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Putin “Can’t Afford to See Belarus Fall” as Protests Calling for Lukashenko’s Ouster Enter 4th Week

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Mass protests entered their fourth week in Belarus to demand the ouster of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who claimed victory in the country’s August 9 election that critics say was rigged. But Lukashenko shows no sign of backing down, and authorities have responded to protests with violence and arrests. Sadakat Kadri, a human rights lawyer and writer, says Russian President Vladimir Putin is invested in keeping Lukashenko in power. “He can’t afford to see Belarus fall,” Kadri notes.

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StoryAug 12, 2019“The Next Step Is the Kremlin”: Why Moscow Protests Have Putin’s Government Worried
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We turn now to Belarus, where people marched and sang in Minsk on Wednesday during ongoing protests of thousands against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Protests and strikes against the authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, have continued for weeks, since he claimed victory in the presidential election on August 9th. Critics say his victory was rigged, but he shows no sign of backing down. Lukashenko has ruled for 26 years.

The state has responded to ongoing protests with violence and repression. Masked police dragged student protesters into police vans Tuesday after thousands flooded the streets of Minsk. Authorities have also arrested at least three factory strike leaders in recent weeks.

This comes amidst a crackdown on the media in Belarus. Two former TV hosts were arrested in Minsk Wednesday. At least 19 journalists who work for foreign media outlets have had their accreditation revoked, and two Associated Press reporters have been deported.

Well, for more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Sadakat Kadri, a human rights lawyer and writer with a focus on Eastern Europe. His recent piece on Belarus for the London Review of Books is headlined “The revolution will not be colourised.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sadakat Kadri. If you can just start off by laying out the scene and the situation in Belarus since that election August 9th? Talk about who ran in that election and what’s happened since. Hundreds and hundreds of people have been imprisoned.

SADAKAT KADRI: Sure. Well, I mean, it’s the sixth election that Lukashenko has won. He’s been in power now for 26 years, as you said. It’s the sixth election. It’s the sixth landslide. He’s never won less than 77% of the vote. He won 80.1% this time around. It was kind of expected, in the sense that he’s been rigging elections for a very long time.

But also what was expected is that people would not really react as they have, because what happened is that there were protests, as there have been protests in all the other landslides that he’s won, but then he came out with — his riot police came out. They rounded up more than 7,000 people over the next few days. There were allegations of torture, allegations of attempted rape. I think the difference this time around is simply that people have been using social media, not just Facebook but also the social media channel Telegram. So the allegations of torture, the images of torture went viral.

The demonstrations kept going on. They didn’t peter out as people kind of expected they would after a couple of days. They lasted for days, then weeks. And then the bedrock of Lukashenko’s support over the last few years, factory workers, they came out on strike. Leading figures in Belarusian society — heads of the national orchestra, the national theater, the director of the national university — came out again in support of the demonstrators, to the extent that, after a week, Lukashenko’s interior minister effectively apologized on national TV, said that many of the wrong people had been arrested — which is unheard of in Belarusian history.

And for about a week, there was a kind of stalemate. There still is a kind of stalemate. But what that means is that demonstrators are coming out every weekend, as you’ve said. Since the university started again this week, students have been coming out. And Lukashenko doesn’t really seem to know exactly what to do, because, of course, he could try and crush the demonstrators, but I think he’s kind of — he realizes that all bets will be off if he uses serious force against the demonstrators, more serious force than he’s already used. He’s been photographed in the last couple of weeks, both last weekend and this weekend, once with an assault rifle in his hand and once with a machine gun in his hand. So he clearly wants the protesters and the world to think that they need to take him seriously. But whether or not he’s going to actually get his security forces to use live fire and to use more force than they already have is — it’s all up in the air at the moment. I mean, there’s everything to play for here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sadakat, as we mentioned in the introduction, there has been a massive crackdown on any kind of independent reporting on what’s going on. And you wrote in your London Review of Books piece, “The revolution will not be colourised” — you wrote, quote, “Belarusian state media,” meanwhile, “are pumping out alarmist propaganda similar to that seen in Russia before the invasion of Crimea — tales of fascism on the march, and fantastically untrue claims that the Russian language is about to be sidelined.” So, could you say more about how these protests are being covered in the media there and how people are communicating through social media or other means to keep these protests going despite this massively brutal response by Lukashenko’s government?

