Freed Belarus opposition figure delivers warning about Lukashenko | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.08.2015
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Freed Belarus opposition figure delivers warning about Lukashenko

The Belarusian president has pardoned six jailed opposition figures. One of them - Nikolai Statkevich - spoke with DW about the president's motives and the situation in his country ahead of October's election.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Statkevich, how does it feel to be free again?

Nikolai Statkevich: I feel pretty good. The last time my blood pressure was taken in prison, it was at 120 to 80, like an astronaut. But I haven't really had a chance yet to take a moment and just look up at the sky. I'm still getting back to normal. I don't really feel free yet, because it all happened so quickly.

[Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko pardoned six political prisoners at once, without even having received an appeal for clemency. How do you explain that?

It's quite simple. A dictatorship mainly acts when it needs money. The Belarusian leadership is faking liberalization, in order to get money from the West, even though reform and liberalization isn't possible under such a regime. It would mean the end of the regime. Six political prisoners have been freed, but others are still behind bars.

In addition, by trying to make good with the West, this regime has a realistic chance of pressuring Moscow for more money, because Russia might be alarmed by closer ties between Belarus and the West.

The opposition in Belarus does not have a unified strategy for the presidential election in 2015. Do you have a concrete plan of action about how the opposition should conduct itself in the election on October 11?

Last year, I suggested building a united opposition, but it didn't work. The various opposition groups did not come together, and now they've been pushed into a dead end where there's likely no way they can come up with a sensible strategy anymore.

Election posters for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. (Photo:DW/Elena Daneyko)

President Alexander Lukashenko has begun his election campaign

Supporting an opposing candidate now would only end in a speech congratulating Lukashenko on his victory, because the results are already clear. But boycotting the election would also not be sensible. After two opposition leaders failed to get the 100,000 signatures needed to register as a presidential candidate, a boycott would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

You also have to consider that many people won't turn out to vote. And without voters who support the opposition, there will be a consensus in favor of Lukashenko. The opposition needs to understand that this election is not about a possible regime change. We cannot allow the West to legitimize this regime, even if Minsk hopes to do so with the help of several candidates who don't actually stand a chance. I'm going to try and discuss this with other opposition politicians.

Why is it so important for this regime not to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the West?

The risk of Belarus losing its sovereignty has never been bigger, because the politics of the last 20 years has led to forgoing independence in favor of Russian interests. Lukashenko is willing to do anything to protect himself, and as a legitimate president, he can ensure that this becomes law.

Before these political prisoners were pardoned, there was a sort of agreement between Minsk and the European Union: The Belarusian government showed what, for the West, was an acceptably neutral position on the situation in Ukraine. Despite this, the West said that there could be no rapprochement as long as a former presidential candidate and other political prisoners were still behind bars. Mainly though, Western politicians need to understand one thing: That it would be wrong to see Lukashenko as a defender of Belarusian independence. He doesn't need Western money for reforms, rather, in order to do away with them.

Belarusian opposition politician and former presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich was arrested in December 2010 and sentenced to six years in prison in May 2011 after a trial that attracted international criticism. He was accused of organizing mass protests in Minsk to oppose the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko. On August 22, Statkevitch and five other political prisoners were pardoned and released from prison.

This interview was conducted by Galina Petrowskaja.

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