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Europe

Former Belarus presidential candidate criticises elections

media Andrei Sannikov during his trail in Minsk in 2010 Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko

Belarusians were voting Sunday in an election that is likely to see authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claim a fifth term. The Belarusian opposition boycotts the elections. RFI spoke to former Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who stood in the 2010 presidential elections, getting the second-highest percentage of the popular vote. He was incarcerated in a KGB facility in Minsk, sentenced to five years on charges of "organising mass disturbances” and, in 2012, pardoned by Lukashenko.

RFI: How “free and fair” are these elections?

Andrei Sannikov: It is not an election. It is a sham election, because there is no competition. There is a scenario of KGB, of the authorities, so nothing changes. On the centre stage in power is the last dictator in Europe.

RFI: Lukashenko has been in the international news over the past year when he organised summits getting together the presidents of Russia and the Ukraine, and trying to mediate in that conflict. In what way does that help him to stay in power?

AS: Well it did help him to renew his begging for Western money. It didn’t affect his stay in power. That is because, again, there is a dictatorship and quite a ruthless dictatorship in Belarus and the situation has worsened, although maybe it is not visible in 2010 and 2011.

So yes, it boosted a little bit his image in the West, especially because of the Russian war in the Ukraine and the fact that Minsk was designated to be a platform for negotiations. But by designated I mean that the place was chosen by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, not by Lukashenko.

RFI: In what way does Belarus function as some sort of transit window for goods that are banned from Russia as a result of European sanctions?

AS: That was a real help for Lukashenko because of the smuggling going on through Belarus — and you have probably heard the phrase “Parmesana Bellorussiana” — that is then put for sale in Moscow, as well as shrimps and kiwis and papayas. It is what Lukashenko is very good at: smuggling goods and using grey schemes for business.

RFI: This is not something that is easy to hide. How is it that the EU is not taking any measures against that, according to your theory?

AS: Because there is business and there is interest in such routes, in such intermediaries. A lot of interest. Otherwise, how would Polish, Swedish, Norwegian or French goods come to Russia?

RFI: You yourself are a prominent member of the opposition, but you are not in Belarus itself. What about the opposition inside Belarus? Do they still exist, or are they silenced completely?

AS: They do exist. They are in a very difficult situation. But I’m really happy that we all are united in denying these elections, and calling them “sham elections” and asking people to boycott them. That’s a unity that came into being quite recently on the eve of these so-called elections, and I think it is a good starting point for further efforts to bring Belarus towards democracy.

RFI: After the change of government in Ukraine in 2013, there was also talk that something similar may happen in Belarus, but it never did. How do you explain that? Is it sheer intimidation by the government or is a matter of laxity among the opposition?

AS: Lukashenko is nicknamed “the last dictator of Europe”. And to answer your question, you have to remember how many years he has been in power: 21 years. [Ukrainian deposed President Victor] Yanukovich just started to act according to Lukashenko’s methods, so he didn’t succeed in controlling the society in the way Lukashenko controlled it. But it already started to happen in Belarus.

[The demonstrations that were held in] Minsk in 2010, that was the precursor of Maidan. But there was a bloody crackdown because Lukashenko was scared as he was losing the elections. But still, I think that the economy today is in such a situation that protests are inevitable, and we will see them in Belarus.

 
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