Belarus: Bringing down a dictator
Young dissident melds culture and textbook politics
Posted: October 31, 2012
Viachorka, 24, escaped Belarus earlier this year, and he is currently working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based on a personal recommendation from late former President Václav Havel.
By Anna Shamanska and Markéta Hulpachová
The line between cultural and political dissent was famously a blurred one for Václav Havel, and it remains so for prominent Belarusian youth leader Franak Viachorka. After regime repression compelled him to escape from his country earlier this year, the 24-year-old activist, screenwriter and journalist was awarded a fellowship at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based on a personal recommendation from the late playwright-turned-president himself. As Viachorka settles into a more permanent role at RFE/RL's Belarus service, he sat down with The Prague Post to discuss the cat-and-mouse fight against President Alexander Lukashenko, the changing sociopolitical tide and the legacy of Havel's romanticist notion of resistance.
The Prague Post: After your discharge from military service, you were not allowed to leave Belarus. How did you escape?
Occupation: Youth leader, journalist, filmmaker
Last time imprisoned: January 2010
Franak Viachorka: I can show you, I have three passports.
TPP: They are all the same, no?
FV: Yes, very similar. I was just always trying to avoid this stamp [he shows it in one of the passports]. It means that you are not allowed to leave the country. And when you are given this stamp, my father, my colleagues, my political organization all said the same: "You have to go abroad only via Russia." There is no border with Russia and we usually go to Moscow and fly from there, or go to Bryansk. From Bryansk to Kyiv and from Kyiv, we fly everywhere. That's why I have three passports. If, for example, they confiscate my one passport, I will be able to run out with my second passport. It is also the reason political prisoners or former candidate for president Ales Michalevič left the country after the last election. The government is trying to limit us, trying to close in on us, but if they take one step, we try to make two steps forward. And that's the only explanation why we are still surviving.
TPP: Do you think Belarus has changed since the last presidential elections?
FV: Seven out of 10 presidential candidates, along with thousands of people, were arrested. I also spent New Year's celebrations in a prison cell with my friends. Belarus has changed. Never before had so many people from different professions, ages and cities gathered together against Lukashenko, united by the idea of the new, free, European Belarus. I hope that now we see the process of transition. Grassroots initiatives in different towns and cities in Belarus are suddenly appearing. In the Brest region, people protest against Chinese construction projects. I hope that Lukashenko will not be at his post in one to two years, because he is very weak.
TPP: Do you think the repressions have actually strengthened the opposition?
FV: From one side, that happened. They are scarring the opposition and not only opposition, but simple people. Ordinary people are very scared of these repressions. From the other side, they make us stronger. I've in prison many times in Belarus, and every time I left I just thought "nothing, nothing worse could happen to me." But after one and a half years of military service, I got the romantic notion of struggle, as Havel said. We must have the same attitude to our fight as Havel did, because he understood that this is all a play. We all are playing the roles. He saw romanticism in this struggle, and that's exact for us.
TPP: Do you consider yourself to be in exile?
FV: Never. I will never leave the country, even if I have to be in prison but in my own land. I am absolutely connected with my country. It's a needed patriotism. Culture, language, history - somebody should save it, and that is my mission.
TPP: So you are an activist in both political and cultural spheres in Belarus?
FV: And journalistic. In Belarus, everything is connected. Who was Havel? It is difficult to say, but in difficult situations, in a situation that existed in [Czechoslovakia] 30 to 40 years ago like it is now in Belarus, you have to multitask, sometimes as a journalist, sometimes activist, sometimes cultural manager. I produced different films, music projects. Everything together creates changes.
TPP: Are more people in Belarus beginning to show interest in the native language and culture?
FV: For us, language is the main sign of which side of the war you are on. If you speak Russian, as does the majority of Belarusians, you are either a supporter of the regime, you are loyal or you are quiet. If you speak Belarusian, it is already a position; it is already your activity. So we are trying to spread the language as widely as possible. In a future Belarus without Lukashenko, all of the spheres of life will be in the Belarusian language. It can also draw a line between us and Russia, because Russia suppresses us every day.
TPP: Do more people in Belarus use open source news?
FV: There is one part, the elite, who are always looking for information and getting it. The majority is not interested in getting this political and social news. Half of the population has access to the Internet. Half of them use social networks, Vkontakte and Facebook especially, using them for entertainment. The opposition and journalists use them to spread threshold and to coordinate political activities. When I was organizing political actions we were usually using Twitter. Twitter helped us a lot to coordinate our activities at a time when oppositional websites were blocked by the government.
TPP: Do you think the structure of the opposition has changed in the past few years?
FV: The Belarusian opposition now is restructuring. In the last parliamentarian elections, it was strongly divided. We see now two coalitions. One party is for cooperation with the government, saying changes should happen gradually, like in Burma or Poland, for example. The second group is more radical. They don't see any hope for evolutional changes. I, for example, support the second part. I think Lukashenko is not [Wojciech] Jaruzelski; Lukashenko is not even a militarist from Burma. He is a big lover of blood. He is much more similar to [Bashar al-] Assad. He named [Muammar] Gaddafi as his brother. And he said he will defend his position until the last drop of blood. We have to be prepared for the worst situation, for the worst result. So let's expect that changes in Belarus would be peaceful, but let's be ready that it could also be violent.
TPP: The recent parliamentary elections didn't call for as much repression as the presidential elections. Why did it happen that way?
FV: The majority of opposition structured the boycott of these elections. The boycott was successful. Over 50 percent didn't come to voting stations. And it is the first time in any years that opposition won the campaign. Now Lukashenko is afraid of economic crisis. He expects to get a new credit from the IMF, at the same time he expects to get money and investments from China. Russia plays a very difficult game. It supported Lukashenko all the time, but they are keeping him as a dog, on a leash that is getting shorter and shorter. And now Lukashenko is very dependent on Moscow and Belarus is very close to losing its independence.
TPP: So do you think the economic problems help the opposition more than Lukashenko?
FV: Yes. Economic crisis is a chance for change in many countries. Even in 2011, the Belarusian currency lost its value three times, 300 percent. It provoked silent protests. Thousands of young people gathered together in the streets of Minsk, and it created panic in Lukashenko's environment. Now we see the start of new economic crisis. It will provide new protests, and it will create a new possibility for the opposition to unite people around its ideas. Our main target is to make the system unable to control the situation. If we get, for example, 200,000 people in the streets, the military will take the side of the people.
The writers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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