People are beginning to lose their fear

Some 40,000 people took to the streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk on 19 December to protest against the rigged election, in which President Aleksandr Lukashenka claimed victory with nearly 80 percent of the vote. The brutally suppressed demonstration was followed by a wave of repression against the opposition. On 27 December the KGB burst into the offices of the independent weekly Nasha niva. One of the paper’’s editors, Andrei Dynko, a writer and Belarusian P.E.N. chairman, answered the Czech weekly Respekt’’s questions by e-mail.

What was the KGB looking for in your editorial offices? Did they have a search warrant?

They burst into the offices and also searched the home of our editor-in-chief.  They did have a warrant – they are obsessed with keeping up a semblance of legality – in connection with an investigation of alleged mass disturbances and the damaging of state symbols. They took all our PCs and CDs. They also took our video footage of the protest rally of 19 December. We do, however, have copies, with many unique pieces of evidence.

How many people have been detained and what are the charges against them?

Some 600 people are still in detention. 26 people have already been charged with participation in mass disturbances and around 60 people have had their homes searched.

What was the post-election protest like?

There was a great atmosphere and a great crowd of people although for many it was apparently a one-off action and they are unlikely to continue protesting. On the other hand, it was the first time in many years that people seem to have conquered their fear. That was something new. The opposition became visible for the first time and started a dialogue with the people from the street.  However, if repression follows, scepticism will reappear. The key thing now is to get people out of detention and preserve the freedom of the Internet.

So the Internet is still free?


Why did Lukashenka choose to attack the opposition so brutally, even though lately he seems to have relaxed his control somewhat?

Lukashenka had it all perfectly planned in advance. This would suggest that Lukashenka got worried about the liberalisation of the regime which he had started under Western pressure. He has gone back to his concept of violence and the spreading of fear. He wants to be a cross between Ivan the Terrible and Machiavelli, whose work he is said to have been studying intently.

The European Union and the OSCE have condemned the votrigging in strongest possible terms. The EU is likely to cut the 4 billion euro of aid money set aside for Belarus. What is Lukashenka’’s plan?

He wants to follow the Chinese model. He is convinced that he can attract Western investors in spite of the dictatorship and that he can manage without an IMF loan.

But his relations with Russia are strained. Who can he rely on?

Russia’s President Medvedev congratulated Lukashenka on his victory, albeit in rather a low key . The Russian ambassador to Minsk did not back Lukashenka at all. However, I would not overestimate the fact that the Russians are not keen on Lukashenka. Their main interest is keeping Belarus in their sphere of influence.

What is the future of the independent press and of your paper following these events?

I don’’t know. These are difficult times; we don’’t know what might happen tomorrow.

Were you surprised at the severity of the attack on the opposition?

No. A week before the election I was preparing myself for arrest: I began  wearing warm underwear and did not go anywhere without a roll of toilet paper and a notebook. The conditions in Belarusian jails are very tough.

How did the population respond to the mass arrests?

By an unprecendented display of solidarity. At least four initiatives and collections in aid of those arrested have been launched. This is something entirely new and hopeful. Lists of those detained are on the Internet and news about house-searches have been circulating on Facebook; friends but also complete strangers, have been going to houses where searches are taking place, waiting outside. Their presence is making the KGB very nervous, since they prefer to operate in secret.

Is Lukashenka’s attack an indication of his regime weakening or, on the contrary, strengthening?

This election was a real failure for him, as nobody in Belarus could possibly perceive it as an elegant victory. He has been weakened. It’s the economy, however, that will matter  – if it stops working the way it has done, Lukashenka could fall within five years.

What should the West do now?

Many people here have welcomed the strong reaction on the part of  some EU member countries, although we would have welcomed a clear message from Brussels.  There was a great response to the New York Times article from foreign ministers Schwarzenberg [of the Czech Republic}, Westerwelle [of Germany], Sikorski [of Poland] and Bildt [Sweden], which gave Belarusian civil society a power moral boost.

Should the West impose an economic blockade on Belarus?

When the US imposed an economic blockade on Poland after martial law was declared in the 1980s, it proved very effective. However, it’’s key that the blockade really bites in economic terms. An ineffective blockade is the worst thing that could happen.

Are you and your friends under surveillance, are your telephones, homes and offices tapped?

We live and behave as if we were being tapped. If you want to be an independent journalist, there’’s no other way to behave. Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons why our conversation must now end.

The interview, conducted by Martin M. Šimečka, appeared in the Czech weekly Respekt.