Activist Andrei Sannikov on the Belarusian Elections


Belarus braced itself for the presidential election on August 9, with mass protests held in Minsk against the ever-present Lukashenko, who has seemed at his most vulnerable in recent years. The West, meanwhile, has been trying to solve the conundrum as to whether the stepping down of the wily “Last Dictator of Europe” might pave the way for Russia to seize even more influence over its timid neighbor. Prior to the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, GEORGIA TODAY spoke to Andrei Sannikov, a Belarusian activist and a runner-up in the 2010 presidential election before being forced to flee.

From your perspective, what have we been seeing happening in Minsk?

We’ve been witnessing an uprising against dictatorship; we’ve been seeing the people who have spoken out and even voted against Lukashenko. It’s absolutely clear that this regime is being rejected by the people, no matter what figures they try to present. We’re also witnessing repression against political leaders, members of the candidates’ teams, bloggers, opposition leaders and so on.

I’d like to see Lukashenko stepping down. Of course, it’s wishful thinking; he’ll try to falsify the results; he’ll try to present the figures, maybe 90% for himself, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s gone.

What role does Russia play in all this?

Russia is a big neighbor; it’s a dominating factor, and though Belarus is an independent country, Russia is using Lukashenko’s weakness for its own interests. Today, I might say that Russia is taking the position of “wait and see.” It’s not openly supporting Lukashenko; it’s definitely not supporting the opposition; they are waiting for the outcome; they are of course puzzled with the Vagner group debacle too.

Tell us about the Vagner group mercenaries in Minsk. What might be behind it?

It’s a show put on by Lukashenko for several purposes: first, to connect them with a plot against the regime, with the opposition leaders who are now in jail, namely Nikolai Starkevich and Sergey Tikhonovsky. The main message, though, is directed to the West, because there are some “useful idiots” in the West that say that Lukashenko is the guarantor of Belarusian independence, which is not the case; it’s an attempt, I would say quite a weak, badly-staged one, to sell this plot as a Russian conspiracy against Lukashenko to get some support and money from the West.

What exactly are these mercenaries doing there?

I can assure you that hundreds of people like them are on the territory of Belarus from Russia; there are hundreds of people involved in illegal activities, including military activities; they are trained on the territory of Belarus and join the Vagner group. Lukashenko is not only aware of such people in his country, but he provides them cover; so this time he simply decided to use them to send those messages; a group of illegal military unions are travelling through Belarus, are based on the territory of the country. It’s nothing new; it’s illegal activity being covered by the regime; this particular group was simply needed at this time for a particular purpose.

One of the most prominent opposition candidates, Mr. Babariko, has strong ties with Russia, and specifically Gazprom. What would change if he were to come to power?

He’s in jail right now; the only thing we can do for him is to demand his immediate release. It’s always going on in Belarus: that this or that person is pro-Russian, is connected with Russia. People have risen against Lukashenko. Babariko was one of the factors mobilizing people against the regime and as it was a very powerful thing, so he was thrown in jail. The only person who represents the Kremlin in Belarus is Lukashenko; the only politician who made Belarus completely dependent on Russia is Lukashenko. If we speculate what would happen if Lukashenko stepped down and Babariko became president, first of all, he would need to be released from jail. If that happened, then we’d see the change of power, which is the most important factor. I don’t share the concern that Belarus will become more Pro-Russian.

What about the union project Russia keeps trying to push your way?

It’s only on paper; it was dead from the very beginning. After so many years, it’s unlikely to become a reality. It’s not a treaty corresponding to the interests and desires of Belarusians or Russians.

There’s overwhelming western consensus about this treaty that implementing it would lead to yet another small victorious war for Russia and Putin.

With all due respect, lack of respect to the Kremlin, I don’t think they are stupid. Can you name any victory in Georgia, Ukraine, Crime, Syria? Is there a victory anywhere?

Both the Georgia and Crimea forays boosted Putin’s popularity.

At the beginning, yes, but today it’s regarded as a big loss because they have to pump a lot of money into maintaining it; they can’t control the criminals; they are losing everywhere: in Abkhazia, in South Ossetia, they are losing public opinion. Even in Russia. But Belarus is even more complicated. The attitudes of Russians toward Belarus is quite different; they don’t expect any kind of negative activities from Belarus.

What Would be an acceptable western stance in all this for you?

They have to live up to their own principles. I want to see real values coming from them, because they made a very big mistake in 2016 when they lifted the sanctions on criminals in Belarus, and they are maintaining a very soft position today in trying to improve relations with Lukashenko. I think the best position would be to introduce sanctions, because there are repressions. I think they have to introduce sanctions against every official who took part in the falsification of the elections. They didn’t gain anything from Lukashenko; some businessmen gained something in their shadow business with Lukashenko, but not Europe in general; they were cheated by Lukashenko; the useful idiots’ advice didn’t help; their policy failed because they thought Lukashenko could be changed, that they could educate him. Nothing happened; Europe is a democratic community, look what happens now in the world in support of Belarus: demonstrations everywhere. No-one would risk his reputation by supporting dictator Lukashenko; without sanctioning criminals you cannot have a strategy.

So, if the protests gain momentum, should the West be afraid that this means Belarus is becoming more pro-Russian and that Russia will exploit this?

No, of course not. Vice-versa. If Lukashenko maintains power, then there’s more danger, because democratic change is the only guarantee against Russian expansion.

By Vazha Tavberidze

Image source:

13 August 2020 14:10