On February 22 the trial against Viktor Babariko, ex-candidate for president of Belarus and former top manager of Belgazprombank, will be resumed at the Belarusian Supreme Court. Babariko has been behind bars for almost 8 months. On the eve of the trial, that started on 17 February, Deutsche Welle was able to obtain written answers from prison to questions on the future of Belarus, his presidential ambitions and his meeting with Lukashenko in the KGB jail. 'This is a take-no-prisoners battle'.
by Bogdana Aleksandrovskaya
At the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, the former head of Belgazprombank, Viktor Babariko, was one of Alexander Lukashenko’s main rivals. However, Babariko was unable to participate in the presidential elections because in June he was detained, and has been held in KGB jail for almost eight months now. The ex-banker is accused of receiving a very large bribe from an organized group and of money laundering.
During your first press conference, on 20 May 2020, you called mass repressions in Belarus a 'myth'. What is your take on what is happening in the country now?
'I must say right away that my answers are based on very scant information. I have been in physical and communication isolation for almost 8 months now and the source of most of my information is Belarusian television – watching it can be equated with moral torture.
'But even in this situation, I am able to say that what is happening in our country cannot be called mass repressions. In fact, it is a war waged by the ruling elite that relies on the military power bloc, i.e. the junta, against a segment of the country’s population. And it doesn’t even matter whether this segment represents the majority or not. The worst thing is that it affects all segments of the population.
Who is Viktor Babariko?
In the spring of June 2020 hundreds of thousands of Belarusians supported the banker's bid to register as a presidential candidate. Opinion polls predicted that he could get up to 50% of the votes. Polling was subsequently forbidden.
In June, investigators raided Belgazprombank, the bank Babariko had run for 20 years, and the former director was arrested on charges of taking bribes worth some €10 million ($12 million) and money laundering. Because of that he was rejected as presidential candidate. Babariko faces up to 15 years in prison. Six Belgazprombank colleagues are also on trial.
As the former head of a major bank-owned by Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, Babariko's Moscow connections are unsurprisingly close. But he emphasizes the need to defend Belarusian sovereignty while building mutually beneficial ties with Russia and Europe.
In October, after two months of mass protests, Lukashenko paid a surprise visit to Babariko and other opposition figures in jail. More than four hours were spent discussing constitutional change. But the talks had no effect and a new crackdown followed.
As his codefendants' stuck deals with the prosecution, the court's eventual verdict seems clear. State media is awash with reports of the crushing amount of evidence against Babariko. It appears likely that Babariko will spend the foreseeable future behind bars. The government's message is clear: no opposition politician can expect to remain free and in Belarus.
Source: Deutsche Welle
'There are two ways this war can be turned into a civil war. Number one is by legislating tougher punishment just for expressing an opinion. Number two is by involving ordinary civilians in the fight – government officials, civil servants, communal services workers, and so on, forced to carry out orders and official duties thus clashing with their fellow citizens.
It is impossible to glue a split society back together
'But it is impossible to glue a split society back together. It is unacceptable to allow ordinary people to hate each other just because they love symbols of different colors. Everyone should understand that individual responsibility for one’s actions does not go away, even if someone takes the blame for some specific order.
'I’m not talking about criminal prosecution. There is judgement that is even tougher. It is the judgement of our children and grandchildren. In my life, I have never met a single person who is proud of ancestors who had participated in violence against ordinary people.'
There is an opinion that your run for the presidential office generated excitement in society and became an impetus for politics coming alive and for the fight against the Lukashenko regime. What do you say to that?
'Here is some dark humor – it definitely generated criminal proceedings against me. On a serious note, however, it has always been difficult for me to evaluate my actions and their impact on others. Let people judge for themselves.
'What I will say though is that what I would be proud of and what I would really like is to see the results of my actions. It just so happened that I only saw the beginning of the process of awakening and opening up of our people. I did not have the chance to see the spark in the eyes and the happy smiles of the many thousands of participants in the chains of solidarity and freedom marches. But even if very few of these people think that I have helped them in some way, that would feel like the highest praise for me. To be involved in the revival of the nation, in the awakening of the best qualities in somebody means to have lived a life not in vain.
