I would like you to tell us a little more about the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic. It is said that it's the world's longest-operating government-in-exile. Can it really be considered a government? How would you characterize it?
It is formally a government, as it is the same institution that announced the establishment of the [Belarusian Democratic] Republic and proclaimed the independence of this republic. It is formally the same institution that went into exile in 1919.
Its operations are overseen by new members chosen from the Belarusian diaspora.
In practical terms, it is a political council of the diaspora. It is a forum that convenes for expressing joint stances and exchanging views.
Latvia had two analogue organizations in the past. As you know, the Latvian diplomatic service in exile continued operations after the Second World War. These representations were in fact the last institutions of independent Latvia to continue functioning. On the other hand, there's the the World Federation of Free Latvians, which unites members of the diaspora across different countries. It was also a political forum that, in the Soviet era, continued fighting for an independent Latvia in the free world. Our Rada is sort of a unified version of both of these organizations.
The Rada has been operating for more than a hundred years. Many have asked, why didn't the representatives of the Belarusian Democratic Republic become the founders of the new country at the time when the state and statehood of Belarus was being reborn? Were there disagreements, or was it something else?
Basically, it couldn't be done at the time due to purely formal reasons. The Rada had contacts with the leadership of the Belarusian Republic. Celebrations over the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the republic were being held in Minsk, with state leaders participating, but, judging by formal criteria, no full-fledged state organs had been established at the time. There was still a Supreme Council in Belarus, set up under the USSR, and it couldn't be considered a full Belarusian parliament. The next election was held in 1995, when Lukashenko was already president. The signs of how the present regime would come into being were already evident. We didn't do it at the time. And it seems that we did right, as Belarus is still not a democratic country and its independence is still under threat.
The majority of international experts, the Belarusian public and opposition members say this year's presidential election wasn't democratic and fair. It basically means there's no real winner in this election. What's your take on the current events in Belarus?
This is not the first election without a legitimate winner, nor is it the first that is non-free and non-democratic.
Since 1994, there hasn't been a single democratic election or referendum in Belarus. There is no legitimate parliament or legitimate local power in Belarus.
And the president is not legitimate since 1999. Nothing has changed over there. But now the public have uniquely risen to the occasion. It's a unique situation, and public dissatisfaction with the regime is very high. Society has grown during the past 26 years. The Belarusian society is modern and educated, Belarusians are travelling and doing modern business. Our IT industry is very well-developed.
The needs and wants of this society are so fundamentally opposed to this archaic Soviet regime that the situation has become very serious.
Such massive protests weren't seen even in 1991. By the way, those protests aren't so well-known as they were smaller than the ones held across the Baltics, Russia and Ukraine. But in 1991, too, there were large protests favoring independence and democracy. But they can't be compared to the events of today.
What role do you see for yourselves throughout these historic changes?
Generally, the Rada's role is a long-term and historical one, as it is the oldest Belarusian state and sociopolitical institution in existence. It is a non-material relic of sorts. Its role is historical as it symbolizes the root of the 100-year-old Belarusian democratic movement and its heritage. It is a fight that people started fighting a hundred years ago and which is continuing now. We are carrying the flag, the baton we've been passed.
Our task is to pass this symbolic mandate of the 1918 republic to the next democratic Belarusian government. As concerns the current goings-on, it appears there's a chance we might come close to achieving this goal.
The members of the Rada and the diaspora are actively participating in protests, cooperating with local authorities and governments in organizing support for Belarus and sparking initiatives. They have done this for the past 26 years with Lukashenko in power. But now we are sort of drowning in this public activity, as for 26 years only some organizations were doing this, but now the people have risen. The same is happening across the diaspora. There were formerly but a few organizations in existence, but now even people who weren't active before have awakened and are taking part. We are trying to be part of this movement as well.
What's the perception about the re-birth of national symbols adopted a hundred years ago? There are jokes saying, "Where was I when they were dispensing these white-red-white flags?" What's your view on this?
It is very inspiring, as it embodies the ideas that were coming into being a hundred years ago, forming the basis of the republic that was proclaimed back then. Evidently these ideas are alive and continue to be current both at the level of values and symbols. This makes one optimistic that the Belarusian society is getting closer to creating an equal and democratic country.
New leaders are appearing in these processes. They have shown readiness to form the front lines in this protest movement. They are prepared for action. Do you have plans to cooperate with them? Have they expressed interest in cooperating with you? Is it necessary at all?
The Rada can bestow a sort of a historical legitimacy to the current events. An aura of the events that took place a hundred years ago. Of course, we have contacts with both the long-standing organizations and the current activists. We support any person and any initiative that brings our goals closer to fruition. The current movement is, without a doubt, doing just that.
You said that you are prepared to bestow this historical mandate only when democratic institutions will be set up in Belarus. Do you see this happening in the foreseeable future or is that still a long way ahead of us?
We can only give the mandate once. That's why it is necessary to wait for the moment when full-fledged and independent democratic institutes are set up. Institutes the stability and durability of which would not be questioned by anyone. Both domestic and foreign politics must be solidly grounded. At this time there's nothing of the sort and we can't expect it to appear tomorrow either. But we hope that there'll be movement in this direction as well.
In my opinion, there's need for constitutional reform, and new institutions of power must be set up according to this constitution. These institutions would receive the mandate from the Rada.
Initially, the Rada was created as a temporary instrument of power, and the goal was to convene a constitutional assembly which would adopt the Belarusian constitution. In principle, Latvia followed the same path. But in Belarus these things didn't take place. A proclamation assembly didn't convene, and there were no elections held across long-standing institutions. But as soon as the state does this, the functions of the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic will have been fulfilled.
There has lately been a lot of discussion of whether foreign countries should help Belarus. Including Latvia as a neighboring country.
Moral support is very important so the people feel they're being backed by and supported throughout Europe and the world. So that they feel that people are doing the right thing. As I said, many of the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets had never before participated in political activities.
To them, it means overcoming their fear and risk under an authoritarian regime. It means taking the risk of being laid off, being discharged from the university, or being crippled in the hands of OMON.
The people have overcome these fears and they need moral support. I am personally very proud that the Latvian president also partook in a show of solidarity with the Belarusian people. I wrote a thank you letter to the president's chancery and received a reply. It is a very good sign.
Of course, it is very important to continue pressuring the regime, as such regimes fear sanctions very much. You shouldn't subject yourself to any manipulations on their part, such as their statements that, "we aren't ready for this road yet", "you'll only harm the people", etc.
Sanctions should be targeted against as many of those responsible as possible. Police officers, OMON, people who falsified the election results, propaganda mouthpieces. In principle, all these sanctions were adopted even after 2010 when there was a massive clamp-down on the opposition, but not as massive as this year. This time, too, the EU and the US should introduce sanctions. And they have to be enforced until all the crimes are investigated.
What's most important, Belarusians should have a perspective. There should be support, in the form of experts, for the upcoming reforms that will happen when the current or the following government will start transforming Belarus into a modern European state. At that time, there'll be need for expert support and advice over setting up democratic institutes and implementing political and economic reform. There's still a long road ahead, and a lot of work to do. Belarus will need help in doing it.