Former president of Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich says that Russian can do whatever it wants in Belarus as President Alexander Lukashenko is dependent on Russia and is basically Vladimir Putin’s slave.
Shushkevich is convinced that the Zapad 2017 training exercise in Russia and Belarus has more participants than the officially communicated 12,700. The former president does not, however, believe the exercise will escalate into anything more, or that Russian troops brought to Belarus will stay there after the drills.
Russia and Belarus claim the number of soldiers taking part in the Zapad 2017 exercise is below 13,000, while NATO believes the maneuvers involve up to 100,000 troops. Do you have an idea of how many soldiers Zapad really involves, and how many of them have been brought to Belarus from Russia?
I have no information regarding Russian troop numbers in Belarus; however, I believe there are far more than has been officially communicated. I’m convinced Russia wants to use the training to demonstrate its military might near NATO borders, and that this is the reason why the drills are being held in Belarus.
Staging the exercise in Belarus is the brain child of Russian generals and a few of their Belarusian colleagues. Soldiers will be shooting at military training areas to demonstrate their skills. After that, they will return to their bases in Russia. Leaving troops in Belarus after the drills would be an international scandal Russian can ill afford.
Why is it necessary for Russia to send its troops to train in Belarus in the first place?
Russia is sitting on vast riches, while it cannot ensure its citizens’ well-being. Official statistics suggests 20 percent of Russians live below the poverty line. They cannot run their economy in a way that would allow the people to prosper. They cannot ensure salaries to rival those in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.
The average salary in Belarus is three times lower than in Estonia, according to official statistics. That is why Russia must keep up the narrative of enemies – the domestic enemy that is the opposition, and the foreign enemy that is NATO. Russia wants to show its people it can handle these enemies.
Why hide participating troop numbers?
It is difficult to say. It is characteristic of Russian authorities to say one thing, but do something else. They are still not admitting that what they orchestrated in Crimea was an act of aggression. The entire world sees it as such, while they call it delivering the people of Crimea. Human life is Russia’s main weapon; they care nothing for it. Less so for Ukrainian lives.
Russia has always been prepared to sacrifice human lives for its goals, and the tradition is alive and well. It has been the modus operandi of Ivan Groznyy, Peter I, and Yosef Stalin. Little Napoleon that is Vladimir Putin carries the torch today.
In your opinion, what are Putin’s plans for Ukraine? Crimea has been annexed; however, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has remained uncertain for a long time. What will come next?
I believe he will continue what he has been doing in Eastern Ukraine. He went after Crimea to restore his dwindling rating. Russia launched a propaganda campaign, saying Crimea has always been a part of it, and that is what it will remain. Putin pulled it off, and now he must stay that course.
While Russia is trying to claim events in Eastern Ukraine constitute a domestic conflict it has nothing to do with and talk about the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and Malorossiya, it is all nonsense.
Ukraine has voiced fears Russia might use the Zapad 2017 drills to invade from the north, through Belarus. Is such a scenario possible? Russia has used military exercises to spearhead aggression before, in Georgia in August of 2008 for example.
I believe that is not possible, and that even Lukashenko would not go for it. The relationship between Ukraine and Belarus has always been very good, and such a scenario does not seem plausible.
In your mind, is Lukashenko not really a fan of Putin?
He might not love him, but he is obedient. It is possible Lukashenko hates Putin after several public offenses. However, Lukashenko is utterly subordinate to Putin. While the president might talk of the independence of Belarus, what kind of independence is that?
Independence is when the constitution is in effect. Lukashenko has been in breach of the constitution, according to which Belarus is a neutral country, for a long time. Constitutionally, Belarus should not hold joint drills with Russia; however, Lukashenko does everything that Putin demands of him.
How long will the Lukashenko regime continue to reign in Belarus, and what would happen were the power to shift?
It will last for as long as Russia supports Lukashenko. The Russification of Belarus under Lukashenko will continue for as long. The illegitimate president, who remains in power by falsifying election results, is anti-Belarusian, and it is very difficult to fight what he is doing.
There is very little hope things will change in Belarus before Russia becomes a democratic country, as our gigantic neighbor is supporting the current regime. We have an open border with Russia that spans 1,560 kilometers. Russian influence is very hard to resist. That is why Lukashenko must serve as Putin’s slave.
Look if only at the Zapad drills. In normal countries, military ranks are bestowed upon highly educated and experienced officers, while what we have is a circus – Lukashenko just gave all governors the rank of general.
Now, they will put on their uniforms and play their part in the performance. The West needs to be shown that Belarus is a peace-loving country with a strong military that is prepared to fight NATO.
Has anyone in Belarus admitted that Zapad is an exercise against NATO?
Lukashenko has repeatedly said that Belarus will help Russia defend itself against NATO. It is probable he has not read documents pertaining to NATO or been briefed on it. Lukashenko cannot even understand what NATO is.
NATO has been a defensive alliance since its creation the main principle of which is that aggression against one member is aggression against all members.
