"European parliamentarians do the work that should be done by the deputies of the parliament of Belarus"

— Libereco is a German-Swiss organization engaged in the protection of human rights in Belarus and Ukraine. Why in these two countries and why did you personally choose to join Libereco?

- Just a few days ago, Libereco celebrated its 15th anniversary. It was an initiative of a group of people in Germany in February 2009 in response to the human rights situation in Belarus. They worked with "Viasna" human rights defenders and responded to what was happening in Belarus.

At that time, in 2010, the organization had a similar program aimed at supporting political prisoners in Belarus. In 2014, Libereco expanded its work when the situation in Ukraine changed - the annexation of Crimea and the events in Donbas. Parallel projects continued, which were a response to the situation in Belarus, as well as practical work for the evacuation of people, humanitarian work in Ukraine.

I joined the organization only after the presidential elections in Belarus in 2020. My wife is Belarusian. We were sitting here in Edinburgh, in Scotland, and we were watching footage from the protests and what was happening in Belarus. We knew we needed to show some solidarity with our friends and family who were protesting. We started demonstrations in Edinburgh. We reasoned like this: if people in Belarus took to the streets, we should also take to the streets.

When 2020 ended, we understood that it is dangerous for Belarusians to go out on the streets, but we need to somehow continue our support. We were looking for some ways, and I read on the Internet that there is a program to support political prisoners. And I decided to take part in it, so that the initiative was not limited to Germany and Switzerland, but that British parliamentarians also took part in it.

— Libereco organizes a solidarity campaign #WeStandBYyou in support of specific political prisoners. Deputies from different countries became symbolic "godfathers" for more than 400 Belarusian political prisoners. The four hundredth "godfather" became the first minister of Scotland, this position corresponds to the prime minister. But how can this campaign practically improve the situation of political prisoners?

- We are trying to find different ways in which, in our opinion, we can help. First of all, we use the platforms that MPs have at their disposal, their social networks, to inform people about what is happening in Belarus. In this way, we expand the information beyond the Belarusian media and those people who are directly interested in the situation. Anyone who follows the activities of their deputy can find out about this.

We also hope that it gives political prisoners some hope to know that there is a member of a foreign parliament who is aware of their situation and is making an effort to study it. And we know that some political prisoners are aware that there is a deputy who supports them.

In a sense, parliamentarians across Europe, who support political prisoners, are doing work that should be done by members of the parliament of Belarus. But they don't do it, they don't support their own compatriots. We actually show Belarusians that there are parliamentarians for whom freedom and justice are important, and that these people support you, even if your own deputies do not.

In addition, the deputy supports a specific person in Belarus and knows about his situation, knows that the person has done almost nothing or nothing at all, for which he should be arrested, knows about the conditions of detention behind bars, knows about how it affects seven of prisoners. And this makes the situation with human rights in Belarus not just a theoretical or global problem, it becomes a personal one.

I spoke to one of the "godparents" and he said that it is a very personal thing to do. They want to do something, because we are talking about people who have been in prison for years. This affects not only the political prisoners themselves, but also their children and spouses. And this motivates the deputies to do more - to talk in their parliaments about the prisoners they care for, to call on their governments to put more pressure on Belarus. Perhaps the deputies do not have many direct contacts with Belarus, but this campaign strengthens their ties with the country.

"Lukashenko is not interested in any negotiations now"

- Libereco organized another campaign - it sent letters to judges in Belarus who handed down political sentences. They were urged to respect the law and treat Belarusians with respect and justice. Have you received any reaction from any of the judges or other officials in Belarus?

- No. I was not surprised by this. There seems to have been some backlash on social media. But we understood that the main purpose of this campaign is to inform people. We deliberately did not send these posts in any official envelopes or from any parliamentary addresses. We have delayed the press release about this campaign until we have sent out all the letters.

We hope that many judges have opened the letters from abroad and read them. And we hope that it at least made them stop and think for a moment. It is important that they know that the world is watching and knows what they are doing.

— Libereco actively participated in the campaign against holding the World Ice Hockey Championship in Belarus in 2021. This campaign was successful, the championship was postponed. But there was also criticism - there were voices that it would be wiser to take advantage of such a large-scale international event to get some concessions from the authorities, including, perhaps, the release of some political prisoners. How would you respond to such criticism?

- I think that this is a very difficult question, like all these problems related to sports. In a sense, these arguments are repeated now when discussing, for example, tennis or football. I personally believe that with sports events, you often give more legitimacy to regimes like the Belarusian one. It turns out that they deserve the honor of hosting such international competitions.

I do not believe that Lukashenka and his regime feel ready to compromise on anything. It seems to me that they want very little, except to be in power. And I don't see much hope in trying to negotiate. New people are still being arrested and there is no talk of releasing the prisoners.

After the hockey world championship was postponed, we also called on UEFA to ban Belarusian football teams from participating in international competitions. UEFA did the right thing by taking measures against Russia. I was very angry when there was a discussion about the Olympics last year about whether Belarusian and Russian athletes should have the opportunity to compete in Paris, but no one mentioned that Belarusian football teams still travel to Europe on behalf of their country.

We tried to do something in this direction. More than 100 members of the European Parliament signed a letter to UEFA, other people wrote to the management of UEFA, but they did not want to change their position. I think isolation in this case is the best way to get the message across. I think that Lukashenka is not interested in any negotiations now.

