Belarus protests Minsk 16 Aug 2020
A protest rally in Minsk, Belarus, against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, on Aug. 16, 2020. The sign reads, "Fair Elections. Tribunal. Freedom to the Political Prisoners." Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

(Israel Hayom via JNS) Pavel Latushko got out to the plaza in front of the Belarus national theater in Minsk and addressed the gathering of his employees, including actors. “I am ashamed. When I got wind of the testimonies of ordinary people who have been tortured by none other than Belarusians, I told my mother that I am ashamed of being Belarusian. But immediately afterward I thought to myself that I am actually proud that I am part of a group of people who seeks to have their own opinion. I want to believe that our society is united on at least one thing: a belief in Belarus. We are Belarusians,” he said.

Latushko’s speech drew raucous applause. But it also sealed his fate: He was terminated as the director of the national theater and was designated an enemy of the regime. The termination letter was promptly delivered, citing no specific reason. Not that there was really a need for a reason; in an autocratic country, you can’t be a senior public official and picket with your employees to protest the administrative detention and abuse of hundreds.

“When I served as culture minister between 2009 and 2012, the president’s people pressured me to censor productions in the national theater,” he told Israel Hayom. “I chose to resign so that I wouldn’t have to do so. But fate had it that I would end up serving as the director of the national theater, and that is where I made my moral choice. I chose the path of good and light, rather than that of evil and darkness. Belarus as a whole has made this choice, and we are beginning to build the new Belarus.”

Latushko, 47, is the most senior public official to have openly sided with the anti-regime protesters who have demonstrated against the country’s rigged presidential election in August and the infringement of basic human rights over the past several weeks. Apart from serving as culture minister, he was one of the most recognizable Belarusian officials on the global stage. He was the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, a consul-general and then an ambassador in Poland (the youngest ever) and later served as the ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal, and represented Belarus at UNESCO.

Latushko, a divorcee who is raising a daughter on his own, was appointed in March 2019 as director of the national theater. After being fired six weeks ago, he joined the presidium of the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power, a body created by presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged President Alexander Lukashenko in the August election and apparently won a majority of the votes.

The interview with Latushko is conducted in between his countless meetings with European officials, among whom he is trying to marshal support in order to boost the opposition movement through budgets for reforms. It would be ill-advised for him to return to his native country: Four of his fellow members in the council have either been detained or charged with insurrection and threatening state security or alternatively, forced to flee the country. One of them was recently released. As for Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich, also on the council, she is apparently untouchable, thanks to her being a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. If Latushko returns, he would be thrown into prison.

Q: The protests have entered their seventh week. They are intensifying, but so is the regime’s refusal to engage them. It seems as if there are parallel realities: one for the Belarusian society and one for the regime. How do you get out of this quagmire?

A: The Coordination Council that I represent has proposed the following steps to resolve the crisis: recognize the election fraud—there is ample evidence to support it—end the violence against peaceful demonstrators and investigate the criminal action taken to suppress them. The regime is unwilling to engage the protestors, but it has also been gradually losing its grip on the country and the social processes unfolding. The protest movement can grow or shrink, but you should never lose sight of one key point: Among a majority of citizens, something has been broken; they are no longer willing to let the ways of the past linger and are keen on building a new and democratic Belarus. If the regime fails to internalize it quickly, it will face massive civil disobedience. We are already witnessing a nation-wide [slowdown] strike and this will only expand.

Q: But how will this change happen if the regime is unwilling to talk? Even the Coordination Council has been decapitated.

A: The council has not quite been dissolved. This is what Lukashenko would like everyone to believe. The council is a three-tiered structure; the presidium was dispersed, but there is a main layer beneath it, comprising 70 people, which can make decisions. The layer beneath [that] already has 6,000 people. You cannot imprison or deport 6,000 people. We are working under the assumption that our role is to find ways to talk. Is the regime moving toward this? Publicly, no. But the regime has already begun talking about amending the constitution and putting this up to a referendum, followed by an election. It may not have put forth a lot of specifics, but this is already a form of dialogue with the people.

Q: Isn’t this an attempt to make the protesters calm down?

