10 September 2020
Co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Vyacheslav Bakhmin on the situation in Belarus and the Kremlin’s position
Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak, members of the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council, have been re remanded in custody on charges of calling for the seizure of power, the Investigative Committee of Belarus reported yesterday.
Kolesnikova said that the security forces had threatened to expel her from the country in whatever way necessary – “alive or in pieces”. Like other members of the opposition, after being abducted by unidentified people in masks, she was driven in a car for a long time with a bag over her head and then subjected to an attempted forcible expulsion abroad.
The only representative of the Coordination Council’s presidium still at liberty today is the Nobel Literature Prize laureate, Svetlana Aleksievich, and that thanks to the active intervention of the press and Western diplomats. The Belarus authorities have also attempted to detain the writer.
The USA has expressed extreme concern at the continuing violation of human rights after the elections in Belarus. White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, spoke about this at a press briefing on 9 September. McEnany said: “Reports of opposition figures being kidnapped, forcibly expelled, or otherwise threatened are just a few of the many methods that the Belarusian government is using in its attempts to deny freedom of speech.” In her words, Washington, together with its international partners, is working to hold all of those committing these abuses accountable.
The Russian Service of the Voice of America spoke with the co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Vyacheslav Bakhmin about what is happening in Belarus.
Viktor Vladimirov: What do you make of the most recent events in Belarus with regards to the conflict between the authorities and protesters?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: It seems to me that Lukashenka, having enlisted support, and not just moral support, from Russia, has decided to switch to targeted repression, supposing that in this case the reaction (of the global community) will be moderate. That is why we have seen the first arrests begin. He deported whomever he could. The security forces had a hiccup with Maria Kolesnikova. Her behaviour was completely unexpected for them. However it’s obvious that Lukashenka clearly does not intend to give up and will hold on to power until the very end. At the same time, he will observe the reaction to events closely, both in Belarus and outside it. If the reaction is, in his view, acceptable, then he’ll continue to pursue his chosen course. But it seems to me that he simply has no good options.
Viktor Vladimirov: How important is a united position of the United States and the global community on the problems in Belarus today?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: I think that for Belarusians this is extremely important. International solidarity with them gives them hope that collective efforts will still be able to achieve something. Alas, this has little influence on Lukashenka. He has only one partner, at whose feet he has already thrown himself: Vladimir Putin. Therefore the West’s reaction is completely predictable and Lukashenka responds to it with his habitual rhetoric, calling it interference in internal affairs, external pressure and so on.
Viktor Vladimirov: Svetlana Aleksievich has characterised Lukashenka’s policy as one of ‘terror against his own people.’ What do you think of this view?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: To a certain extent, it is a literary metaphor. Actually, selective terror is taking place at the moment in the republic, if I may say so. It does not yet concern everyone, or the majority of the population, it targets that part of Belarusian society that is dissatisfied with the existing authorities, those who are the most active, who are the organizing force of the protests. However, both arrests and constant threats (against opposition leaders) that you will either be expelled from the country, beaten up or put in jail – this is, of course, real terror in the literal sense of the word. It is intimidation intended to make everyone else afraid of doing anything.
Viktor Vladimirov: And to what extent in connection with what is happening in Belarus, is the voice of the Russian intelligentsia being heard? As you know, Aleksievich has herself appealed directly for its support.
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Unfortunately, to a large extent, she is right. Because apart from scattered Facebook posts and letters of support (for the protesters) from individual organisations and individuals, the general voice of intellectuals is really not being heard. And that is a shame. Because it certainly is time for our authorities to be told what people of the creative professions think about this, about how they feel about what Lukashenka is doing to his people, and about the fact that Moscow is unconditionally supporting the dictator. Because to a large extent this also applies to Russia. In fact, Moscow is now very closely involved in the efforts to suppress the nationwide protests in Belarus.
Viktor Vladimirov: The Russian writer Liudmila Ulitskaya, responding to Svetlana Aleksievich’s appeal, suggested the possibility of a rapid repetition of the Belarusian events in Russia. How great is that possibility?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: She is absolutely right. We do not know yet how events will end (in Belarus), to what extent Russia will influence the outcome of the confrontation between the authorities and the Belarusian people, and whether it will be able to do so. Although Moscow’s attempts in this direction are obvious. But, of course, the situation in Russia also depends to a great extent on what will happen in Belarus. Not only because we are neighbours and are closely integrated in economic terms. Today we can say a pilot model is being tested in Belarus on how to deal with a situation where people have actually rebelled. Later on, this mechanism may well be also used in Russia ‘for internal use’.
Viktor Vladimirov: Do you see the hand of Russia security forces behind the actions of their colleagues in Belarus today?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: I would not be surprised if there are very many representatives of the Russian security services in Belarus today. Although I don’t have any information about how extensive our intervention in this area is, I think no one has any doubts about its existence.