Belarusian journalist's hopes for Ukrainian revolution to spread
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In an interview with FRANCE 24, exiled Belarusian journalist and former political prisoner Natallia Radzina blamed the lack of European support for democratic movements for growing instability in the region.
Natallia Radzina manages Charter 97, a Polish-based Belarusian news website. She fled her country after the 2010 election, when she was detained, then placed under house arrest amid a crackdown on opposition politicians and independent media.
The popular Charter 97 reports on Belarusian and regional news in Russian, Belarusian and English, with support from Western backers, and has been reporting a peak in audience levels since the beginning of the Ukrainian revolution. President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital Kiev at the weekend after three months of protests in the symbolic Maidan square ended in a violent confrontation last week, and the Parliament has appointed its speaker as interim head of state.
On a visit to Paris, Natallia Radzina answered FRANCE 24's questions on the recent developments in Eastern Europe.
FRANCE 24: As a Belarusian, what is your regional outlook on the Ukrainian revolution?
Natallia Radzina: We worked round the clock to support the Ukrainian people and travelled to the Maidan. A Belarusian victim was killed in Kiev, Mikhail Zhiznevsky. Our hope is that there will be change in Belarus too. What is important now is for Europe to ask itself: how could a dictatorship emerge in Ukraine? It all started in Belarus. There has been a dictatorship there since 1994. Several opposition leaders have been killed, and hundreds of political opponents have been jailed over the past two decades. It can be as contagious as a virus, and that is possible only because Europe turns a blind eye.
Were you targeted yourself?
Yes, in 2010, when we had so-called presidential elections. I was targeted as editor of one of the main news websites in Belarus, along with all independent presidential candidates. Three months earlier, the founder of our website, Aleh Byabenin, had been killed. I was detained by the interior security service, which is still called the KGB. I saw how political prisoners were detained in that jail built under Stalin, how some were shot dead in the corridors and others were tortured. The disappearances and torture used against Ukrainian opponents recently left the same signature.
Do you expect the recent events in Ukraine to spread across the region?
I hope this virus will spread across the region, but Ukraine enjoyed more freedom. They could set up in the Maidan and stay there peacefully for two months. In Belarus, it would be impossible to install a stage and sound system like that: the law bans groupings of more than three people and you are prosecuted for posting announcements for meeting on the Internet.
How do your correspondents and readers across the region react to the recent events?
Much depends on how much people are exposed to Russian propaganda. Those people in the region who have access to the Internet and find accurate information understand that the Ukrainian people is fighting for its freedom and for European values. But those who have no access to independent sources of information follow Russian or local TV stations, which are under government control and have been describing activists on the Maidan as terrorists and gangsters.
The recent events have been inspiring those who are ready to take action. The heroes of the Maidan will be followed by others in the region. I am convinced there will be change in Belarus too. The economy is falling apart and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not have the resources to keep funding all the dictatorships in the region, especially after the Sochi Olympics. Things will change – unless Europe decides to fund dictators in the name of stability, which cannot be ruled out. If Europe continues to keep failing to support democratic movements along its borders, more and more countries will become unstable, just like Egypt at the moment.
In Kiev, many protesters said they did not want Ukraine to become like Belarus. What is your reaction?
That's only natural. Belarus has become a symbol of dictatorship. Western powers are at fault here: they have turned a blind eye to ensure the situation remains calm, and [President Aleksander] Lukashenko was able to tighten all the bolts. Europe froze visas and assets held in European banks for Belarusian leaders, but they did not care: they did not have any assets in European banks. Three oligarchs were targeted, but they didn't wield any power. After Europe saw that its sanctions had failed, it tried to re-open a dialogue with the dictatorship. But that's an illusion: there were never any real sanctions. Lukashenko continues to trade hydrocarbons and potash with the European Union to fund the KGB and his death squads. Europe has means to put pressure on Belarus, but it prefers to pursue useless economic modernisation policies there.
How do you see the next few months unfolding in Ukraine?
With a truly democratic presidential election, which is likely, Ukraine can choose the leader it really wants. Based on previous experience, they are also likely to limit presidential powers by going back to the 2004 constitution and become a truly free European country. This is all to the exclusive credit of the Ukrainian people.
What is your opinion of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who has just been released from jail after being embroiled in a corruption case, and former boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko?
As a former political prisoner myself, I'm glad Yulia Tymoshenko was released from jail. We all have many questions to ask Yulia Tymoshenko and [her former ally in the 2004 pro-European Orange Revolution movement, ex-President] Viktor Yushchenko. At the time of the Orange Revolution, Belarusians had placed immense hope in Ukraine and hoped for political support from Kiev. Instead, Viktor Yushchenko became an advocate of Lukashenko on the European stage: that was a major disappointment for democratic activists. If Yulia Tymoshenko becomes president, I hope she will stand against the Belarusian dictatorship, if only in solidarity with political prisoners. She is a politician with sins in her past, but she is popular and it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide whether they want to forgive her.
My personal opinion of Vitaly Klitschko from meeting him is that he seems sincere, is a true patriot and wants to bring about real change. It's not for me to decide whether he is ready to head the country, but on the Maidan, he was courageous and made quick decisions.
As seen from Europe where we fear the rise of far-right extremism, the Svoboda nationalist party, with its commemorations of a SS division in the Second World War, shows the unsavoury side of the Ukrainian opposition. What is your opinion?
I used to have that impression of Svoboda but my opinion has changed. Svoboda has proved its credentials as a very dignified party, with courageous activists. I met Vitaly Portnikov, a Jewish Ukrainian intellectual who is also known to be homosexual, and he was on the Maidan with Svoboda's leader Oleg Tyagnibok. They treated him with respect and they were able to work together. Vitali told me that Svoboda now has the dimension of a European political party that can respect key values. Of course there is homophobia and Islamophobia, but the real reason for radicalism in Europe is the lack of strong European political figures. Where is the Margaret Thatcher of our times?
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