Andrei Sannikov: "Democratic Belarus needs help of international community"
The head of European Belarus civil campaign was interviewed by BBC Radio.
Two years passed since the Belarusian opposition leader Andrei Sannikov challenged the country's long-serving autocratic president Alyaksandr Lukashenka in an election, which the man often dubbed Europe's last dictator won by a large margin.
Andrei Sannikov took part in a post-election demonstration to complain about voter irregularities. He was arrested and placed in a penal colony for 16 months. After his release early this year, he left Belarus and fled to the UK, where he now lives with his sister. His journalist wife Iryna Klalip remains under house arrest with their young son in the capital of Belarus, Minsk. When president Lukashenka was asked about her case in a recent interview, he signed a letter apparently ordering her to be released, but nothing has come of that just yet.
BBC journalists visited Andrei Sannikov in his new home just outside of London to talk about his and his family's experience and the current state of democracy in Belarus.
Let's remind our listeners first of all, what has brought you here? Why did you come here?
I came here and I had to apply for asylum, because I think my home was quite dangerous for me and my family. It was a difficult decision, but it had to be taken.
And remain dangerous for your family.
Yes, definitely. It is the most difficult for me, also because my wife is actually under house arrest. I hope that with me away it will be a little bit safer for her.
You were in prison for 16 months after the election, after what happened in end of 2010. Tell us about that time, tell us about your experience in prison.
Well first of all, I was imprisoned for political reasons. Me, my friends and colleagues and other people were imprisoned for peacefully demonstrating against falsification during the election. It was the most difficult time of my life there.
Let's say they created very difficult and unbearable conditions in the cell. They didn't let me sleep at night switching the light and shouting at me. I was searched personally. They stripped me naked. I was standing in a very cold room for quite a long time. They were shouting at me and beating their truncheons on the walls, sounding electric shockers. They were quite skilful at making you, I would say, very uncomfortable, that's an understatement.
The hardest thing for me was when they threatened my wife and my kid. My wife was in the same prison, because we were first brought to the detention centre which is customary for the demonstrations. It wasn't the first time I was there. Quite frankly, I was relieved when they took me away and my wife was left there.
Why were you relieved?
Because I thought she would stay there and it meant in a couple of days or maybe the next day she would be released because of our little child, who was only three at that time. And that's why I was relieved. Only in a couple of days I learnt that she is in the same prison and then, after I was released, I learnt she actually was in the neighbouring cell.
But you didn't know that at that time.
I guessed. I guessed because I heard her voice couple of times. And then I learnt she was there. It was prohibited to speak when you are taken out of the cell, but she did it on purpose, speaking in a loud voice for me to hear that she was there.
You were eventually released. Why did they decide to release you?
I think in respect of the fact that I formally applied for clemency, and I did it in a very critical moment, because there was a danger to my life. But I think it was because of the pressure of the international community, because of the measures taken by the European Union, because the governments, including the British government, demanded very strongly the release of political prisoners.
You wife remains under house arrest?
What kind of pressure is being put? Is the pressure being put to release her?
Well I think it's not enough, because actually probably people and political leaders do not know what it means to be in such conditions as Iryna is today. Just yesterday I spoke with her over Skype, and it's not for the first time when it happened this very moment, the doorbell sounded and the police came to check on her.
Have you ever had second thoughts about leaving her and your son?
Of course. But again, we did discuss it. That was our decision that it will be safer for them.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems if anything more emboldened at the moment, he gave a recent interview where he talked proudly about being called a dictator. How can anybody take him on in these circumstances, effectively?
I did run for president not to become a president. The goal was to change the situation in the country. You said it yourself that Lukashenka is in power and it's a dictatorship. In this way, no way I failed. But what happened on the 19th of December, 2010, was not only brutal dispersal of the demonstration, beating and bloodshed by the government forces, but also the feeling of the people that saw the hope, that saw the chance for the changes and that felt themselves free and united in this freedom. That was a beautiful moment in our history. I don't think that will be erased that easily.
There is no sign of the Belarus spring, winter, summer, autumn... It is not the same sense of people willing to go out, because if they do they suspect the same will happen what happened to you.
Yes, but at the same time that's what the regime is afraid of most of all. Yes, there is no sign, but I would say the absurdity of the situation is the good sign it will not last for long.
What you gonna take for things to change?
I can tell you one thing that without the help of the international community it will be almost impossible to achieve anything in Belarus.
And you are upset or you don't think enough is being done, certainly as far as your wife's case concern, to put pressure on Belarus?
Today the world has changed. Belarus's business ties, economic ties trade ties with the West are more extensive than with Russia. And in terms of trade turnover, the European Union accounts for a larger part and Russia and Ukraine for a lesser part of it. I think there cannot be fair trade and fair business with Belarus with Lukashenka in power. The European Union first of all has all the leverage to talk to Lukashenka at least to release the political prisoners.
There are lobbyists of dictators in the European Union as well. There are lobbyists to the regimes in business circles, because it's lucrative, you know. It's lucrative to have deals with such regimes. I am convinced that most of the activities that are banned by international law, like human trafficking, like organised crime, like arms sales, illegal arms sales, are done with the help of the regimes like that. Because they provide loopholes in the international restrictions system.
How do you explain what is happening to your son? He is five years old. How do you explain why his father can't be there?
I've never said to him, neither my wife, my parents-in-law and my mother, that I was in prison. I think he guessed. After prison, he didn't recognise me first, because I was without my beard. But then one morning when he touched my face, saw my bristles were growing and calmed down. Now he accepted and doesn't ask questions. We do talk over Skype and over the phone. At least he knows that I am within reach.