Babariko on trial in Minsk, making the sign of the heart
'However, it seems to me that what is happening now in Belarus is not a fight against the Lukashenko regime. In general, I am not a supporter of actions 'against' something but rather 'for' something. I view today’s events as a fight for a new Belarus, for better people, for a future happy life – not only ours but also that of future generations.'
Why, in your opinion, despite the fact that protests have been going on for six months, have the Belarusian people still not replaced the Lukashenko regime?
'The regime of the current government is not one person but a collection of people who are ready to live in an atmosphere of lies and forced helplessness. This is like voluntary personal slavery, which does not die when the slave owner disappears. A person does not become free by order or permission from above.
'We have been indoctrinated for many years with the idea that we are unworthy or incapable of being responsible for our destiny, that we need to be managed and led by someone because we are a 'tiny people' living on a 'tiny piece of land' surrounded by enemies. Our main achievement and pride was that we are poor, but not beggars, that our knowledge and abilities are not needed anywhere and by anyone, except within our own country. That the goal in life is stability with 'charka and shkvarka' [an expression that denotes what is sufficient for a comfortable life for a Belarusian in officials’ opinion; 'charka' refers to a receptacle for hard drinks and 'shkvarka' means pork rind – Translator’s note].
Many people have achieved a very important personal victory of winning their right to be called a person with dignity
'But 2020 has shown how untrue this statement is. We saw that a huge number of people do not agree with these values and goals. This is what I consider to be victory or the first step to a greater victory. Many people have achieved a very important personal victory of winning their right to be called a person with dignity, ready to take responsibility for their own destiny and the destiny of their children.
Babariko's spokeswoman Maria Kolesnikova, also enjailed, became one of the female trio that led the Belarusian revolution
'We were just a little bit short of time to grow to full adulthood as a nation. No one expected that this inadequately harsh reaction would follow the expression of such universal human values as self-respect, the right to truth, and to peaceful protest in the 21st century in the center of Europe.
'We are now experiencing a post-traumatic shock. It will definitely pass, and I do believe that we are going to be fine.'
What is your most important takeaway from your meeting with Alexander Lukashenko in the KGB jail on 10 October 2020?
'I always try to stick to the simple principle of judging by deeds, not words. Therefore, I can say that the scenario described in the novel 'Autumn of the Patriarch' is being realized in Belarus word for word.
This is a take-no-prisoners battle
'In general, I was convinced yet again of the universally known truth proven by the system in place in democratic countries. Elected positions should be occupied by people who have somewhere to go back to after their term is over. Otherwise, these people equate their government position with their general happiness in life, and sometimes power equals life for them. In this case, the fight for power turns into a fight for life. This is a take-no-prisoners battle. The only cause for optimism is that every day brings these kinds of people closer to the worst, and the rest of us – closer to a better future.'
Lukashenko said there was an attempt to arrange a petty-bourgeois revolution in Belarus but that there is no revolution in the country at this point because there are no revolutionaries ready to risk everything. Do you agree with this statement?
'As strange as it may seem, it is true and it is a good thing. I have never liked revolutions and their slogan – 'destroy to the ground and then…' What we saw in Belarus was an accelerated evolution. We are going through the process of understanding that we are individuals at an incredible speed and we are witnessing a people uniting into a nation. As a result, we are demanding a new reality and a different leadership system.
'Although my view is controversial, I still believe that unwillingness to shed someone else’s blood for the sake of my own, albeit good goals, is the right path. And this is exactly what the statement implies, readiness to risk everything. Our people did not match the level of abomination that the authorities had demonstrated. We did not stain our hands with other people’s blood. The new Belarus should not be built on blood, even if the old Belarus had violence and cruelty as its foundation. It is something good that will ensure a happy future for the country.