You said that the regime in Belarus will not change until Russia does. How long will Putin continue to rule Russia?
It is very difficult to forecast. Looking back, we can speculate such a regime cannot last very long. The Russian people love freedom; however, the gigantic propaganda machine has everyone fooled. Leading propagandists Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitri Kiselyov are far more professional than Joseph Goebbels was.
It is very difficult for the ordinary person to withstand massive propaganda. I love Russia, I am a Russophile. However, I do not love the Kremlin, I’m a Kremlinophobe. I believe there are a lot of people who share that view in Belarus.
Russia’s massive propaganda is also aimed against Estonia. I have visited Estonia many times. If the Kremlin propaganda tries to show Estonians are treating Russians poorly and discriminating against them, it is not what I have seen. Kremlin propaganda is nonsense.
The West has laid down sanctions against Russia. Are they having any effect?
We can basically say that these sanctions, and Russia’s counter-sanctions, constitute the beginning of the second cold war. Sanctions undoubtedly have an effect, and people in Russia must suffer from the effects of a cold war for the second time.
If the law states a person cannot be punished for the same offense twice, Russians are being punished for the actions of their rulers for the second time today. People in Russia must simply wait out Putin’s regime, until a new [Boris] Yeltsin, a true democrat, comes.
Is there anyone in Russia who could become the new Yeltsin?
Of course. However, look at how they are being isolated. Look at what was done to Alexei Navalny. Russia’s entire military-bureaucratic apparatus is working against people like him. Such are the Kremlin’s methods, and, unfortunately, they work well.
What is the situation of the opposition in Belarus? How many people really support Lukashenko’s policy?
I believe Lukashenko’s supporters number very few, while only a few people actively oppose him. Most Belarusians want to forget about the regime and go about their daily lives.
People hold on to their jobs and avoid dealing with politics. I believe that if that majority was to actively oppose the regime, things could change quickly.
Could Belarus see something similar to the Maidan in Kiev?
There were protests bigger than the Maidan in Belarus seven years ago. Around 70,000 people, far more than were in the Maidan, took to the streets after the 2010 election. However, the system was prepared. The militia dispersed the demonstration.
Did you know that Belarus has seven times the militiamen per resident today than it did during the Soviet period? The militia was ready, resistance was crushed, demonstrators were beaten and taken away.
There was a demonstration against Zapad in the center of Minsk a few days ago. The militia were there; however, demonstrators were not touched and were allowed to leave. What is this lenient attitude a sign of?
The demonstration went peacefully as it was held in front of Western diplomats. Besides, it was not a big crowd. The authorities have different methods; it is not always necessary to beat the crowd back. The militia take pictures of demonstrators do deal with them personally at a later time.
A good example of this is one of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition Mikola Stankevich who is always put in prison whenever the opposition is doing something. Such is the Belarusian method for handling the opposition, and, unfortunately, that system also works well.
You live in a rather modest apartment. What are the social guarantees for former presidents in Belarus?
Former heads of state have social guarantees in civilized countries. Belarus used to have a substantial pension for former presidents that guaranteed subsistence. Lukashenko had the law repealed.
Lukashenko is a person of modest education who makes decisions based on emotions. I have received next to no pension from the state in the past decade. I get the standard base pension with which it is impossible to make ends meet.
I will be fine for as long as my health remains. I’m frequently invited to give lectures and attend conferences abroad. For example, I’m leaving for South Korea tomorrow (Friday, September 15 – ed.).
The authorities allow you freedom of movement?
There have been all manner of bans. The justice ministry put a stamp in my old passport stating I was not allowed to leave the country a few years ago. (Shushkevich takes the passport out of a desk drawer and demonstrates the temple – A. E.).
The stamp was put there in 2012, after I had received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. I had to travel to the United States to receive the medal, while the stamp in my passport made it difficult.
However, the border between Belarus and Russia was open, and I could drive to Russia and from there to Latvia. Next, I drove to Vilnius and boarded a plane. After the USA trip, I started looking into the official reasons for by travel ban.
It turned out the ministry had broken the law, as a travel ban can only be ordered by the courts, while the justice ministry had not launched proceedings. I was later told the stamp was put in my passport as a result of a computer error.
You speak openly and criticize President Lukashenko. Will this not cause you unpleasantries?
I’m expressing my opinion which is my constitutional right. Were I making factual claims, I could be required to prove them in court. However, I’m simply expressing my opinion. I’m simply expressing
my opinion also in the course of our conversation. That said, the Belarusian authorities manufacture unpleasantries regardless.
It would be a tall order to expect an illegitimate regime and president to act in an honest manner. The people of Belarus are hardworking and disciplined, and had we an honest and democratic government, we could go far.
All former Soviet republics had a common starting point after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Belarusian economy was stronger than its Baltic and Polish counterparts at the time.
Today, Belarus has fallen very far behind, and it is the result of the actions of our authorities. Belarusian propaganda is trying to show how bad life is in Lithuania and how miserable people are there, while Belarus is a wealthy and happy country. It is utter nonsense.