SADAKAT KADRI: Sure. Well, I mean, the reason that my article was called “The revolution will not be colourised” is because there’s a narrative in Russia about what’s called the color revolutions. It’s named after the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2004, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2005. In the West, we tend to think of these as being popular revolutions where people are angry with rigged votes. But in Russia, they’re seen as something very different. They’re seen as a deliberate strategy by the West to basically promote discontent, to overthrow governments which, according to the Moscow narrative, are legitimate governments. So, they’re governments after very contested elections, like this 80% majority that Lukashenko just claims to have won now. And so, in the eyes of Putin, of people from Vladimir Putin downwards, President Putin of Russia downwards, the one thing they need to avoid is another revolution like the thing that happened in Ukraine in 2014, a color revolution.

I should say, in that context, I mean, I’ve been talking to quite a few Belarusians. They’re very nervous themselves about being linked too closely to the Ukraine example specifically. They don’t want to be thought of as being a color revolution, as being a Maidan kind of revolution like as was seen in Ukraine in 2014. They’re even nervous about being associated with the European Union. In the Ukraine, you saw a lot of European Union flags being flown at all the demonstrations. That’s not happening at all in Belarus at the moment. They’re saying, “We are simply fighting for our rights. We’re fighting for the election to be rerun, and to be rerun fairly. And we’re confident that if it is rerun fairly, then Lukashenko will lose power.”

On the question of social media that you raised, it is very much a social media revolution. The Arab Spring was famously called a Twitter revolution. I suppose Facebook has been the channel that’s been used more often in Central and Eastern Europe over the last few years. But it’s a specific social media channel called Telegram which is making the running in Belarus at the moment. I mean, there are thousands and thousands of people getting daily updates. I mean, there are hundreds of updates every day, with videos, with images, telling people where to march, because it’s a cat-and-mouse game at the moment in Belarus. The riot police are back out on the streets after this — after being pulled in the first week, but they aren’t directly confronting the demonstrators. And the demonstrators aren’t directly confronting them, either. If you look on the Telegram channels, you will actually see instructions, real-time instructions, to demonstrators to turn left on this street and to turn right on that street in order to avoid confrontations with the police.

And, of course, censorship just doesn’t work anymore. I mean, you’ve got — Lukashenko has done his best to make up for the fact that a lot of the presenters on state TV have resigned, by bringing in “help” from Russia — help in inverted commas. Basically, broadcasters from RT, the channel that used to be known as Russia Today, have flown in. Two teams of them came in last week, I think, and one of them is still in Belarus. And they’re basically keeping the state media running. But no one — no one believes it. People are relying for their information, of course, on foreign media channels, but also just on social media, and on Telegram in particular.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sadakat, could you talk a little bit more about Putin’s relationship with Lukashenko, and also what status Belarus has, as a former Soviet republic, with Russia? Putin has said that he could send in police forces into Belarus. What is at stake for Russia in these protests? What kind of support have these protests received among civil society in Russia?

SADAKAT KADRI: Sure. Well, everything’s at stake. Everything’s at stake for everyone in Russia. I mean, for Putin, he can’t afford to see Belarus “fall” — in inverted commas. You know, Ukraine has been lost, in his eyes, to the West already, or to Europe already. He can’t afford to see another former member of the Soviet Union “fall” — and again, I’m using inverted commas with that.

But the position is slightly complicated by the fact that even though he and Lukashenko see eye to eye on that — neither of them want to see — least of all Lukashenko, want to see Lukashenko’s government fall — but Lukashenko and Putin are not friends. Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. Putin has only been in power for 20 years. As far as Lukashenko is concerned, this guy is just an upstart. He’s got the — the two countries are theoretically in a union. No one quite knows what the union means, because the pact of union was signed in the 1990s. But it was signed at a time when Lukashenko thought that he would be the senior partner in the union, because his real partner was Boris Yeltsin. And I don’t know if you remember, but Boris Yeltsin at that point was not a — was not, shall we say, in command of all his faculties. He was an elderly drunkard by that point. And Lukashenko thought that he was going to be running the show in years to come.

