Bulgaria-Exiled Belarus Dissident Mikhail Vashkevich: Lukashenko's Dictatorship Can't Survive without Kremlin's Support
Interview with Mikhail Vashkevich, a Belarusian journalist and dissident living in Bulgaria as a political immigrant since 1996 having fled the Lukashenko regime, and Boris Tashkov, chair of the Sofia-based Bulgarian Committee for Free, Democratic, and Independent Belarus. Vashkevich has a history of political prosecution by the Soviet authorities having spent a total of four years in a Gulag camp in in the former USSR.
On December 19, 2010, Belarus's incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term in presidential elections that were widely criticized for fraud and vote-rigging.
You two are the major figures in the Sofia-based Committee for Free, Democratic, and Independent Belarus. How did such an NGO even come into being in Bulgaria?
Tashkov: Yes, I am the chair of the committee because I am a Bulgarian citizen, and Mikhail Vashkevich is the deputy chair. The Committee for Free, Democratic and Independent Belarus started as a result of Vashkevich's arrest by the Bulgarian police in December 2003 became his permit to stay in the country had expired.
He was arrested and kept in the facility for illegal aliens in Sofia for 37 days in order to prepare him for extradition from the country. This was at the order of Bulgaria's former Chief Prosecutor Nikola Filchev.
I together with a number of other people learned that there was a Belarusian man, who was a political immigrant and was about to be expelled, and we started a campaign to save him from extradition. After he was released in 2004, on his 60th birthday in September 2004, we got together to found this Committee for Free, Democratic and Independent Belarus, which I chaired because he did not have a Bulgarian address at the time. We received legal support from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.
What is your main goal and reason for existence as an organization?
Tashkov: We are outright opponents to dictatorial regimes and illegally elected political leaders. We are against the polices of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and his illegal election. The latest example for that was the mass fraud during the December 19, 2010, presidential elections in Belarus, with which he won a fourth term.
Vashkevich: We disseminate information from Bulgaria to try to help the democratization process in Belarus. We support the Belarusian opposition and Andrey Sannikov and the government of national salvation that he founded on the election night in December 2010, on the Independence Square in Minsk.
We would like to be its representatives in Bulgaria and in the Balkans. We got in touch with the current opposition leaders in Belarus because we hold the same views. We will offer them to act as their embassy in Bulgaria and the region.
Why? Because the existing Belarusian Embassy in Bulgaria does not have a single Belarusian staff member, they are all Russians there, and there is no way they can represent the interests of Belarus and the Belarussian people. I am often mistaken for a Russian here but I am a Belarusian. We are going to offer them to act as their embassy.
Our job is to stop Lukashenko and the Kremlin. Because the Kremlin supports Lukashenko, and they are leading Belarus towards a civil war!
Take the events that occurred in December 2010, after the elections, on the Independence Square in Minsk there were 2 000 soldiers beating the protesters. What were these soldiers? These were soldiers from the city of Smolensk in Russia. There is no way Belarusian soldiers could beat there own people so severely.
That is why every time Lukashenko needs to break up protest he rallies, he summons the OMON, the special purpose police units, as well as internal security troops from Russia. If it hadn't been for Russia's backing Lukashenko would have been chased away from Belarus a long time ago.
Is this political violence the main reason to term Lukashenko's rule in Belarus dictatorial?
Tashkov: Lukashenko has taken part in three elections in Belarus not counting the one in December 2010, and all have been won by election rigging.
In December 1991, Stanislav Shushkevich, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, met with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine in the Belavezhskaya forest in Belarus to formally declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In the 1994 elections that Lukashenko won there were several candidates – including Shushkevich and Vyachaslau Kebich. Shushkevich, who was the former communist leader of Belarus and was the president of independent Belarus in 1991-1994, turned out to be a much more democratic man than Lukashenko. Another candidate was count Alexander Pruszy?ski who arrived back after living as immigrant in Canada.
By the way, Canada is the seat of the government in exile of the Belarusian National Republic – a state of Belarus founded immediately after the October revolution in the Russian Empire in 1917 as an independent nation that broke away from the Russian Empire.