A: I tend to agree, partially, with the claim that the regime is trying to use these proposals to buy time and lessen civilian activism. But it has been unwilling to look at the big picture: The regime no longer has the capacity to rule by force and pressure. The next push of the protesters will be socioeconomic, because the country is already on the brink of bankruptcy. Belarus cannot pay its foreign debt, and for the first time in years, we are running a large budgetary deficit, exports are down, and all this adds up to reduced personal income. This is already happening and the regime has no real choice but to let the victors rule.

Q: Lukashenko doesn’t know that? Why have his people clung to power?

A: Well, to put it mildly—after all, I am a diplomat—he just wants power, he wants to stay there until he dies. He once said that people get born as presidents. This hunger for power is what has motivated him. Now, if we talk about his inner circle, there might be one or two who actually want to see him stay on. This has to do with the crimes that he has committed against ordinary citizens, especially over the past month, so there is collective responsibility there. Meanwhile, 80 percent to 85 percent of the state’s bureaucracy wants him to step down. I know this as a former Cabinet official and former ambassador in five countries and two international organizations. I can say with absolute conviction that 85 percent of the bureaucracy want him replaced. The state bureaucracy lacks motivation, it does not create new ideas or initiatives that are designed to develop the country. They are just waiting to see what unfolds.

Q: But how come you are the only one from the top echelons who crossed over to the opposition?

A: That is not entirely true because there were others, mainly in the Foreign Ministry, [who] have made their voices heard and even resigned: the ambassadors in Spain and Slovakia, as well as the deputy ambassador in Switzerland and just recently the ambassador in the Netherlands. Yes, we would like to see more extensive measures taken, but we have to understand that state employees who take such action take a very big risk. Look at me, for example. I expressed my views against the violence, and demanded an investigation into all the cases of abuse of prisoners and insisted that those responsible be prosecuted. I also insisted that the minister of interior and his deputy be held accountable.

This is why the prime minister decided to terminate my contract, and without citing a specific reason. I later found out that outgoing president Lukashenko made the decision himself. When I joined the Coordination Council, I had a criminal record opened because of the very existence of the council. The record was over the call to protesters to turn to their MPs and demand that they take a stand or else face potential removal from office, as stipulated in the constitution.

We must also add to all this the KGB’s ongoing monitoring activities, 24/7. I was constantly followed by a car with four agents in black masks. My phones were bugged and I had no choice but to take my family out of Belarus. Everyone around me faced threats so that they stop working with me, so you can just imagine the pressure facing other state employees. They arrest lawyers just because they protect the citizens who express political views. They convict citizens for hiring a lawyer to defend themselves in court [hiring a lawyer is interpreted as proof of having broken the law— D. B.].

What’s happening here is just total chaos. The justice system has ground to a halt, it is no longer functioning … the criminal justice system is not working, the lawyers are redundant. The lawyers have told me clearly that they can visit me at the detention center only after ten days.

“A historic moment for Belarus” 

The chaos in Belarus recently intensified after it transpired that Lukashenko had held a secret swearing-in ceremony. He then went on to brutally crack down on the spontaneous protests.

“When a regime violently oppresses its citizens only because they have different views, it repeats its past mistakes,” said Latushko. “We expect that the protest will only increase and if the regime continues with this violence, this will, unfortunately, have severe repercussions for the future of Belarus.”

Latushko said Israel should follow in the steps of the United States and other countries by refusing to recognize Lukashenko’s legitimacy.

“We call on Israel, as a country that has championed liberty and free speech, to condemn the violence against citizens,” he said. “They have taken to the streets to say no to the fraud and to the secret inauguration within the presidential palace. This cannot go on like this much longer.”

Latushko believes that his country’s Jewish heritage should also prompt Israel to act.

“Jews have always felt at home here. Our textbooks have always promoted co-existence and our shared tragedy in World War II brought us closer. Every third Belarusian was killed in the war. We respect and honor the Jews who died in the war, who suffered alongside us. This calamity has connected us through our history, but I am convinced that the future should also connect us by having comprehensive relations. I want to turn to my colleagues in Israel and call on them to stand next to the Belarusian people. This is a historic and key moment for our country.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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