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Hanna Liubakova: “Ukraine Cannot Be Secure Without a Free Belarus”

Hanna Liubakova is a freelance journalist and researcher from Belarus who left his country in 2020 due to political prosecution. She started her career at Belsat, the only independent Belarusian TV channel, where she worked as a correspondent and TV presenter. She was a recipient of the Václav Havel Journalism Fellowship at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Czechia, as well as a World Press Institute Fellowship in the United States. Hanna received a degree in Art History in 2010 from The Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and in 2017 a Master of Arts with distinction in International Journalism from Brunel University in London.

Witold Dobrowolski, a Polish journalist who was arrested and tortured by the Belarusian police, told me that in Hong Kong they arrested 8,000 people in a year, but in Belarus there were 7,000 in just three days, meaning that the repression was very harsh and indiscriminate. Did this repression suppress the protest movement?

Of course. Repression was the main reason why people stopped protesting openly, and that is still the case. However, I think in August, in the beginning, it had a completely different effect because the level of violence made people angry instead of afraid. That’s when the regime got scared.

At the beginning of August, there was a lot of violence on the streets; people were beaten, arrested, raped in prisons, and tortured. Terrible things happened. I was in Minsk at the time, and I remember that in many conversations in the streets, people talked about friends or acquaintances who had been arrested or beaten.

People were shocked and, at the same time, angry. On August 16, there was a massive demonstration in Minsk; it seemed that the whole city had taken to the streets; I myself was surprised that so many people were protesting against Lukashenko, even people who were politically neutral but really angry. I think Lukashenko lost that day.

However, the reason why Lukashenko has stayed in power is that he has the support of the regime: the police, the army, vertical organizations, etc. He is not strong, but the system he has created is strong. That is why he was not defeated.

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Moreover, the more people were arrested and convicted, and the more leaders were prosecuted or forced into exile, the greater the fear. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and has overcome many crises, and that experience also convinced many to leave the streets.

In an interview in March this year, journalist Inna Kochetkova, deputy editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, said that her newspaper was subjected to state censorship for covering the protests, and in October 2021, it disappeared. Does free media still exist in Belarus?

Yes, despite censorship, there are still regional and national media whose editorial offices are often abroad, but with journalists working in Belarus, sometimes with a low profile or even anonymously. They may not do investigative work, but they cover what is going on and share it with those of us outside.

And then there is the “citizen journalism” that is developing in Belarus. There are several projects underway that every day receives thousands of images or videos where people send in information about Russian troop movements or missile launches against Ukraine. This gives us a lot of hope, although, of course, the regime wants to outlaw, criminalize and ban professional journalism.

However, one way or another, information reaches society, and the regime cannot stop it. According to surveys, 30% of the population watches state television, but only 20% of the audience believes its news. This is a very low figure. However, the power of propaganda should not be underestimated; I see it in my own family, but Belarus is not Russia, and our people distrust the official media.

On July 4, the trial began against journalist Katsiaryna Andreeva on charges of “treason against the state,” a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. What can you tell me about this case?

Katsiaryna is one of the bravest journalists in Belarus, and I have worked with her on several field investigations. She had already been arrested before November 2020 because she was one of the most visible journalists, always on the front line, always covering the protests.

She also wrote a book with her husband, “Belarusian Donbas,” about Belarusian fighters on both sides in Ukraine, which the regime banned as “extremist” in March 2021. In November 2020, she covered the demonstration in memory of Raman Bandarenka, who was beaten to death a year earlier and was arrested.

She was supposed to be released after two years in prison, but new charges of “State treason” were brought and she has been sentenced to eight years in prison. Her treason has been to be a journalist and to cover everything that is happening in Belarus. It is now our duty to help her and secure her release.

In 2021 there were two very serious cases: the hijacking of the Ryanair plane to arrest blogger Roman Protasevich, and the murder in Kyiv of opposition figure Vitaly Shishov. Don’t you think there was a lack of international pressure on the Lukashenko regime?

