Valery Tsepkalo is a former 2020 Belarussian Presidential Candidate; First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (1994-1997); Ambassador of Belarus to the United States (1997-2002), and Director of the Belarusian Hi-Tech Park (2005-2017).

Dmitry Bolkunets is a Belarusian political scientist, an author of a popular YouTube channel, and one of the organizers of the Forum of Democratic Forces of Belarus. Dmitry’s work has been published in hundreds of media outlets, mainly in Russian (Echo of Moscow, Forbes, etc), and he had commented for The Washington Post.

How is the political climate today in Belarus? Are things stable?

DB: The Lukashenko regime is in full control of the internal situation. Every day there are arrests and searches of citizens who participated in protests and read opposition media all over the country. More than 1,500 people are political prisoners. About 900 people have been deemed “terrorists” by the regime. Media outlets that criticized government policies have been eliminated. In two years, the regime has been able to consolidate its power through repression. People are afraid to express their opinions. Several hundred thousand have left the countries for political reasons.

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How do regular citizens of Belarus feel about the war in Ukraine? Do they support the Russian invasion?

VT: Polls conducted by various think tanks show that more than 95% are against the war in Ukraine and Belarusians who are in exile are all strongly opposed to the war.

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DB: I also conducted a poll and found similar results: In February and March there was panic among the population. Citizens were buying up foodstuffs in stores. Now the rush has subsided.

But Russian media is not that effective in Belarus, right?

DB: At the same time, Russian and Belarusian TV channels have a great influence on the formation of public opinion in Belarus. They openly support Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It’s interesting how Lukashenko has changed his position. Two years ago, on all Belarusian state TV channels, Russia and Putin were the enemy, but now the propaganda has completely changed its position.

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If Lukashenko decides to send his troops into Ukraine – what effect do you think it would have in Belarusian society?

VT: There is a risk that Lukashenko will give an order to use the Belarusian Army against Ukraine. In February and March, when there was talk about it, there was panic in the society. The authorities had to deny the involvement of the Belarusian military. It is necessary to consider the consequences this will lead to.

What do you think could happen?

VT: If Lukashenko dares to send the army of Belarus against Ukraine, it will lead to the inevitable deaths of soldiers and may lead to popular uprisings throughout the country. Especially in small towns. There is no telling how the military high command will behave. Lukashenko understands these risks and will postpone such a scenario until the last moment.

Why did the massive protests after the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections fail?

DB: The protests that took place in Belarus in the summer and fall of 2020 were the result of systemic mistakes by the authorities. It is worth admitting that the Lukashenko regime and the opposition were not prepared for such mass protests. The key mistake of the opposition was that no one took responsibility or took overpower. There was no political force, which would declare itself a provisional government and ensure the isolation of Lukashenko.

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Hypothetical question: If tomorrow the FSB/KGB were to explode a building in Minsk, for instance, would the Belarusian people likely believe Russian propaganda saying that “it was Ukraine ” – and so support joining the war? 

DB: Over the past 10 years, there have been many provocations in Belarus, in which the authorities were accused by Ukraine. The head of the KGB spoke about some jeeps and tons of explosives that were brought to overthrow Lukashenko several times.

Was it effective?

DB: No, most Belarusians do not believe such stories. In 2011, there was a terrorist attack in the subway in Minsk, which helped Lukashenko extinguish public discontent over economic problems and open a new “diplomatic window” to Europe. Many believe that Lukashenko’s eldest son was involved in the organization of that terrorist attack.

New terrorist attacks on the territory of Belarus can’t be ruled out. This could be done as a pretext for dragging the army of Belarus against Ukraine. But such actions may also have the opposite effect.

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How did Russia and Lukashenko react to the protests after the 2020 elections? What changed?

DB: From the start of the elections in May 2020 until the end of July, the Russian media provided virtually no coverage of the elections in Belarus. Lukashenko believed that the Kremlin was preparing to replace him, and this was the main topic of all closed meetings of officials. After August 9, the situation changed dramatically. Lukashenko blamed the West for the protests, and Russia began to save him. For the Kremlin, it is unacceptable for the people of Belarus to change power through protests. For two years, the Lukashenko regime, supported by Russia, has strengthened its power, and has fallen into complete dependence on Moscow.

The Belarusian opposition has had two years since the protests: How has the opposition changed to be more competitive?

VT: In the 2020 election, major candidates were arrested and not allowed to run. Then the three headquarters teamed up and chose Svetlana Tihanovskaya as the technical protest candidate. The main slogans of the entire campaign were the release of political prisoners and new elections. It worked; Lukashenko was defeated. After August 10, 2020, the united headquarters ceased to exist. Tikhanovskaya left for Lithuania, and she was surrounded by people who were not on the same team as her. All those who had helped in the elections were cut off from working with her. In two years, a segmentation of the opposition took shape.

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And what has been the result of that?

VT: The Belarusian democratic movement today is in such a state that it is not able to become a real alternative to the current regime.  It is characterized by disunity, lack of coordination and interaction. After August 2020, the joint headquarters of democratic forces, which ensured the defeat of citizen Lukashenko in the presidential elections, was de facto dissolved. “Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Office”, which is in fact the institution of one person, was created in its place.

Why did it fail?

VT: People who did not participate in the political campaign of 2020 and were not even on the territory of Belarus began to define the political agenda of the Office. Formed in place of the broadest political movement, the so-called “ST Office” curtailed contacts with participants of the political campaign of 2020 and sought to sideline the “old opposition” away from public life.

In August 2020, in case of the victory and dictator’s departure, Belarusians saw the opportunity to vote for their candidate in a new and fair election in six months’ time. This was the campaign promise of the joint headquarters. Now people are being convinced that they voted and went out on the street for the “new leader”.  This drastically narrows the social base of supporters of change. Far from all in Belarus, the world agrees that their “new leader” will be an accidental person who has never worked or participated in public activities. Most people don’t see her as the “new leader” that she proclaimed herself to be in 2022.

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You have a new plan for the opposition – what is it?

DB: Participants of the Forum of Democratic Forces of Belarus developed a strategy to overcome the political crisis. It is planned to create a center of power that would claim responsibility for Belarus in the transition period as follows. Elect the National Council of the Republic of Belarus, which will become a prototype of the Parliament for a transitional period. This will be the only legitimate body since its elections will be transparent and honest. The work of the National Council shall strictly observe the principles of democracy and freedom of speech. Elections to the National Council shall be held on an electronic basis with the participation of citizens of Belarus inside and outside the country. To create an advanced electronic platform where citizens of Belarus could constantly freely interact in various fields, including politics, economy, culture.

How is this plan different from what the opposition has currently been doing?

DB: So far, no one in the opposition has offered a coherent plan. Last year, Svetlana Tihanovskaya suggested and promised negotiations with Lukashenko and has not yet reported on the results.

How will you unite the opposition?

VT:  Unification is possible not around a leader, but around principles and goals. This will be the basis for the preparation of the elections to the people’s parliament, the National Council. We are confident that such an elected institution has been given the opportunity for official recognition by the international community.

Do you think that Putin will annex Belarus to Russia?

DB: De facto, Belarus is under the full control of Moscow.

Why should the West pay attention to Belarus?

VT: Resolving the political crisis in Belarus is in the interests of the West. The Lukashenko regime poses a threat to regional security in the region. The hijacking of an airplane, the migration crisis, the provision of Belarusian territory for an attack on Ukraine – these are examples of threats to further escalation of the situation in the region.

DB: We must take every possible means available to stop the war in Ukraine.

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