Then Putin comes along. And we all know what’s happened, how Vladimir Putin has improved his fortunes over the last 20 years. And Lukashenko’s reaction has been to make overtures to both the European Union and also to the United States. As your listeners, your viewers may or may not know, Mike Pompeo made a visit to Minsk just in February of this year. It was the first visit by an American secretary of state for 25 years. And, obviously, the relations between the White House and the Kremlin are complicated, shall we say, at the moment, but Lukashenko imagined that he was playing everyone off against each other. He can’t afford to do that anymore. The game may be up for him. So he’s basically turning towards Putin. Putin can’t afford to let Lukashenko fall, either, so he’s leaning towards Lukashenko, as well.

And then, in terms of civil society, you asked. I mean, people — opponents of Vladimir Putin, critics of Vladimir Putin are looking very carefully at what’s going on in Belarus at the moment. And one of the people who’s looking most carefully is, in fact, Alexei Navalny, the vlogger, video blogger, who has just been allegedly poisoned by Vladimir Putin. About a week after the election, he devoted one of his YouTube broadcasts, which regularly attracts more than several million viewers — he devoted that broadcast to the strike movement in Belarus and told Russians how effective it was at holding leaders to account. Now, that’s not the kind of message that the Kremlin wants to hear, but it is an inspiring message for the people who are tackling corruption within Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, very quickly, if you could tell us about Navalny right now, who’s in a coma in Germany? Talk about the German doctors’ findings. He was apparently poisoned, perhaps at the aiport in Siberia or on the flight. Tell us the drug that the Germans believe was used and the significance of his position in Russia, and then the fact that the opposition leader in Belarus, who’s now, I believe, in Lithuania, she will be addressing the U.N. tomorrow.

SADAKAT KADRI: Right, yeah. Well, I should start by saying that the Russians who examined Navalny said that there were no toxins present at all, that it was just a case of low blood sugar levels, and that was that. Then he was flown to Germany. As you say, Angela Merkel yesterday held a press conference, where she said that, beyond any doubt, he had been poisoned, it was a very serious matter, and Russia needed to answer questions.

Her spokesman had previously said that the poison that was found was a nerve agent of the Novichok variety. Now, the reason that that’s significant is because Novichok came into the news — we all know about Novichok because two years ago a Russian former operative of the secret services living here in the U.K., in a town called Salisbury, was allegedly poisoned by two members of the GRU, of the security services in Russia. And they used that poison — traces of that poison, Novichok, were found. It’s a very deadly poison. It’s been placed on the list of prohibited substances under the Chemical Warfare Convention.

The reason it’s significant is because Navalny had a lot of enemies. There were lots of people who had reasons to poison Navalny. But Novichok is not the kind of thing that you get by popping down to the local drugstore. Novichok is something which is produced only in state laboratories, as far as anyone knows, in any event. And in any case, it’s not the kind of thing that should be running loose in Russia.

If Russia was serious, if Putin’s Russia was serious about getting to the bottom of this thing, because they say that they have nothing to do with it, of course — if they were serious about that, then they would be conducting an absolutely thorough investigation now, because the idea that a weapon banned by the Chemical Warfare Convention is available to ordinary people in Russia is just — is flabbergasting. And if that is the case, Vladimir Putin should be getting on top of this now.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the Belarus opposition leader, what she will be telling the U.N., and her significance, having left Belarus?

SADAKAT KADRI: Well, I mean, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is — she’s the wife of another very popular vlogger in Belarus, something kind of an equivalent of Alexei Navalny in Belarus. She’s very new to this game. She is not a politician. She stood in because her husband’s candidacy was ruled out back in May or June. He was prohibited. He was jailed on trumped-up charges, and he was prohibited from running for president himself. So, she stepped up to the plate. She campaigned very effectively, huge rallies, supposedly won just 10% of the vote, which, of course, is highly contested and almost certainly ridiculous. What she’ll be saying to the United Nations, I’m sure, is that the pressure needs to be kept up on Lukashenko and that the election should be rerun.

AMY GOODMAN: Sadakat Kadri, I want to thank you so much for being with us, human rights lawyer, writer. We’ll link to your piece in the London Review of Books, “The revolution will not be colourised.”

When we come back, Joe Biden is going to Kenosha today, following Trump’s visit on Tuesday. He’ll be meeting with the Blake family. Stay with us. We’ll be speaking with a congressmember who grew up in Kenosha. Stay with us.

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