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Belarusian Review

Media Watch

Gradual Movement toward Europe May be Possible

Alyaksandr Milinkevich interview by Tereza Supova

LN (Lidove Noviny): In May 2009 Belarus has been invited to participate in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership project. Now six months have passed.
In your opinion, is the Belarus regime now willing and capable of cooperating with the European Union?

AM (Alyaksandar Milinkevich): The regime’s way of cooperating with the European Union is very sly. It expects to receive Europe’s financial help and investments while refusing to introduce the democratic way of life . It will try forcing the Union to cooperate only on the level of economy.

LN: How strong is support for the European Union in Belarus? How does it compare with support for Russia?
AM: First of all, it depends on free access to information. In our country, independent information simply does not exist... Some time ago there was a lot of anti-Western propaganda; lately it has calmed down somewhat... A month ago, the number of people supporting integration with Europe even exceeded the number of those supporting greater integration with Russia. Today, about 43 percent of people demand a greater degree of involvement in Europe. However, for us it is important to stop considering this issue as a confrontation - either with Europe, or with Russia. Accession to the European Union may take a long time. It is primarily a matter of accepting European values and freedoms

LN: Belarus was included in the Eastern Partnership program on basis of certain positive signals within the country. Has anything actually changed for the better?
AM: The government made a few important steps lately: it released some political prisoners, allowed the subscription and home delivery of 2 independent newspapers, and registered our movement ”For Freedom.”And now it believes that this should be sufficient forever. However, these steps were not followed by any additional important changes. One must remember that no authoritarian power will voluntarily democratize itself, since it will mean its extinction. In connection with this I think that Europe’s policies lack certain concrete demands that Belarus should fulfill, and an exact schedule for their fulfillment. Lately it seems that the EU undertakes some friendly steps, while Belarus only expects financial assistance. It should be a step-by-step process of gradual mutual rapprochement.

LN: Did President Lukashenka’s behavior change somehow? Did he himself change?
AM: As a person he hasn’t changed, just his behavior changed slightly. He is a very talented populist with good intuition . He is defending Belarus’ independence primarily in order to save his personal power. My position is as follows: as long as Lukashenka undertakes measures useful for the country, we will approve. However, we will keep criticizing him for the lack of freedom and violations of human rights. We think that even if Lukashenka remains in power, a gradual movement toward Europe may be possible. The opposition may then be faced with a complex and morally very unpleasant choice.

LN: In August the Russian president Medvedev again met with Lukashenka, after several months of rift. How would you describe the current relationship of Belarus with Russia?
AM: Our relations are defined by the project of Belarus-Russia union. However, each country is pursuing a different aim; this is why the union doesn’t work. Russia would like to swallow Belarus, while Belarus wants cheap oil and gas. Neither Russia nor Belarus wants to admit that the project is not at all successful. Russia continues its policy of affecting life in Belarus by using economic levers. For instance, it is offering us loans so that we keep buying Russian oil and gas. This in turn results in the skyrocketing growth of our indebtedness to Russia.

LN: Is Belarus affected by the worldwide economic crisis?
AM: An economy that relies only on its own resources, falls into the crisis very slowly. On the other hand, it will be slow in getting out of it. The crisis is most likely to hit us next year, perhaps later. Now it is this crisis hidden.
The greatest problem lies in the fact that Belarus’ unreformed economy is manufacturing products we are not capable of selling. Our warehouses are filled with unsold goods. Money and energy are being wasted; people’ s labor doesn’t pay for itself. Also the conditions for conducting business are far from perfect. To a great extent we now live on credit, by using bank loans we are not able to pay off.

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 21, No. 4
Copyright 2009 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.
Source: Excerpts from an interview in Lidove Noviny, October 14, 2009

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