Ales Bialiatski: “The time threw us a challenge. We accepted it"
This is an interview with Alexander Bialiatski prepared for publication for the 15th anniversary of Human Rights Center "Viasna", which is celebrated this year. In this interview, Bialiatski tells not only about the history of the organization, the purpose of its work and his colleagues, but also about his vision of human rights protection in democratic reforms, which will doubtlessly take place in Belarus in the near future.
The interview was recorded a few days before the arrest of Ales Bialiatski, and this is its first publication.
- Could you tell us what “Viasna” started from? How was its idea born?
- "Viasna" began when mass demonstrations were taking place for different reasons during the whole spring in 1996. In April they concerned the so-called union agreement with Russia which Lukashenka was going to conclude with Yeltsin. Before this, people marked 15 March – the Constitution Day, then 25 March – Freedom Day, when a large demonstration proceeded along Nezalezhnasts Avenue to the Opera House and the building of the Belarusian TV and Radio Company on Chyrvonaya Street, demanding to be provided with live air, as there were already problems with information and its dissemination. A criminal case was brought for violation of the public order, but was subsequently dropped. On 26 April some 40-50 thousand people gathered on Yakub Kolas Square and proceeded to the circus along Nezalezhnasts Avenue, and then – along Bahdanovich Street, up to the Palace of Sports, where meetings were held. During the demonstration, police cars blocked the road and cordons of riot police were put on the way. All this was accompanied by violent clashes with people. More than 200 people were arrested, and another criminal case was brought. Yury Khadyka and Viachaslau Siwchyk were imprisoned as the action organizers. There appeared an urgent need for gathering information and communicating it to the detainees’ relatives, because the panic was even higher than during similar mass arrests in 2006 or 2010, as it was the first time. I want to stress that before this no actions had been dispersed in our country, with the exception of “Dziady” in 1988. Yes, there were detentions, inactive persecution, but there was no such massive, bold and violent crackdown as in April 1996. It seems to me that it was at that time that Lukashenka decided to stop mass actions by using violence.
In this situation there formed a group of people who dealt with the collection and dissemination of information, as well as financial assistance: we were looking for money and food for those who were imprisoned within the framework of the criminal case or were serving administrative arrest terms. In particular, one man provided us with foodstuffs which we passed to families of the repressed. It wasn’t much, but we did what we could... This group worked for about a month.
The screws were tightened in different directions. In early April, Slavamir Adamovich was arrested and put in jail. There was a need to help him, because his mother, a pensioner, could not cope with it. We collected some money at a rally and handed it to her, so that he could make parcels for Slavamir.
- Indeed, I remember that people walked with boxes at that time, gathering donations for political prisoners ...
- Yes. The central focus of our work was the assistance to victims of political repression and informing the public about these repressions. Everything was done on a completely voluntary basis. At that time I worked as director of the literary museum of Maksim Bahdanovich and was the secretary of the Board of the Belarusian Popular Front. Taking into account that the Front was the main active street force, most victims were its members.
In 1997 several female volunteers from among employees of the museum, such as Palina Stsepanenka, joined this work. Gradually, we expanded our work and started looking for contacts in the regions, because the repression unfolded throughout Belarus. We needed people willing to work in the areas of human rights all over the country, and in 1997 we actually built up a national structure. On 23 February 1998 we registered "Spring-96" as the Minsk city organization. At the same time, we were preparing documents for the establishment of a national organization. In 1999, "Viasna" was registered as a National organization and existed in this status till 2003, when it was closed on decision of the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court for taking part in the monitoring of the presidential election in 2001. Since then, we have worked without registration. We have submitted documents for registration of "Viasna" three times, but the Justice Ministry refused to do it, once in 2007 and twice in 2009. In 2007 the UN Human Rights Committee adopted a ruling according to which by depriving “Viasna” of registration the authorities violated freedom of association of its members. The Committee also urged the Belarusian government to restore our rights by registering “Viasna”, but this decision hasn’t been implemented, and we still continue working in an unregistered status.
- Are you happy with what you have achieved in the fifteen years?
- "Viasna" became a member of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) already after the termination of the state registration, and I have been elected vice-president of this organization two times. We have gained many foreign partners during our activity. It is worth noting that our work and human rights activities in general are based on international solidarity and cooperation all over the world. Because of this we have increased the efficiency of our work by gaining friends and long-term partners in various European countries and the world that help us to raise questions of Belarus, for example, in such institutions as the UN, the Council of Europe and the European Union. The international human rights community contributes to the image of “Viasna” as a considerable human rights force which is perceived very seriously, which allows us, in our turn, to raise the issue of Belarus at different levels.