If we look at sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, they became important after the hijacking of the Ryanair plane. The previous ones were only visa sanctions against oligarchs and were easily avoidable. And even the June 2021 sanctions, which included sanctions against the Belarusian economy, had many loopholes, and the regime was able to continue trading its main products.

This shows that the EU and the world were not prepared to confront Lukashenko, and in part, this has allowed him to stay in power and help Putin in his war of aggression against Ukraine. I don’t want to sound harsh, but sanctions should have been imposed from the beginning, and that takes a lot of courage and determination.

And that only started after the hijacking of the Ryanair plane, which is one of the most terrible things Lukashenko has done, but we still do not see a strong reaction against the regime other than the imposition of sanctions which, to this day, the Belarusian oligarchs and companies continue to evade in many cases.

Lukashenko must be punished, but at the same time, support must be given to the Belarusian people who are hostages of their government.

On July 1st, Danuta Piarednia, a 20-year-old student, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for posting an anti-war text on her social networks. Has the war in Ukraine led to increased repression?

Yes, because the regime did not expect what we saw on February 27, three days after the start of the war, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets all over the country in support of Ukraine. More than a thousand people were arrested that day, many were tortured in prison, and criminal proceedings were initiated. In 2020, sentences were 15 days in prison. Now they can be up to 15 years.

State violence and terror have become normalized, and the police are increasingly repressive. However, we have also seen more than 80 sabotages against railway lines to prevent the movement of Russian troops into Ukraine. Some of these partisans –as we call them– have been arrested and now face the death penalty because the regime has changed the law to include “attempted terrorist act” in the crimes punishable by death.

Many Belarusians have relatives in Ukraine, which they consider a sister nation, making this war very unpopular. Is this the reason why the Belarusian army has not yet participated in the war?

The Belarusian army has not joined the war for several reasons. One is low morale – soldiers do not want to fight, they do not want to die for Putin in a war that is not theirs. Another reason is military capability, most of the soldiers are conscripts, and there are few troops ready to go into combat. It is a defensive army, not an offensive one.

And, of course, there is a consensus in Belarusian society, the nomenklatura, and the regime, that we should not join this war. An official poll indicated that between 86 and 97 percent of Belarusians do not want to send troops to Ukraine. Otherwise, the situation would be truly explosive and destabilize the regime. If body bags started arriving in Belarus, it would provoke a backlash and a wave of protests, and that would not be good for Putin or Lukashenko.

Putin uses Belarus as a launching pad for the invasion and Lukashenko allows his territory to be used to attack another country, so the Belarusian regime is also an aggressor. This second front is a constant threat to Kyiv, and, from a military point of view, this is more important than sending Belarusian troops to war.

On the contrary, many Belarusians have voluntarily joined the Ukrainians and even formed their own units. What do you think of these volunteers, and what do they represent for the opponents of the regime? What fate awaits them if they fall into Russian hands?

The regime fears these fighters because Lukashenko feels they could turn the tide if there is no other way out of the protests. The Belarusian army does not have this experience and will hardly be able to cope with these men if they return to Belarus to support the protests.

Of course, if they are hostages of the Russian army or the so-called People’s Republics, they cannot expect a fair trial. Nor is there any state to protect them, so they are defenseless.

They could be sent to Belarus for trial and, given the regime’s harsh repression, be accused of, for example, terrorism. Their fate, in any case, is frightening. I know that some of them carry explosive devices to kill themselves before they fall into Russian hands because their fate is already decided anyway.

Is the future of Belarus tied to the survival of Ukraine and the outcome of this war?

Yes, because to defeat Putin is to defeat Lukashenko. When Ukraine wins the war, new opportunities will open up for Belarusians. Of course, they will be more motivated, but Putin’s defeat will also lead to less support for the regime.

Lukashenko will be more confused and frustrated, more willing to find a solution or compromise with the West. It will also break the regime as many of his loyalists will turn against him. And, of course, Ukraine cannot be secure without a free Belarus.

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