATO and EU member, that we have this type of activity. And it just -- it increases the frustration that these are the types of issues that both the European Union colleagues, as well the Obama administration, we can't get to this problem. We just are bearing witness to unbelievable, you know, systematic anti-democratic efforts.
NNAMDIAlexander, with riots happening all over the Middle East, revolts often with different results, it's tempting to ask whether there might be a ripple effect from those movements to the one in Belarus. Are we talking apples and oranges here?
LUKASHUKKojo, the authoritarian system in Belarus, perhaps, is a little bit different. I would say it is more stable in comparison to the Middle East. But that's exactly the question, which was in the mind of Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, this week when he declared that, looking at what's happening in the Middle East, in Egypt, in Tunisia, I will be ready to use the army if it is needed. And he was very deliberate in delivering this message. The system is a very well-organized police state. Police, which outnumbers the army and secret service, and police is complemented with the, as Heather said, state-owned economy, which means that 90 percent of the people work for the state. There's no place for them to go, otherwise they are dependent very much. The same is true for students and for school children.
LUKASHUKSo more amazing is that this 30,000 people come on the election night, they know what's going to happen and they still go. So if -- it's not the number of the people who want the changes, it's the ability of the regime at the moment to restrict, to impose control. And that's what is the issue here for people both in Washington and in Brussels.
NNAMDIHeather, Alexander said that 90 percent of people work for the state. It's my understanding that there's a sort of social contract between the government and the people of Belarus. What does that mean in terms of the salaries and benefits that people receive and what does it mean in terms of their support for Lukashenko?
CONLEYWell, that's exactly it. Their fortunes are tied to the, you know, what the state offers. They control wages. They control if you keep your job, if you lose your job. It's a complete and utter control of the economy. The challenge for President Lukashenko is that when the global economy starts to cause pain, when food prices increase, energy prices, when he has to spend his way out of any political unrest, that causes inflation, which we're seeing an uptick in Belarus. You have the IMF director or the mission head in Belarus saying, you know, we're now seeing some economic challenges. Belarus may have to devalue their currency. They're running a current account deficit. You know, you can't alter economic fundamentals even though you control everything.
CONLEYAnd really, it's a race to see if Lukashenko can keep the economy under control and keep people sort of well-fed and controlled and satisfied. And if you sort of have the economic instability that we're seeing in North Africa and the Middle East, that really is an impetus to political change. But as long as he controls if you have a job and how you're getting paid, people are very reluctant, although very courageous, 30,000, 40,000 people who understood the risk they were taking, losing their jobs, being shattered, were so courageous to say, no, we stand for something different. But people rely on Lukashenko, that's the problem.
NNAMDIHere is Ryan in Gaithersburg, Md. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, I was just wondering if you guys might touch on the topic of political control within the U.S., as far as opposition and how the opposition doesn't really get much attention in the media. For example, like, I was a Ralph Nader supporter in the last election and I didn't see very much of them on TV and debates or anything like that. And I was wondering if you guys had any thoughts on that.
NNAMDIYou're suggesting, Ryan, that the situation regarding access to media in the United States can be compared to the situation in Belarus. Allow me to have Alexander Lukashuk respond. Alexander, how much access do people in Belarus have to independent news, independent news media? And a related question, do you have reporters operating in that country right now or is the situation just difficult for journalists?
LUKASHUKYou know, Kojo, I can -- it just came to mind the quote from Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize winner who's (unintelligible) will be celebrated next month. He was a professor at the Berkeley University, I guess. He once said that it is -- for a person who hasn't lived in a totalitarian society, it is -- indefinable menace of totalitarianism is impossible to understand and to explain. It's maybe emotional, but practically all mass media in Belarus is state owned, so opposition has no voice there. Independent media has -- there's no independent radio, no independent TV. There's a couple of newspapers, weeklies and one newspaper which is published three times a week.
LUKASHUKAnd basically, that's all. But I would say there is also Radio Liberty, which is, by the way, is supported and sponsored by the United States Congress, that means by our listeners now in Washington. We brought cars to Belarus eight hours a day, unfortunately on shortwaves. If your listeners know, Kojo, ask themselves when was the last time I tuned to a shortwave? That would be the answer...
NNAMDIThat would be our ham radio enthusiasts, yes.
LUKASHUK...because we're not allowed to rebroadcast. And Belarus is the only country in the former Soviet Union where our RFERL, radio for Radio Liberty, voice of America has never had local rebroadcasting. But there is another thing which I would like, maybe, to mention as long as we're on the topic. That is solidarity. Many people in Belarus, you would be surprised, know names of people in Washington because Washington is our -- perhaps, the capital for Belarusians.