For 15 years we have significantly expanded the field of our work. New directions of work were added to the traditional ones. Here we should also mention election monitoring. Since 2000, we have regularly carried out monitoring of the elections in Belarus and participated in international monitoring. Since 2001 "Viasna" has been a member of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations. “Viasna” members have experience of election observation in such countries as Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, Serbia, Kosovo, Kazakhstan and others. Of course, the experience in international observance allows us to compare the electoral laws and conditions in different countries, and helps in conducting the internal monitoring on a higher professional level.
Another important direction of our activity is human rights education. First of all, our educational programs are aimed at young people who perceive the value of human rights best and seek to gain knowledge in this area. We are working on continuous improvement of professional competence of fellow human rights defenders and lawyers, as well as other interested target groups. So, this is quite a large scope of work.
“Viasna” members regularly participate in international human rights conferences and events to convey objective information about the human rights situation in Belarus. In this way, even without having no relations with the Belarusian authorities to date (except that they consistently discredit human rights defenders), we feel our obvious influence on them. For example, the statements by the authorities concerning the possible ban for leaving Belarus for political and social opponents suggest that we are perceived as a real force with which they cannot but count.
In general, I am pleased with the results of our work for 15 years. We did a lot to make Belarusian politicians and population understand the importance of human rights. These are the people who will be guided by such rules and standards in their work after the change of the situation, unlike the present authorities. It is very important. The second moment is that we are an important factor in the perception of socio-political situation in Belarus, as our human rights information and assessments take a worthy place and are treated seriously.
On the other hand, of course, there is some frustration, because the main purpose for which our organization works – respect for and observance of human rights in the country, has not been reached yet. On the contrary, the situation has been getting more and more complicated during the latest months – the country is moving further away from civilized norms, and human rights are mentioned by the authorities only in some humiliating way. Lukashenka himself understands them only as one’s right to work and talk to wife in the kitchen. This, of course, is very scary and generally shows a very low cultural level of the present Belarusian authorities. So, we still have a lot of work to do.
- I have heard many words of gratitude to human rights defenders for these 15 years. At the same time, there were accusations that human rights defenders have never been sentenced to arrest or punished in the same manner as those whom they defend, and therefore thy didn’t have an exact understanding of what was going on with the people in the country. How would you comment on it? I know that you used to serve arrest terms in Akrestsin Street, as well as other members of “Viasna”, and are in danger of criminal punishment now (after the warning, issued to you by the General Procuracy). What is the real degree of danger for human rights defenders?
- The risk exists. However, we are not a political party and don’t participate in political processes directly. For example, when there were elections, we didn’t work in favor of any candidates, but just monitored the electoral process. This is a neutral activity, which is conducted by non-governmental organizations, such as “Viasna” and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
What concerns human rights actions – we take an active part in them. I should emphasize it again, in human rights, not in political actions. These are the World Day against the Death Penalty (as we have always opposed this kind of punishment), and 10 December, when the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is marked all over the world. We traditionally hold different actions on these occasions in Belarus. In 1998, we held a large demonstration against neo-Nazism, as the Russian National Unity (RNE, Russkoye Natsionalnoye Edinstvo) was getting popular in Belarus and there were cases when people were beaten by its adherents. Several thousand people gathered for this demonstration, and I was sentenced to ten days of arrest as its organizer. I can be proud of having been sentenced to arrest for an anti-fascist action.
We have faced problems during the whole time of our activity, and the pressurization has been increasing lately. For instance, three searches were held at “Viasna” Minsk office during the five months after the presidential elections, all computer equipment was confiscated. Searches were also conducted at our regional offices in Homel, Hrodna, Maladechna and Rechytsa. It witnesses that the authorities pay a very nervous reaction to human rights activists and try to silence them the way they do it with political opponents and journalists. The General Procuracy issued me with an official warning for activities on behalf of an unregistered organization, which is the last step before bringing a criminal case under Article 193.1. Nevertheless, we continue working, taking into account that it has a great international response and can seriously influence the situation in Belarus, first of all as a result of the influence and pressure of international organizations.
