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Remembering Stanislav Shushkevich: «It's better to be a poor European country than to shrivel in Russia’s imperial greatness»

One of the founders of the modern Republic of Belarus and Chairman of the first independent Supreme Council (1991—1994), Stanislav Shushkevich died in Minsk in the first hours of May 4 at the age of 87, writes Euroradio. In his memory, The Insider looks back at the conversation with Shushkevich published on November 13, 2020, about the protests in Belarus, President Lukashenko’s ties to Putin, and the semblance of the current regime to Nazi occupation.

– When your son was arrested, you said it was an attempt to get at you. Why so?

– He is a businessman, so they wanted to pin him down for financial crime. But it turned out harder than they thought, so they decided to bring him in under the pretext of questioning and invent something in the process. He wasn’t in, so they ambushed him outside his apartment. He was detained and taken to the Kastrychnitski District police department in the evening. However, he was not released after questioning. Apparently short of reasons to keep him locked up, the district policeman wrote up a report about Stanislav sharing Facebook posts that did not support the current government. This was interpreted as an administrative offense punishable by a 10-day arrest. In the meantime, they are going through my son's phone to find something that would compromise him, his friends, or acquaintances and enable them to put him away for a long time. This is what they call an investigation.

All of the above is blatant disdain for the Constitution, and it’s happening to many Belarusians. As for this specific occasion, indeed, I see it as a way of getting at me. In response, I can only quote [Russian 20th century poetess] Anna Akhmatova: “With so many stones thrown at me, not a single one inspires fear anymore.”

– What steps are the authorities taking in your respect?

– The most abominable ones! They have taken away my lawfully earned retirement pension: I’m only getting the minimum old-age pension, without any additional benefits I’m legally entitled to, and against the law that was passed by the parliament and that guarantees me 75% of the Supreme Council Chairman’s salary. The government says this body is no longer in place, as though the current parliament hadn't inherited its mandate. The man who is occupying the president’s post is vengeful beyond reason.

– Did you expect the domestic situation to change so drastically after August 9?

– I’m 85 years old. Being unable to actively participate in those events due to health reasons, I did my best to refrain from hoping and giving anyone advice on what to do. Thirty years ago, I had an understanding of how to run things and did something worthwhile. Today... I can only hope for the best.

– Over Lukashenko’s 26 years in power, has he ever had the opportunity of yielding his post without bloodshed?

– He hasn't and he can't have such an opportunity or even such an inclination because he has always bet on power-hungry politicians, not reformers, as his close allies. It was a mistake made by our younger politicians: Anatoly Lebedko, Dmitry Bulakhov, Viktor Gonchar, and others. They wanted to be Lukashenko's “brain hub”, while he was supposed to exert his strong will to rule the country in line with their advice. How very naive of them! Eventually, he got rid of everyone and gathered a junta that can only reign, not govern. If we reduce its efficiency to the simplest indicator, the minimum wage, it's one-third or less of the minimum wage in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland – our neighbors who were once worse off than Belarus. And that’s all that Lukashenko’s presidency brought us!

– However, it has also brought a lack of political freedoms and brutal repressions – another outcome of his presidency, no less important...

– What's happening in the streets could be compared to the events of my childhood – the Nazi occupation. I was six and a half when it began, and I watched it unfold for three years. Today’s special police units, who don't even deserve this name, are using the same methods as the Nazis. They too are sadists who don't answer to anyone. My daughter's been telling me recently over the phone: whenever there is a gathering of at least three people, they head there immediately, drag everyone into a police van, and beat them up without mercy. They are waging a war against their own unarmed population.

August 9 was a milestone date in the history of Belarus: the oppression has turned people of various ethnic origins into a single Belarusian nation. A nation that can challenge the obscurantism of its illegitimate president. My biggest fear is the massive bloodshed these goons and their chiefs could unleash: several protesters have already been killed in the streets, and many have sustained serious injuries. On November 12, we learned that Roman Bondarenko, beaten to within an inch of his life in his own yard in Minsk because of the white-red-white flags, died in the ICU. He is another innocent victim of Lukashenko’s regime.

The biggest tragedy is that Putin endorses all his acts, seeing it as the simplest way to appropriate Belarus and drag it back into the Russian empire. Lukashenko essentially plays into his hands: all his slogans promoting independence are more bark than bite. He begs Putin for money to pay his gangsters to dispel protests that gather hundreds of thousands of people. And despite his personal distaste for Lukashenko, Putin gives him 1.5 billion rubles at the height of protests and promises to help him drill oil.

– Do you really believe Putin wants to annex Belarus?

– Ask me another! He wants to be remembered as the gatherer of Russian lands, like [14th century Grand Duke of Moscow] Ivan Kalita or someone similar. The Constitution is being flouted in Russia too; the president has been in power for god knows how long and plans to rule forever. Unfortunately, everywhere across the post-Soviet space, authoritarian regimes are becoming firmly entrenched – except in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Moldavia. Even worse, while other countries feature at least some national specifics, Belarus is run according to Soviet principles: “I’m the boss, and you’re the fool” and “human resources are key”.

Lukashenko has no clue how a modern state is supposed to function. He’s making fun of U.S. elections because the Americans, unlike the Belarusians, can’t count the votes quickly and name the winner at once. Pathetically mediocre, he can't stand anyone who excels at what they do. Just recently, he fired as many as three university rectors <The Insider's note: Anatoly Sikorsky of the Belarusian State Medical University, Viktor Snezhitsky of the Grodno State Medical University, and Alina Korbut of the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts> and Alexander Mrochek, head of the Cardiology Republican Scientific and Practical Center, for joining the protests. He has also annulled the professional credentials of specialists who worked in Poland or obtained a degree there. All these steps of his are completely unlawful. However, those who dare to defy them will be out of their jobs; that’s how the system works.

– Still, if Lukashenko does stand down, what idea should unite the nation?

– I’m convinced that most people in Belarus are inclined toward Europe, regardless of their ethnicity. It's better to be a poor European country than to shrivel in Russia’s imperial greatness, forever doomed to be its younger brother. That's a given. It’s worth remembering that we wanted to leverage the Belovezh Accords to decentralize the system [of the C.I.S.] and set up the Coordination Center in Minsk. Lukashenko, on the contrary, gave everything up to Moscow in order to please Kremlin – especially the economic committee, which was key.

At the moment, Belarus has only one way to remedy the situation quickly and lawfully: to revert to the 1994 Constitution as a temporary measure and use it as a framework for an election. By the assessment of the Venice Commission, it is sufficiently democratic, unlike the one currently in effect. The same body, which is the world’s most credible and independent legal commission, has deemed it impossible to fix our present constitution with amendments.

– Can Lukashenko run for office in a new election?

– If the election is fair, Lukashenko's participation doesn't change anything. If the vote count is transparent, he won't win a considerable number of votes.

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