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19.03.2008

Cosmetic alterations in Belarus

   

«There are political prisoners in Belarus, and businesspeople are being eliminated as a class”. This is the assessment of one of the leaders of the Belarusian Youth Front, Artur Finkevich, until recently himself a political prisoner.

Something strange is going on in Belarus. Over the last few weeks, most political prisoners in the country have been released. President Lukashenko has called this a “good-will gesture”. He has also allowed the European Commission to open a representative office in Minsk. however one shouldn’t cherish any illusions since there is no “good will” in this. Lukashenko probably understands that the West will not establish relations with Belarus if he doesn’t free dissidents – political figures, journalists and youth activists.

Artur Finkevich: “The Belarusian authorities are frightened of young people because it was young people who were the impulse behind revolution in Serbia, in Ukraine, and it will be the same in Belarus. At the present time the most active part of society are young people. It is youth organizations, specifically the Youth Front which are the avant-garde of the activities of the democratic forces. It’s because of that that the authorities fear us and for that reason that in 2005 paragraph 193 was added to the Belarusian Criminal Code imposing criminal liability for actions on behalf of an unregistered organization. The Belarusian Youth Front is not registered in Belarus. Over the last year and a half 41 or 42 politically motivated criminal investigations have been launched, with two thirds of them against members of the Youth Front.

Are any Youth Front members presently imprisoned?

At this moment no. I was released on 5 February, and 12 days earlier Dmitry Dashkevich was freed. At the same time the court is being handed a prosecution case against our activist Katerina Solovyov. She’s being charged with acting on behalf of an unregistered organization

How long were you imprisoned?

If you count the fact that before that I served a sentence for writing political graffiti, even before the 2006 presidential campaign, in total a bit over 2 years. And if there wasn’t pressure on the Belarusian regime at the moment, if the issue of political prisoners was not being raised, I would still have to stay in prison for another three months.

They say that something strange is going on in Belarus, with most political prisoners being released. Lukashenko called it a gesture of good will. And what do you think?

The point is that there are political prisoners in Belarus. Andrei Kim is being held in a SIZO [remand prison], Alexander Kazulin is imprisoned, and fourteen criminal investigations have been launched against activists of the business movement.  Businesspeople are simply being eliminated as a class why is it happening? Because in Belarus there is a negative trade balance of three billion dollars per year. For Ukraine that’s not a huge amount, but for Belarus I think it’s big, and Lukashenko is trying somehow to improve the balance. For example, Russia gave a one and a half billion loan to pay off the debt on oil and gas, and another one and a half billion needs to be sought in other areas of the economy. So he’s tried to find “chelnoki” [informal traders, who bring in mass-produced items and sell them, for example, at markets – translator]. In Belarus these people, according to official data, bring in around a billion dollars per year.

How is the West and the European Union reacting to this situation in Belarus?

I like the US position since it’s absolutely consistent. They don’t agree to any compromises, they specifically demand that everything be carried out and only after that, they say, they’ll sit down at the negotiating table with Lukashenko.

How do you see the near future in Belarus?

I’m convinced that in the near future the situation in Belarus will change and the regime will change. The only possible option for Belarus is a European future. In our situation, when for the autumn a Constitutional act is being prepared on union with Russia, when Mr Medvedev,, speaking about possible integration with Belarus 3 days before being elected, stated that this integration could only be if Belarus became a part of Russia, like a province … That is unacceptable for us, and we need to use all means to resist it. Our young people have united with a general purpose and general campaign, a civic campaign “European Belarus”, since most Belarusians support integration with the European Union.

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