I wouldn’t separate human rights defenders from other activists and say that we have more favorable terms. On the contrary, after 19 December it happened so that the political forces stayed in a distracted state for quite a long time, and human rights defenders and journalists came to the forefront of the struggle for democracy and human rights. Bringing criminal case against Pachobut and Salei, and issuing a warning to me are not occasional. We see that at present journalists and human rights defenders implement the function of such civil conscience and deal with a very important thing – the dissemination of information about what really happens in the country. The authorities fear this information. Our non-violent methods of struggle for democracy and human rights appear to be very dangerous for the authorities.
- I know that “Viasna” publishes several printed editions within the framework of its informational activity. Please, tell a bit more about them.
- First of all, we must mention our newsletter "The Right to Freedom, " which has been published since 1998 and regularly covers the situation of human rights in Belarus. It is also uploaded to our website, spring96.org, which is visited by tens of thousands people a month, which is quite much for a narrow-profile site. We have also started using new technologies by creating profiles in Facebook and Twitter. Starting from 1998, we have published annual Review-Chronicles of Human Rights Violations and analytical reviews. In 1998 it was a small booklet of about 70 pages, in recent years the reviews have always rolled over for 200 pages of fine print. They are quite unique, because no other human rights organizations do such things.
Reading the 13 annual reviews which were published over the years, one can appreciate and understand the drama of the situation experienced by Belarus since the beginning of Lukashenka’s rule.
We see a desperate struggle of social activists, democratic political parties and simply concerned people against the totalitarian regime, for freedom and democracy. The scale of mass repressions, reflected in the pages of our reviews, shows how much the current leadership of the state is afraid to lose power and meet with active people. The authorities are ready to use any means to retain the power, but it seems to be a very dangerous and dark way…
We also publish other books: stories of prisoners, training aids, topical human rights editions and documents that are relevant for Belarusian citizens today.
- I know that books which are published by “Viasna” concern not only human rights, but also important social events, such as Niamiha Stampede…
- Yes, this publication was prepared by our members Palina Stsepanenka and Tatsiana Reviaka. The book is dedicated to the tragedy, which hasn’t been investigated on a full scale, and the guilty weren’t punished – the case was actually hushed up on a direct order of Lukashenka. We tried to look at what had happened from the viewpoint of a human tragedy, an unexpected tragedy. In this book we gathered interviews about the event, as well as interviews of the survived victims and relatives of those who had perished there.
- It was an interesting and important, but a hard work to do… I would like to ask a personal question. You were born outside Belarus and then lived in the Homel region for quite a long time. You have seen many places besides Belarus in your life. Your human rights work is based on the universal human values, and you are surrounded by people who speak Belarusian, which is quite a rare thing in our country. What does prevail here: the Belarusian or the universal? The authorities definitely treat the human rights defenders who speak Belarusian as “enemies”, the opposition.
- Our authorities consider Russian-speaking human rights defenders as opposition, too. It’s worth saying that they don’t make much difference. I started my public activities in the times of the Soviet Union, when we established so-called informal societies of student youth. I mean the first and the second half of 1980-ies. I have taken part in the underground movement for independence since 1982, when I was 20 years old. When one looks through our program documents, it is evident that the task was to achieve a democratic independent Belarus, which would respect human rights. Even at that time the understanding that there can be no democracy and human rights in Belarus without independence was very important for me. For us, it is strongly linked with the historical perspective, because all previous authorities kept purposefully destroying the Belarusian culture and the Belarusian people as such for several hundred years. We had rare periods of development. In fact, all things which are related to the Belarusian identity developed in very complicated conditions. Our intellectual circles were subject to polonization or russification. At present we see that the present authorities continue the process of Russification as descendents of the Soviet regime, which also destroyed everything Belarusian. That’s why it is essential for us to support the Belarusian language and culture. We also express our human rights view on the right of Belarusians to develop their culture and language in this way, as the situation is catastrophic. It can be seen even in the things that concern our work: not a single Code has been translated into the Belarusian language… We have no Belarusian-language versions of the documents on which the work of courts is based! This is the position of the state, which keeps declaring the bilingualism and the state character of the Belarusian language. This situation shows the disdain for the Belarusian language on the part of the Belarusian authorities, with which I totally disagree.