The new Belarus should not be built on blood, even if the old Belarus had violence and cruelty as its foundation
'Speaking of the petty-bourgeois nature of those who strive for change – that is an absolutely correct statement. People are tired of living on the brink of poverty. The mantra of '500' [monthly salary in dollars – Ed.] as an unattainable and 'shining Shambhala', has bored people to death. We want to become 'petty-bourgeois' – except that in the modern world people like these are called the 'middle class', and they constitute the foundation of all civilized and highly developed countries.'
How will the situation in the country develop?
'This is one of the most difficult questions for a person who receives 90% of information permeated exclusively with lies, fear, and hatred (that is, receives it from state television). However, it seems to me that there are only two options. Either there will be a new Belarus, financially and politically independent, or an independent country will de facto cease to exist (even while legally retaining its independent status) if we are included in the orbit of someone’s 'world'.
'One of these roads will need to be chosen in the near future because the economy will not allow the current state of affairs to last long. There is a very fitting saying: 'Politics is a concentrated expression of economics'. Therefore, the deadline is 2025 but I would like to think that this is an unimaginably long time. I am for the first option.'
Do you still want to become the president of the future new Belarus?
'I have always said that my decision was not dictated by the specific goal of becoming president. The presidency is a tool and an opportunity to participate in a change in your country. I was coming from a place of promoting myself as a hired manager with personal experience and vision. But after the events of 2020, I realized that the changes taking place in our people, the events that showed the incredible talent, sincerity, and dignity of Belarusians as a nation, have greatly shifted the emphasis and requirements for the person who could, at least for some time, represent the interests of our people.
Viktor Babariko (picture Facebook)
'Therefore, I would very much like to be worthy of such people. Those who, despite all the injustice and cruelty, have preserved their purity. I understand that this past year has given us many young and worthy people who are quite capable of claiming the role of a leader. My desire was not enough before but now requirements have grown a lot. However, if the demand for my vision of the country’s development is there, I am still willing to provide all of my skills and abilities. I am able to supply them but “we shall see” whether there will be demand for it.'
What would you like to say or wish the Belarusian protesters?
'I want to address not just the Belarusians who are protesting. I would like all the citizens of our country to read these words. Each of you is unique and entitled to a personal opinion. Together, we are forming our state and nation, which is also unique and has the right to choose its own path. But each uniqueness has common values. For any individual, those are the unquestionable right of freedom of choice, respect for one’s identity, and value of life.
I bow down to those who have understood that they are masters of their destiny
'Unfortunately, the situation that has developed in our country in such a way that people’s attitude towards these values has split everybody into three categories. Those who are aware of these things and are ready to take active actions. Those who agree with the need to have this value system but are not ready to do anything for it out of fear. And those who believe they do not have the right to talk about it and who simply wait for the happiness promised by others. I would like to address every category of my compatriots.
'I bow down to those who have understood that they are masters of their destiny, and who feel their closeness and unity with all of humanity. You are true individuals, you shine the light of goodness and freedom. The trials and tribulations that you and your loved ones are going through will pay off a hundredfold and will be justified by the involvement and inspiration of other citizens of Belarus. Don’t stop! The only easy path is the path to slavery. Freedom sometimes requires firmness and steadfastness. But freedom is definitely worth it.
'I understand the indecisiveness of those who are afraid of losing the comfort and tranquility of their little world. But you need to understand that today the choice is not between a better or a good life, not between good and bad. It is choosing for future generations – to take a step forward to a better future. And for this step, you don’t even need to go outside to fight. Not committing vile and illegal acts is enough. To paraphrase Churchill: 'If a country has to choose between war and shame and it chooses shame, it will get war too.
'I would also like to address those who think that responsibility for crimes and immoral acts will be justified by saying 'we were following orders' and 'what could we have done' to reconsider. Never in history has following orders washed the blood off the hands of a murderer. Under today’s circumstances, the comforting thought of 'I tried to mitigate the brutality of the measures and orders and served my people' is not an excuse. Mitigating orders that are illegal and that violate human principles is still a crime. The future is inevitable and everyone will have to face responsibility. Therefore, it may be better to be on your own, without a team, rather than inside a team that commits or contributes to the actions destructive for everyone.
'We are Belarusians, and we must be together! Together is for the better!'
Here you can read the Russian version of the interview