It existed in 1918-1919, before it was crushed by the Red Army, after the Red Army triumphed against the counter revolutionary forces of Wrangel, Kolchak, and Denikin in the Russian Civil War.
The Belarusian National Republic has had governments in exile ever since, its current Prime Minister is Ivonka Survilla. That is why, in 1990-1, when the former Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic became independent it could not use the same name, and was named simply the Republic of Belarus.
Lukashenko won the 1994 thanks to extreme populism. This is not surprising, we in Bulgaria know from the 20-year history of the new Bulgarian democracy that populism is a natural tool. Back then Lukashenko promised free state services of all kind to the people, higher pensions. But his economy remains a closed one, he does not have the international contacts that Belarus would have if it had free and democratic elections recognized by the 27 member states of the EU.
Because the natural place for Belarus is in the EU. This country cannot be on the eastern border of the EU, the eastern border of the EU must be the border between Belarus and Russia.
Of course, in 1994, Lukashenko also won the elections thanks to the extreme support that he got from the KGB in Belarus.
How did Mr. Vashkevich get involved in politics in Belarus?
Tashkov: After his failed bid in the elections, count Pruszynski continued his political activity in Belarus. He selected journalist Mihail Vashkevich, a very honest and decent man dedicated to democracy, as his secretary.
Back in 1993, Vashkevich founded in Belarus the Christian-Democratic Union of Belarus.
Because of his positions and views before 1990, Vashkevich spend four years in a GULAG camp in the Soviet Union, in the Ivatsevichy camp in Belarus – in 1986-1988 and 1988-1989.
Vashkevich: I was released only by Gorbachev at the end of the perestroika.
Tashkov: The treatment that he got there as a political prisoner was extremely harsh, his legs were broken in the beatings.
There is another, rather interesting story on the side here. It is there that Vashkevich met many political prisoners, including a man who told him that the Lenin body lying today in the Moscow mausoleum does not belong to the actual Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, but to a political prisoner in Siberia who was a Lenin look-alike.
This happened because in 1941, with the advance of the German army in World War II, the Soviet authorities took Lenin's body out of the mausoleum, they failed to provide the necessary conservation conditions and the body disintegrated, and they burned it. Yet, in order to maintain this symbol of the Soviet Union, Lavrentiy Beria, the chief of the Soviet security apparatus under Stalin decided to get this prisoner who looked 100% like Lenin, to kill him with an injection and to place his body in the mausoleum in downtown Moscow.
Vashkevich even wrote an article entitled "Lenin Is Not Lenin" that was published by the Bulgarian daily 24 Chasa.
As a result of his populism and backing from Moscow, Lukashenko was elected President of Belarus in 1994. He subsequently dissolved the Belarusian Parliament, the so called Saziv.
Pruszynski and Vashkevich were among those who worked in favor of the Parliament but the actually elected deputies were ousted.
Thus, in 1994-1996 Vashkevich was arrested several times for political reasons, spending 1-2 weeks in jail each time, including in April 1996 when the opposition staged a big rally to mark the tenth year since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The rally was brutally suppressed, and to this day international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch point it out as an example of blatant police brutality in Europe.
After he was released, a month later, in May 1996 Vashkevich was having dinner in a friend's home in Minsk when he was shot at from a neighboring building. Luckily, the bullet missed, everybody went on the floor, and he managed to leave the building. This is when he made the hard decision to emigrate fearing next time he would not be so lucky.
Is this why you decided to flee Belarus?
Vashkevich: Why did I make this decision? My friend whose home we are at when the assassination attempt was made told me that this was my last chance. I did get scared, and I thought that my death will not be of any help for my cause.
Tashkov: He managed to buy several hundred dollars on the black market, he got some of his papers and writings, and bought a train ticket. He was stopped on the Moldova-Romanian border because he did not have a permit to leave Belarus.
Vashkevich: Yes, I was supposed to have a permit from Lukashenko to leave the country!
Tashkov: He did not have a permit from the police of Belarus. This is the so called exit visa – like the ones we used to have in Bulgaria before 1989 when we wanted to leave the country.
As a result, Vashkevich had to go back, and he went to Odessa in Ukraine. There he lived for a few weeks while trying to find connections at the port. He finally managed to get in touch with Bulgarian sailors from a commercial vessel sailing from Odessa to Bulgaria's Balchik. On August 10, 1996, he sailed off from Odessa; he paid USD 200 for the transport, and USD 5 for a permit to the crew.