My life is inextricably linked with the Belarusian language, although I learned it after the Russian school, at the university. Nevertheless, I started speaking Belarusian when I was 20 and have been consistently trying to speak Belarusian for almost 30 years already. In fact, it’s not just a language, it is my civil position, my view on the processes connected to the destruction of the Belarusian language and culture in Belarus. My wife and son speak Belarusian, this is the language of our family.
Moreover, it is the language of my profession: I started my work in the Literary Museum of Maksim Bahdanovich. I am a literary critic and have published literary and critical research articles and essays. I am a member of the Union of Belarusian Writers and the Belarusian PEN Center, but, unfortunately, I do not have enough time to engage in personal literary work… There were times when I was chairman of the society of young literary workers “Tuteishyia”, whose members are the core of the Belarusian literature now. By the way, this year we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the organization, which was established by us in December 1986.
- Tell me please, is it easy for you to find like-minded people, not only in terms of language, of course, but also in terms of understanding the importance of human rights?
The establishment of “Viasna” was our answer to the challenge that was issued to us by the time. We took this challenge. There are also some other active human rights organizations in the country – the situation pushed concerned people to the establishment of such associations or cooperation with them.
It should be noted that the first human rights organization was established in Belarus in 1988. It was "Martyrology of Belarus", which dealt with the repressions of 1930-50s and the Communist heritage. I participated in the "Martyrology, " and we were trying to open people’s eyes to the real essence of the Communist regime, its crimes and victims. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to finish this work, but we tried to do it anyway.
The strong persecution of civil society in Belarus restrains its growth. It also concerns human rights organizations. Many people are afraid to cooperate openly with us, but at the same time there are a lot of activists who have worked for many years – our situation is not the worst one.
more than one year - we have not the worst situation. During this time, both lawyers and public defenders who have no legal education (me, for instance) have gained a sufficiently high level of professionalism. We already know how to solve the problems that confront us, and better understand what it takes to change things to make human rights principles the basis of social life and society-building in Belarus, which is very important for the future.
- What will it take?
- We need comprehensive changes, both in the state order and the relationship between the people and the power structures in Belarus. We have good examples of the countries which moved from a totalitarian system to democracy – these are our neighbors Lithuania and Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The transition period continues in the Balkan countries. The European Union, for example, has developed fairly high standards in order for bringing human rights to the national legal basis, to all existing laws, and we should strive for it. We don’t need to invent anything, but should use the good experience of moving from a difficult situation to a better one, and how to develop it.
At present we have to catch up with European countries. At the same time, studying the history of the human rights movement of Belarus, I know for sure that there were times even at the end of the 18th century when our country was almost in front of the whole of Europe in high esteem, respect and understanding of the meaning of human rights and the implementation of these rights in real life. In fact, we followed the footsteps of France. But at that time France was such a bastion of democracy from which democratic ideas spread around the world. And Belarus, which was a part of Rzeczpospolita and has been the central part, the heart of the Grand Principality of Lithuania, was one of the leading countries. The loss of our independence was an indicator of the struggle of absolutist monarchies, which smothered Rzeczpospolita because of the fear of the spread of democratic ideas in their countries. However, it was long ago, and now the situation is different, it’s not hopeless.
I look forward with a great optimism and think that the hard and complicated everyday of the Belarusian human rights activists will be a significant contribution to changing the situation in Belarus, maybe even in the nearest future.
- Are there any people among Belarusian state officials who understand the importance of human rights?
- Yes, there are, but they are afraid to express their views on this matter. This understanding depends on many things. For example, on whether the person travelled abroad and can compare the level of freedom in other countries and Belarus. It depends on whether the person has a higher education, is young or old (studied in the Soviet school under Soviet canons, or in a more democratic Belarusian school in 1990-ies). However, there are very different cases. There are people, who are instinctively guided by respect for human rights, having no education. And there are very educated people who deliberately flout these rights to the material or career reasons and take a destructive, hostile position. But I would point out that the situation has changed not only among the politically active layer, but also in the society in general: the people have a better understanding of the notion of human rights and pay more respect to them. Human rights are gradually becoming one of life’s values that they would like to have, because everyone wants to live safely, everyone wants to be treated fairly by the court. Nobody stands for poor conditions in prisons, as everyone knows that there can be different life situations: nobody wants to have prisons reminiscent of concentration camps. That’s why the very structure of the Belarusian society is changing for the better despite the resistance of the Belarusian authorities.
The interview was taken by Tatsiana Snitko