Belarus: "European citizens must not look away from what is happening on our doorstep".
Elected to the French National Assembly representing French citizens living in Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans, French MP Frédéric Petit (MoDem), explains the current situation in Belarus and the latest developments.
What are the demands of the Belarusian people?
Before any political considerations, what is currently at stake in Belarus is the rebirth of the Belarusian nation. This is encouraging for the future of the country. Previously, there was a feeling of a sleeping country, of an amorphous civil society. The majority of Belarusians did not have a strong will to live in a democracy. Today, it's obvious: from workers to senior managers, from farmers to students, Belarusian citizens no longer want to live under Aleksandar Lukashenka's regime, "the last dictatorship in Europe", they want to be able to freely choose their political leaders.
In the short term, the people demand the departure of Lukashenka, a total end to the violence and the release of the more than 250 political prisoners. The time will then come for the trials of the political and administrative leaders of this terrible repression...
What has been going on in Belarus for several months now? Has there been any change in the situation?
A few months before the presidential election of August 2020, Lukashenka had taken care to eliminate from the race the candidates he considered dangerous for his re-election by putting them in prison. Svietlana Tshikhanouskaya's husband, Sergei Tshikanouski, was considered by the regime as a dangerous competitor because of the popularity he had gained in the public opinion thanks to his channel YouTube and his political struggle for years. He had also taken care to lock up two other "serious competitors", former banker Viktor Babaryka and Valery Tsepkalo. This is how the trio of women, Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kolesnikova (Barbaryka's supporter) and Veronika Tsepkalo formed and embodied the Belarusian opposition. It is this trio of women who won the presidential election, a ballot stolen by the regime!
Since 9 August, Belarusians had been peacefully demonstrating against this gross rigging of the presidential election and the extreme violence against the demonstrators. This violence is perceived as a real "betrayal" of the Lukashenka regime by the majority of Belarusians. Saturday and Sunday, until mid-November, were moments of mass demonstrations with tens of thousands (at times hundreds of thousands) of Belarusians in the streets of all the country's cities.
Since mid-November, the protest movement has been less visible. Several factors explain this slowdown: the fatigue of the violent repression, the growing number of dead, missing and political prisoners, the great winter cold which is making a comeback, the Covid-19 pandemic which is very little treated by the regime and which worries the Belarusians... This slowdown is natural! Who would want to demonstrate when it is more than -10 degrees and risk getting beaten up, being shot at by the regime's henchmen, being arrested without having broken the law, ending up in prison for an indefinite period or catching the Covid-19? Not many people. But I would like to pay a very great tribute to the thousands of die-hard Belarusians, who courageously continued to demonstrate, despite all these risks, by organising themselves intelligently. They formed small packets of about fifty demonstrators and were therefore very mobile and difficult to "stop".
Now spring is fast approaching and the regime is beginning to worry about a sudden flowering of mass manifestations that would resurface. The protest is not over, the revolution against Europe's last dictatorship is not over, and the regime is right to worry. Above all, I hope that the demonstrators keep their admirable pacifism and that the violence does not explode.
What roles can the European Union and France play in this conflict?
The European Union and France are already mobilised in this conflict. Two European Union countries, Lithuania and Poland, are already providing exemplary aid to the Belarusian opposition and this aid must be highlighted! They welcome thousands of exiles, Lithuania hosts the National Coordination Council embodied by Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius, in its capital it also welcomes hundreds of Belarusian students in the Free University of Belarus. Poland hosts and funds associations supporting political prisoners, independent media and Belarusian civil society organisations.
France is in solidarity with the Belarusian people, the President of the Republic called for the departure of Aleksandar Lukashenka, he met with Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya and expressed his support, but it is clear that France should and could do much more. It should also finance organisations which help the opposition, welcome refugees by simplifying its visa procedure, welcome students... It should also put aside some differences with Poland and Lithuania, to better coordinate with these two countries and help the Belarusian opposition as much as possible. This is what Tsikhanouskaya has in mind when she urges Europeans "to be more courageous"!
Finally, the European Union has imposed sanctions on dozens of political, administrative and economic leaders of the regime. It must continue to do so and coordinate its sanctions with the United States and Switzerland, two countries where many of the regime's officials have assets. This is also a moment of truth for Europe and it must live up to the values we defend.
You raise the question of the role of France and the European Union in this conflict in Belarus, but I would also like to raise the question of the role of Belarus for Europe. Belarus has a common history with at least two European countries, Lithuania and Poland. This past cannot be ignored, it also forges a common destiny. Belarus is a country with which the European Union must develop a special relationship because it is on its border! It is with this country (and with Ukraine) that the European Union must redefine its neighbourhood policy, its policy beyond its borders. Belarus has a big role to play in our neighbourhood policy.
Do these struggle movements need to be supported by European citizens? Who can make things change?
Of course! European citizens must not look away from what is happening on our doorstep! In spite of the pandemic, in spite of the very difficult and unprecedented period we are going through, we cannot forget that the "last dictatorship of Europe" may be falling. The first thing to do is already to get informed, to follow the events, to support all the Belarusian communities and diasporas that are organising themselves throughout Europe. The Belarusian community in Paris, for example, is very active, offers online events, demonstrations: let's not let them down, let's not let them down. They need our energy and support.
Who can make things change? The Belarusians. The next few months will be decisive and I deeply believe that if they restart mass demonstrations, strikes in the country's major industrial sites, strikes in the universities and a cascade of resignations from the regime's administrations, the country will come to a complete standstill and Lukashenka will have no choice but to leave. And all these actions, we can support them!
Funding strike committees, support associations for political opponents and independent media helps to weaken this dictatorship and offer prospects of freedom and democracy to the Belarusian people.
When the small flame of the resistance reignites intensely in the spring, we must help it to remain lit for as long as possible, it must not go out.