"The big question of the future is how Belarus will break free from the Russian Empire"

— Libereco criticized Western companies that advertised on Belarusian and Russian state television, but also generally opposed the presence of Western companies in the Belarusian economy. Again, there are voices that even in the current situation with political prisoners, the only hope for release is to start some behind-the-scenes negotiations, and for that, the more Western presence in Belarus, the better. What would you say to that?

- I am not in a position to criticize relatives and friends of those who are behind bars for their desire to do something to achieve their release. On a personal level, I can't even begin to imagine what that experience is like, and I can't criticize people for trying to do something.

On a more organizational level, I believe that the days when Lukashenka could be tempted to look to the West are over. This worked after 2010, along with the sanctions governments imposed to pressure Lukashenka and secure the release of political prisoners. But at that time, I think, Lukashenka still danced a little between Russia and Europe.

Now, especially in connection with the war in Ukraine, those days have passed. And I think Lukashenka knows that he has severed all ties with the West. Therefore, it is problematic to use the same methods as 10 years ago. Now it's a completely different world. If you look at the meetings between Lukashenka and Putin, at who Lukashenka is currently communicating with, it is clear that he is aware of the impossibility of establishing such relations with the Western European governments that existed in the past years.

- There is an argument that Lukashenka is actually a puppet in the hands of the Kremlin and that there is no point in imposing sanctions against him if there are no stronger sanctions against Russia for supporting his regime. After all, it is not so difficult economically for Russia to support Lukashenka's regime. Do you consider it a realistic scenario, when Western politicians will introduce harsh sanctions against Russia precisely for supporting the Lukashenka regime?

- This is a good question. I am involved in some discussions about some types of sanctions. For example, in Britain there is a law that allows imposing sanctions in connection with the war in Ukraine and in connection with violations of human rights. So I can only talk about Great Britain here because that is what I know.

We are putting pressure on the British government to act on both legal lines that are available in Britain to impose sanctions against specific individuals and organizations. You already mentioned the campaign of letters to judges, but it was not only about letters. We wanted governments to understand the need for sanctions against judges involved in repression against political prisoners.

Would there be an impact if sanctions were imposed against Russia for supporting the regime in Belarus? Personally, I do not think that this would change anything in Russia's behavior. We saw with the war in Ukraine what Russia and Putin are willing to do to maintain their sphere of influence. They felt that Ukraine was getting out of control and decided to organize this terrible war.

If Putin felt that Belarus was getting out of his influence, it is terrifying to even think what he would do in Belarus if he still had opportunities, troops and political support. For me, this is a big question of the future - if at some point Putin leaves, how will Belarus break free from the Russian Empire? After all, this is a very painful escape for Ukraine.

"Belarus had 0 percent invasion, but it is 100 percent occupied"

— When a large-scale war broke out in 2022, were there any conflicts in your organization regarding priorities, including between those dealing with Belarus and Ukraine? After all, Russia attacked Ukraine, including through Belarus.

— Yes, we had discussions in Libereco, and I well remember how in February and March 2022 we looked at the program of "godfathers" for political prisoners and decided that at such a moment it is not the most important thing that is happening in Europe. We decided not to conduct an active campaign among the deputies at that time, because there was a much bigger problem that needed to be dealt with.

Those of us who campaigned in support of Belarus in Scotland also joined marches in support of Ukraine. We came with white-red-white flags to express solidarity, to show that there is Lukashenka's Belarus as part of the war, but there are other Belarusians, and Lukashenka does not represent them. We knew how important it is for Belarusians to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians.

In Scotland at that time we organized a party in the Scottish Parliament, we had the support of some deputies. It was initially planned as a discussion of the situation in Belarus. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya met with the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. I discussed this with the Ukrainians and said: "We cannot hold an event in the Scottish Parliament with the support of Scottish ministers about the political situation in Belarus and pretend that this is the worst thing that is happening in Europe now. It's terrible, but there's also a war going on.''

That's why we worked together with the Ukrainians to organize a community event. And during it, we showed a video about the history of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. And we said that, in fact, Belarus and Ukraine suffer from the same problem - from Russian imperialism.

I then described it as follows: Ukraine at that time was 100 percent a victim of invasion and 20 percent occupied. Belarus had 0 percent invasion, but it is 100 percent occupied. This is how I see the situation in two countries. We tried to explain it, and we must give credit to the Ukrainians - they were grateful for the support and help of the Belarusians, who made it clear that Lukashenka is not their representative.

- What would be your message to our listeners and viewers inside Belarus, who do not support the regime and are under daily threat of persecution?

- I think that you should have hope. I have already said that there are deputies and politicians who know very well what is happening in Belarus. These deputies, who are elected representatives and who need to satisfy the demands of voters in order to vote for them again, waste their time, hold meetings, write letters, call on the government to take some steps.

None of them do it because these steps will somehow help to get voters' votes. They do it because they care about freedom and democracy. They don't care what happens to Belarusians. And there is a lot of such work. In some sense, I am even surprised by the deputies with whom I work. More than 400 MEPs across Europe have made an effort to take a clear stand and say: "This is important to me, even though it won't help me get re-elected. But I do it because it's important."

They do this because they want to send such a message of solidarity and hope. They will put pressure on their governments and do what they can to try to help create a better Belarus. I think that it also gives hope - when deputies you have never heard of know the names of political prisoners, know their situation and campaign in your support. Because your parliament does not do the work it should do for you, but we are trying to get parliamentarians from other countries to do such work.

  • Alyaksei Znatkevich

    Radio Svaboda journalist

    znatkevicha@rferl.org

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