Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko recently announced he will run for re-election for the third time, when he is expected to attempt to extend his 16-year autocratic presidency through a rigged vote. The election may happen as early as this fall.
A leading opponent, former deputy foreign minister, Andrei Sannikov, is predicting a surprise for Lukashenko this time. He is predicting street protests against any fraudulent election, similar to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine in which demonstrators succeeded in getting a presidential election rigged in favor of Viktor Yanukovych overturned. Viktor Yushchenko became president instead after a Dec. 26, 2004, re-vote.
Sannikov, son of a noted Belarusian art researcher, graduated from the Soviet Union's Foreign Affairs Ministry Diplomatic Academy in Moscow in 1989. After Belarus declared independence, he advised the Belarusian diplomatic mission in Switzerland and headed the Belarusian delegation on nuclear and conventional negotiations from 1993 - 1995.
Sannikov resigned as deputy foreign minister in November 1996 in protest to a rigged national referendum to expand presidential powers. The 56-year-old former diplomat is married to Iryna Khalip, a leading Belarusian investigative journalist, who has been persecuted by law enforcement agents in Minsk for chronicling the misdeeds of the authorities.
KP: Opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych criticize the penchant of Ukrainian authorities to kowtow to Moscow. What would be Belarusian foreign policy toward Russia if you become president?
AS: Establishing normal relations with Russia is long overdue. The Russian Federation will always be Belarus' strategic partner. My main goals - a free Belarus in 2011 and Belarus in the European Union in 2016-2017 - are should be perfectly acceptable to Russian leaders, and we can discuss all issues which are of concern both to us and to Russia. The example of such a relationship is Ukraine. Russia has taken in stride Ukraine's strategic choice of to seek closer ties with Europe. Moscow deals with a legitimately elected president who had been recognized by the international community. The Russian-Ukrainian relationship is a work in progress, and it could be the model for Belarus.
KP: No one knows when the presidential election will take place. Would you prefer the poll took place sooner or later?
AS: The sooner the better. It would be nice if they were held during the autumn, because the weather will be fine and people will take to the streets in pleasure to say "No!" to the current authorities. The election date is unimportant really because there are no [democratic] elections in Belarus. The opposition does not have access to electronic media, television and FM radio stations, and it's naive to think new channels of information dissemination will appear. So the date of the poll really doesn't matter. The simple fact that no one knows when the election will take place is another example of the nature of the current regime is.
KP: Do you think people will take to the street in revolt?
AS: It is not only me who thinks this. Probably for the first time a consensus has emerged among Belarus' democratic camps that it is necessary to take to the streets in protest. We have no other way to show our protest. We don't have newspapers. We don't have radio. So this is the only way we can attract attention to the fact that we disagree with this regime and are not willing to live under this regime.
KP: How many opposition leaders want to become president? How does your vision of the future of Belarus differ from that of Aleksandr Milinkevych, another opposition leader.
AS: I take it as a positive sign that so many political leaders have announced their intention to run against Lukashenko for president. This means that they sense a power change is imminent. But only a few of the candidates stand a chance. In this respect, the situation is similar to what it was in Ukraine during 2004, when the only real opponent to the candidate of the authorities was Viktor Yushchenko.
My fundamental differences with Milinkevych are over a very important issue. I agree that Belarus can move forward only through dialogue within the country. But he is lobbying for dialogue between Brussels and Lukashenko, which only weakens the opposition. The effort has deprived the opposition of the chance to influence policy. We were earlier able to get democratic countries to pressure Belarusian authorities to take certain decisions, but the European Union-Luakshenko dialogue took away the opportunity. This is why Milinekvych's position on this issue is unacceptable for me.
KP: Is there any unified position of EU leaders on Belarus and what to do? Has the reset of U.S. relations with Russia changed American policy toward Belarus?
AS: I don't think that EU leaders will take any decision on Belarus now because the bloc is scheduled to review EU-Belarus ties during the fall. The EU bureaucratic machine grinds slowly, and if a decision has already been taken to review relations, there will be no sudden shift before the review. The EU may react to events in Belarus before then, but the bloc will take not concrete steps.
EU politicians responsible for ties with Belarusian are very disappointed by the lack of results of the Brussels-Minsk dialogue, but are probably unwilling to acknowledge their mistakes. Nevertheless, the rhetoric is changing. They aren't afraid to say today that the dialogue has borne no results and the onslaught on civil liberties in Belarus continues. They were shocked by the recent sham of holding local elections in Belarus. They probably expected changes, but this is a naive hope that we tried to disabuse them of.
KP: What do you expect from officials in Kyiv in the upcoming months?
AS: I am waiting for officials Kyiv to signal their support for change in Belarus. I don't see how Kyiv that declared its strategic goal to integrate with EU could support a dictator. I understand that it is probably not realistic to expect Kyiv to support democratic forces in Belarus, but our country is at a dead end with Lukashenko. If the situation persists, the interests of Belarus and Ukraine will suffer. This is why a change of leadership is necessary in Belarus, a country sorely in need of systemic economic, political and social reforms. I am waiting for government officials in Kyiv to understand this fact.
KP: A lot of attention was paid during the Ukrainian presidential election campaign to which presidential candidate would be supported by the Kremlin. The same will be true for Belarus. Which opposition candidate does Moscow support, if any?
AS: Russian support for Lukashenko over the years has been considerable - in political, international affairs, and economic terms. According to Belarusian analysts, Russia has provided Belarus with some $37 billion in subsidies over the past six years. This more three times the cost of building the "Northern Stream" natural gas pipeline, or two and a half times the price for preparing for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Now, I hope, Russia is convinced that it is impossible to have a dialogue with Lukashenko. They played Union Treaty, Slavic brotherhood game with Moscow, and Lukashenko received whatever he wanted. Russia, on the other hand, received almost nothing in return.
This game was premised on agreements no one knew about, including the price for natural gas. We in Belarus are only just now learning the price for gas negotiated last year and renegotiated at the start of 2010. No one bothered to inform ordinary citizens about the details or the outcome of the talks.
These opaque relations harmed Russia more than anyone because on one hand there are some ideological, political interests and on the other concrete economic interests, including the transit of natural gas across Belarus to Europe. I hope that Russians will understand that the perpetuation of this model of relations with Belarus will slow down trade and harm economic ties, not only with Belarus, but with European countries and Ukraine.
KP: Do you really expect people in Minsk to take to protest in the streets, as they did in Ukraine in the early 2000s. Does Belarusian civil society have the capacity to sustain similar nationwide demonstrations?
AS: First of all, I am not speaking about the electing the next Belarusian president in street protests. I am talking about a popular protest against the falsification of elections. I am not revealing any secrets when I say that Belarus doesn't have the level organization and resources, which were present on Independence Square in Kyiv.
On the other hand, Ukraine has had four presidents, while Belarus for the last 16 years has been forced to watch the same tired Lukashenko soap opera. People's reaction to upcoming election gives me hope that Belarusians will be able to organize themselves and act in their best interests. This is something that Ukrainians achieved during the 2004 demonstrations on Independence Square. Our opposition and its supporters have fought with the regime, taking to the streets. Bystanders observed, thinking, "Well, if they succeed in achieving anything then maybe we will support them." I want people in Belarus to join in at this early stage, because, if this happens, anything will be possible.
Kyiv Post staff writer Peter Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org