The Bulgarian authorities in Balchik saw that he is a political refugee and they let him; he had a passport but had no exit visa but he told them, "It is impossible for me to go back." From Balchik he got to Sofia where he found support with local Protestant and Evangelical churches.
They support people who can demonstrate they supported the Protestant movement. Back in Minsk Vashkevich used to publish a magazine called "Protestant." It is one of the reasons he was arrested by the KGB.
Are you a Protestant?
Vashkevich: I am Catholic by birth but I had contacts with Protestant circles.
When was this magazine published?
Vashkevich: In 1979-1986, on and off. But in addition to that, after 1984 I was the editor of an illegal journal together with two friends of mine called "Alternative". Back then we explicitly sought contacts with the West. We sought Western tourists and gave them our journal in order to raise awareness abroad.
That is why, when I was first arrested by the KGB they showed several issues of the journal that they had seized from Western tourists upon their leaving. They accused me of being part of an anti-Soviet plot, and being an agent of imperialist forces.
Tashkov: After the so called democracy emerged in Belarus in 1991, Vashkevich became the founded of the Christian-Democratic Union of Belarus. Vashkevich at first did not consider himself explicitly an enemy of Lukashenko but of the communist state and dictatorship as a whole.
This is why he spent 4 years in GULAG, where he was also imprisoned in one of the special psychiatric clinics designed to extract information using mind control and psychiatric treatment. Luckily, Vashkevich was very healthy physically, and his faith in religion also helped him survive this treatment.
Why did you decide to come to Bulgaria – of all other possible destinations as a political asylum-seeker?
Vashkevich: Because I don't speak foreign languages, and I knew that the Bulgarians are brotherly people, and communication would not be a problem, I knew I would be able to express my ideas and to explain I am fleeing for my life. I did not know anybody here but I was relying on this bond
Back in 2004, Viktor Sheiman, Chief Prosecutor of Belarus arranged with his Bulgarian colleague Nikola Filchev my liquidation – first, extradition, and then liquidation on the way to Belarus.
Tashkov: Sheiman's visit was after his release from the alien detention center. This is when an extradition procedure was started, and we had hundreds of people in Bulgaria petition in his favor.
A lawyer from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee managed to defend Vashkevich's right to remain in Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Mikhail married a Bulgarian woman, he passed the interview, and we now expect that he will get a Bulgarian citizenship any moment.
What exactly are the current activities of your Committee for Free, Democratic and Independent Belarus in Sofia?
Tashkov: Over the past six years, our Committee for Free, Democratic and Independent Belarus managed to establish contact with the Belarusian representatives in Germany, the Netherlands, Canada as well as with the democratic forces in the face of Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party of Belarus.
We have no funding other than our own money. Nobody supports us financially. The only help we have received to day is legal help from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Atlantic Club in Bulgaria that allowed us to hold meetings in their premises.
We submitted letters to the US Embassy in Sofia – whose support we were hoping to get based on a 2004 declaration of President George W. Bush, when the US Congress approved funding for the democratization of Belarus and other former Soviet states. We did expect help from the US Embassy.
We have declared with the Bulgarian government our readiness and desire to send our representatives as observers to the elections in Belarus. We have many people who have taken part in the election process in Bulgaria, and are well aware of how elections must be organized.
I asked Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov about this possibility but he replied that the Foreign Ministry has nothing to do with the observers because they are provided by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. I objected that it is the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry that has the contacts with the OSCE and can help us to be included in a mission of observers to Belarus but I got no reply.
We have the desire to represent a democratic Belarus in Bulgaria and the region – if the Belarusian government of national salvation founded on the Independence Square in Minsk decides, we can assume representative functions for them. We don't need to get salaries from this new state but we want to represent it because it can trust us.
Let people from around the world who read this interview know that in Bulgaria there is an organization ready to help the Belarusian people and state, which should assume again the name Belarusian National Republic, as it was founded in 1918 before the crackdown of the Red Army.
We hope to attract international attention for all these issues. What is more, Vashkevich is seeking funding in order to be able to publish several books that he has written about his experience in the USSR and Belarus.
