Le Monde: Free voice of Belarus
It was cold and slippery in the streets of Minsk of 19 December 2010. Dry cold wind was blowing over the main avenue of the Belarusian capital.
The voting finished an hour ago with its results gad been written beforehand. In the conditions of a dictatorship there are almost no real possibilities to change the government. On that day Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power in Belarus since 1994, announced that 80% had voted for him at the election of the country’s president. This is how the imitation of democracy ended, Peter Smoliar writes for a leading French newspaper Le Monde [translation - charter97.org].
Dozens thousands people came out to the streets protesting against falsifications. The authorities responded with police sticks to that.
Courage has its price. Some people call it a duty. On 19 December in the column of people walking along the avenue we met Natalia Radzina. There were tears in her eyes. We asked her where the people were going. She smiled: "Where? To the House of the Government". She is a journalist, but not a soldier or a protest instigator. People simply got fed up with the country being ruled by a former collective farm chairman Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
She recollected this moment in the course of her visit to Paris on the invitation from the Minstry of Foreign Affairs of France and smiled sadly. A lot of events have happened since that day. Natalia Radzina had to leave the country in order to continue her work.
She heads the editorial office of the largest independent Belarusian web-site charter97.org, for which the Charter’77 of former Czechoslovakia served a model. More than 100 thousand people visit the web-site every day. It is a significant number, considering Belarus’ small size.
"We are in the black list of web-sites, which are forbidden in schools, universities, government institutions and state enterprises. The authorities have included political web-site in the list along with extremist and pornographic", she says.
Natalia is 33; formerly she worked for different independent media. Almost all of them were shut down by the authorities.
The elections of 23 September were a parody of an electoral campaign. After them Aliaksandr Lukashenka retained full control over parliament; 109 out of 110 seats in the parliament were taken by pro-government candidates.
"Lukashenka rules the country by the means of violence and fear," Natalia Radzina says. "Murders, arrests, intimidation, dismissals. People turn into shadows. His real support does not exceed 20%."
The presidential elections in December 2010 ruined the hopes for liberalization. Around 700 people were arrested, civic society was destroyed. Ales Bialiatski, the head of a human rights center Viasna, has been in prison for more thatn a year already. In the beginning of November it became known that the main competitor of Aliaksandr Lukashenka at the presidential elections Andrei Sannikau, who was released form awful imprisonment, finally received political asylum in Great Britain.
"It is a difficult decision for me, but there was no alternative. Either undergo tortures in prison, or to be silent and do nothing," he said in an interview to charter97.org.
Natalia Radzina took part in his electoral campaign. It was one of the reasons for her arrest on 19 December 2010. After one and a half months of being held in custody, before a EU’s summit in January 2011 the journalist was released from prison. But she had to live in Kobrin together with her parents. Her father is a military man; mother has worked in a kindergarten for her whole life. Every day she was checked by policemen. The telephone was listened to, contacts were limited. One night Natalia managed to escape to Russia by car.
"My passport remained in KGB. Fortunately there is no passport control on the border with Russia," she says.
Having illegally moved to Moscow, the journalist managed to acquire a legal status with the help of the Memorial NGO.
Before the next stage of her life started, she had received unexpected assistance form Kremlin: "I needed a visa to leave the country. Vladislav Surkov, first deputy chairman of the presidential administration, helped to get it". This decision of Russian authorities shows complicated, often controversial relations between Minsk and Moscow. Their friendship is changeable.
Nevertheless, Natalia Radzina does not show optimism regarding Russia. "In the past two centuries we have lost our culture, history, language because of Russian and Soviet rule. Lukashenka keeps pursuing this policy today," she says.
On 15 October the European Union decided to extend the decision to freeze the assets and visa ban regarding 243 officials, having something to do with repressions, for another year. Also the sanctions against 32 companies, belonging to the businessmen close to the authorities, were prolonged.
This is not sufficient, according to Natalia Radzina. She stands for tougher sanctions against the authorities of her country. "A dialogue is impossible as carrying out reforms would mean the end for the dictator. Lukashenka uses blackmail, playing on the disagreements of Russia and the European Union. There must be new sanctions introduced, not just the old one prolonged," she says. "It is necessary to extend the list of oligarchs and companies and, most importantly, to stop buying oil products, trade on which enriches Lukashenka’s family, KGB and some oligarchs".