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Democracy in Belarus

October 28, 2010

Ahead of December's presidential ballot in Belarus, free elections in the country are an ongoing concern. Olga Karatch talked with Deutsche Welle about the push for democracy.

Belarus activist Olga Karatch
Olga Karatch runs the Belarus human rights network 'Nash Dom,' or 'Our House.'Image: Olga Karach

Olga Karatch is a young civil rights activist and lawyer in Belarus. She runs a human rights network called "Nash Dom" and is the publisher of one of the largest independent weekly newspapers in Belarus, "Vitebsk Kurier."

Karatch has been jailed several times because of her political activities – not uncommon in Belarus, where politically active students are expelled from universities and their relatives are threatened.

The German city of Radebeul recently awarded Karatch its "Courage Prize," promising solidarity and support in her push for freedom in Belarus. Peter Zimmermann spoke with Karatch in Radebeul.

Deutsche Welle: Olga, you have created a network in Belarus called "Nash Dom," which if I'm not mistaken means "Our House." Why did you choose the name? What's wrong with the house?

Olga Karatch: It was created at the end of 2005 before the last presidential elections, and the common idea was that Belarus is our common house, and we have to be owners in our country, and we have to be decision-makers. Because it's a very strange situation now, but nobody decides in Belarus except one person about everything ... about governmental budget, about post of main editors, of governmental newspapers, judges, chiefs of local government, members of parliament, members of city councils and many, many other things. And so for us ... it's some questions:

The first question is local self-management – how people can be decision-makers at the local level. And, of course, in the case for us, it's very interesting to know more about how government spends money. The second question is about free elections, because we think that it's impossible that the government decides who will be members of local councils, national parliament – and of course, who would be a president, of course.

And very important for us is the question about free mass media. Because if we want to change something, we need communication, places to speak with people. To speak with potential voters or potential supporters of ours. And, of course, now we have several independent newspapers, which work with us very closely. Our own newspaper, of course, is called "Our House," it's not surprising (laughs) ... very easy. But we have 150,000 copies per month. So this is the biggest independent newspaper in Belarus. We distribute the newspaper free in post-boxes and have a special network of our volunteers who distribute it.

I'm glad to see that you haven't lost your sense of humor with all the criticism you have. You have networked something like 15 cities, and you are a lawyer yourself, a political scientist, a whole lot of other things, you publish an independent weekly newspaper – what exactly does your organization do for the people?

We help people to partake themselves. We organize advocacy campaigns. We are interested in everything where we can find the conflict between government and citizen. Many people cannot use the law. Especially against authority. Because if they try to say, "OK, my child is ill, and I need some help from government," but the government is very aggressive if you ask about help …

We have the situations when a mother goes to a doctor and says, "I need help for my child," and afterwards she has problems in her job because the doctor calls to boss and says, "Oh, this woman is very active. You have to do something with her." And you know – even for these very small questions. If you say about political questions, of course the situation is much, much, much harder. And we had horrible situations in our organizations when, for example, the KGB stole our activists in the street and put them into a crazy-house [mental hospital], and used some medicines, such as in the Soviet Union. It's a reality in Belarus, you know.

If authorities threaten you that badly, they threaten others who fight for their liberty. What do you say to these people to encourage them? They are scared.

Yeah. But the rain cannot go on forever, you know (laughs). The system can be broken only if we fight. And we have a lot of victories, to be honest. I understand one thing: nobody can feel the pressure of the system alone. If you feel the pressure, you could be broken if you are alone. It's impossible. Because the system is so strong. But if we are together, if we help each other, if we build a network and protect each other and feel our solidarity, it's possible. And we can win in this case.

You were awarded the Courage Prize of the city of Radebeul for your courage. What would you say to people all over the world – in the USA, in Western Europe, in Africa, Asia – about the situation in Belarus and your government? Is there any kind of help you would ask for? Is there something you would want them to do?

We need solidarity. It's very important for us. And when people fight and have so many risks to be in prison, to be stolen, to be under stress, to lose job and many other problems. We need solidarity. We want to know that we are not alone. We want to be a part of a European family, and we believe that democracy can go to Belarus. Because so many people await it.

Author: Peter Zimmermann
Editor: Anke Rasper