The opposition in Belarus at the moment appears to be very fragmented. There were 9 opposition candidates. What does this mean, why do you think that is?
Vashkevich: You know the results from the December 2010 elections in Belarus. They were 100% falsified. There were 40 000 people who rallied to protest after the end of the election, and many more were prevented from making it to downtown Belarus because the authorities stopped their cars and buses, and closed the metro stations.
I really do think that it would have been much better if the opposition had united before the elections. If there was one single opposition candidate, Lukashenko's falsification of the vote would be much easier to prove.
The Belarusian opposition should hold internal elections for a presidential candidate six months before the actual elections.
We believe that the EU and NATO should really react more strongly. There we have a nation in the heart of Europe placed under dictatorship backed by force. Economic sanctions, recalling diplomatic staff and other measures must be taken against the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.
Keep in mind that Ukraine was under the pro-Western leadership of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko for five years and they declared a desire for integration with NATO and the EU but they failed to make much progress for five years because the Kremlin's fifth column in both Ukraine and Belarus is so powerful that they did not manage to overcome it.
You saw last year that Yanukovich won the Ukrainian presidential elections. This is how powerful the Kremlin's fifth column is, and it is the same in Belarus.
But in the past couple of years there were disputes between Moscow and Lukashenko. There was even what was described as a rift over energy prices. Do you think this is a fair description of an evolution in the Belarus-Russia relations?
Vashkevich: The Kremlin and Minsk have 100% agreement and such minor demonstrations are only evidence of their hypocrisy. Putin, Medvedev and Lukashenko are explicit enemies of the EU and NATO.
The only reason Russia would ever want to join any of these organization would be to try to control them. But the Baltic states and Poland will never allow Russia to join NATO or the EU because they keep the memories of the Russian imperialism and chauvinism from which they suffered for so long.
With the last elections, neither the European Commission, nor the American administration recognized their legitimacy because of the mass violations of democratic principles. The opposition candidates were not allowed access to the media, the incumbent candidate Lukashenko used all state resources for his propaganda, not to mention the populist moves with pensions and privileges.
Not having media access the opposition candidates failed to reach agreement in order to pick a single opponent to the dictator who has been usurping the power in Belarus. This is a huge setback for the opposition because if they had one candidate who won, the other leaders would have become part of the government. There is no way to have 10 presidents anyway.
We, the people in exile, have the opportunity to speak, write, and express our opinion. We will do our best in order to promote democratic process in Belarus. We have correspondence and communication with the democratic opposition in Belarus.
We plan to hold a conference in Sofia on building democratic institutions in order to draw from the experience of the Bulgarian transition so that Belarus does not repeat Bulgaria's mistakes. Of course, we seek the support of the democratic forces in Bulgaria in order to support the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people.
The people of Belarus desire change. They want to have better lives, and one can have a better life only where you have democracy and private property.
Unfortunately, in Belarus, concepts such as private property and restitution are practically forbidden, people don't know what restitution is, and what it is like not to be in constant fear about speaking freely.
In Bulgaria, people know from their experience how totalitarian and dangerous for their private life the communist and socialist system was. On our part here in Bulgaria, we are going to do all we could for the victory of democracy in Belarus.
One way or another, Lukashenko has won a fourth term. What is your forecast for the situation in Belarus?
Vashkevich: I think that this fourth term of Lukashenko will not be in favor of Belarus because the previous 16 years of his dictatorial regime showed that he is an usurper and aims to keep the people in fear, and to stifle private initiative even at the price of killing economic development.
That is why I believe that this regime cannot survive without the Kremlin's backing.
I hope that these last presidential elections in Belarus have shown to the EU and to the international community that Lukashenko's regime has no future in the 21st century, that it is an anomaly.
It is really important for the international community to support the democratization of Belarus. Belarus must join the EU and the ranks of democratic countries. We will work with the internal opposition in Belarus to reach that goal.
Which would be the most important factor for success – the internal opposition or the outside pressure?
Vashkevich: I think that these two processes should work in parallel. Opposition forces must become united and consolidated. When the EU and the international community see the rise of the democratic opposition, they will know that victory is possible.
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