LUKASHUKAnd I'm not talking only about Hillary Clinton. Say, a couple of weeks ago, Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman published an article in the Washington Post with five points, what to do about Belarus. And they -- it was an effort to work together with the European Union to impose targeted sanctions. And Europeans did it in terms of visa burns, acid freezes and -- what didn't happen is that United States prohibited business and was Belarusian state-owned oil and petrochemical company, Belneftekhim, which is really the most important asset for the regime. And Europeans, unfortunately, hasn't joined it. They still continue doing business with the -- with the government of Alexander Lukashenko.
LUKASHUKThat's why there is a big...
NNAMDI...that's one of the issues I wanted to address with you and Heather Conley.
LUKASHUKAbsolutely. But that's what -- that why many people see Washington as a place where to look for hope. For example, names of -- and the people from the National Endowment of Democracy, people who live in your community, in your neighborhood, like Kyle Gershman, Rodger Potoki, I know that his mother is a big fan of national public radio and of your program, Kojo. Their names are known there, though, maybe you view them in a different way in Washington.
LUKASHUKBut in Belarus and people who are in prison sometimes, who listen to those broadcasts, their names, their voices are unknown there. So the sounds of solidarity, the S word is so important now as has never been before.
NNAMDIWell, you should know, Alexander, that we just got an e-mail from the aforementioned Rodger Potoki who says, "I did your show on the Belarus election of 2006. I would suggest that Heather is a bit hard on the opposition. They have been scores of solidarity actions in defense of the repressed. The independent media continues to tell the story about what happens on the 19th and hundreds of volunteers have delivered more than a thousand humanitarian parcels to those detained and imprisoned.
NNAMDICivil society and the opposition is alive and well in Belarus, despite the climate of fear resulting from the crackdown." Heather, Russia has long been a big supporter of Belarus. What does Russia have to say about what's happening there now and is there any chance that Russian support might dry up?
CONLEYWell, Prime Minister Putin is no fan of President Lukashenko. And, in fact, some have argued that the reason that Lukashenko was slightly warming towards the West was because he was in fear of the policies that Moscow were bringing to bear, renegotiating oil contracts, things like that. And he was feeling that pressure. And hence, President Lukashenko was flirting with the West. It's interesting, today in Brussels, you have the European Union and Russian Summit. Prime Minister Putin just brought 13 of his ministers and it's been a very difficult conversation.
CONLEYYou know, in some respects, this is a -- it's too simple to say this is a battle, you know, West versus Russia, sort of for the hearts and minds of Belarus, but it is about the direction of this country. And Moscow does not wish to see Belarus in a Western, you know, European mode. And I think it cannot be displeased with the current circumstances, but it has no love for President Lukashenko.
CONLEYTo get back to what both Alexander and Rodger, the great, great e-mail, you're absolutely right. It's so vital for Washington and Brussels to continue to have solidarity with the opposition. And you're absolutely right, they are getting packages. I want to do a, you know, applaud our Polish friends, our Lithuanian friends, who are doing extraordinary work in maintaining ties with the opposition leaders, with civil society. We need to continue to support their efforts. And RFERL, who's had such a historic role in central Europe in transforming central Europe, is now, once again, being called to serve in this vital role. But you're absolutely right, This is a delicate dance between the West and Russia. And...
NNAMDIIndeed, I wanted to get back to a point that Alexander was making earlier. Because a number of countries, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungry, Poland, Slovakia, denouncing the crackdown in Belarus, but a lot of those countries have also traded quite a bit with Lukashenko, purchased fuel from his country. So shouldn't the EU also be pointing the finger at itself here?
CONLEYAbsolutely. And, I think, what we're concerned about, quite frankly, is that there is no consensus within the 27 members of the EU to take some additional bold steps and start really turning the economic screws, quite frankly, on state enterprises. You're absolutely right. They are not as focused as they should be. The U.S. has gone forward and started to sanction, has historically two state enterprises. Our reach is farther.
CONLEYEurope is closer and they could have certainly a much more significant impact. But if there's no consensus, they're not going to be moving forward. So we'd like these good statements coming from Europe be turned into much bolder action and we want to keep that focus moving forward.
NNAMDIHeather Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Alexander Lukashuk is Director of the Belarus Service of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Alexander, thank you for joining us.
LUKASHUKWas a pleasure, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will have a conversation on just which countries in the world have paid parental leave and why the U.S. does not. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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