Interview | Urmas Paet: Dictators like Lukashenko do not change

Urmas Paet MEP (Reform).
Urmas Paet MEP (Reform). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

MEP and former foreign minister Urmas Paet is pessimistic when talking about Belarus. Lukashenko will not change, he says, adding that Russia views Belarus as a tiny model of itself where a disgruntled people simply cannot be allowed to bring about a change of leadership through protests.

How to contain an authoritarian president in the heart of Europe who has his competitors thrown in jail and falsifies election results, promotes violence against peaceful protesters by the country's special forces, turns off the internet and deports members of the foreign press in an attempt to stop information from spreading?

Europe's options are limited, while we need to use what we can. It is another question whether it is enough to really keep Lukashenko in check. It does not seem to be the case at the moment.

There are not many tools at Europe's disposal. They include support for Belarus' civil society, both material and in terms of know-how, efforts to help spread the word and adopting a clear political stance on Lukashenko and sticking to it.

That's about it.

While largely a formal construct, there exists the Union State of Russia and Belarus, meaning that Russia has far more room for maneuver in Belarus than it has in other countries. On top of that, the authoritarian world, starting with China, still recognizes Lukashenko.

Europe's only path is to remain persistent and united and resist new manipulation attempts by Lukashenko.

Is there also a trap here – making too many statements in support of Belarus' civil society might afford both Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin the chance to say that the West is meddling and staging a color revolution?

(Smiles) There's no need for the hypothetical anymore. It is already unfolding, looking at recent statements from Lukashenko and Putin. Intimidating people using the supposed Western threat, as if a foreign country wants to physically separate the Grodno Oblast from Belarus…


… which is complete nonsense.

The rhetoric [of the administration in Belarus] would be the same irrespective of any potential steps by the West. Intimidation using the Western or NATO threat is a classic move hoped to consolidate the people from within.

And as concerns Europe, major political statements have already been made, starting with not recognizing Lukashenko as a legitimate leader because he stole the election. Any further steps should proceed from there. Europe's persistence remains to be seen.

The EU is drafting sanctions against Belarusian officials who can be associated with voter fraud and violence against protesters. It could take as long as until the end of September to agree on a full list of sanctions. Why so long?

As has been the case in the past – member states disagree, at least initially. Whether to lay down sanctions at all and if so then against which officials and on which levels, whether to go as far as Lukashenko…

Should sanctions also hit Lukashenko?

If that is the path that has been chosen, I see no other option. The answer is yes. But if we look at the EU's treatment of Russia following events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, a number of Russians are under sanctions today, while Putin and several high-ranking [Russian] policymakers are not.

Today, Europe's criticism has been aimed against a single person – Lukashenko. And once we've said A, we should also say B. Provided the EU gets as far as sanctioning Belarusian officials, it would be strange for Lukashenko to be missing from that list.

What is the significance of sanctions by the three Baltic countries that were announced on Monday?

The significance lies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania having clearly said where they stand. That there is no way back from here.

The downside is that sanctions would have more political weight if agreed on the EU level and not laid down by member states individually. This allows others to say that some states have introduced sanctions without a common EU position, we do not like that and will therefore not have sanctions at all.

These solo acts are not good from the point of view of common foreign policy, but…

Was that criticism for the Baltic states for getting ahead of things?

I would not call it criticism per se, as it is clear events in Belarus excite the Baltics more than countries in Western Europe.

The choice was to take forceful steps and not wait because, as you yourself said, EU sanctions could take as long as late September to arrive. Or they might not come at all. All member states need to agree, and while it might seem surprising from our point of view just how difficult it is to find that consensus, that is the reality of the situation today.

Following sanctions against Russia, a number of EU member states are skeptical of using sanctions in Eastern Europe as they take several options off the table while not yielding any fast gains.

Toomas Sildam and Urmas Paet. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

You met with Lukashenko in Minsk in October of 2009 – 11 years ago. What kind of a man is he?

The man I met back then was no different to the man the world sees today. All these images of him running into the street holding an assault rifle, cursing his enemies and demonstrating corresponding behavior – physical strength, imprisonment…

He was quite… boisterous during our meeting. His position was very pragmatic and centered around his power. He was critical of Russia at the time for seeking to construct the Nord Stream gas pipeline that was harming Belarus' interests and those of Lukashenko.

He will play ball with the West if he needs to, for example, by releasing a few political prisoners, while he locks them right up again as soon as he gets what he wants.

When we saw Belarus and the EU seemingly moving closer to one another a while ago, did you believe anything good and permanent could come of that?

No. For as long as Lukashenko remains president among like-minded individuals, the state of Belarus cannot be changed. Lukashenko will not change. As long as he remains in power, the state of Belarus will be violent toward its citizens and manipulative in its communication with the outside world.

Baltic premiers and foreign ministers wanted to fly to Minsk together to meet with the head of the Belarus government and foreign affairs minister, as well as with representatives of the opposition, but the regime did not agree to it. What could such a visit have achieved?

It is clear they do not want to see the prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and other Western leaders thereafter the latter said a few days prior that they do not recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate head of state, more so because since the government of a presidential country is appointed by the president, that government is by extension also illegitimate. Expecting to be welcomed with open arms after making such statements is… a lot to ask for. They do not want openly hostile characters to travel to Minsk to lend strength and courage to the opposition. That is the reality today.

What were the Baltic premiers hoping to achieve… Mainly to make statements in support of the opposition, say something positive to the Belarus civil society and home audiences. There are absolutely no grounds for dreaming about a serious dialogue with Lukashenko and his clique.

Because Lukashenko does not want his domestic crisis mediated by international agents, Putin is now the de facto mediator between the West and Lukashenko. What does that entail?

I do not see him as a mediator but as one of the principal owners of the situation in Belarus today and, I'm afraid to say, also tomorrow. This naive talk of Russia remaining a bystander and not interfering in Belarusian affairs – it cannot be taken seriously.

Russia is no independent mediator. Then again, what is there to mediate? The regime in Belarus and Lukashenko have very clearly decided to only leave in a pine box and to quash all manner of resistance. Russia is clearly behind this stance as it would only stand to lose from any alternative. Therefore, I cannot see Lukashenko – for as long as he keeps feeling strong – prepared to make concessions or cut deals of any kind.

When Putin said he had put Russia's internal security reserve on high alert should protests turn violent following a request from Lukashenko, was it a threat, a warning…

It was a threat and a warning. If so far, people have had the feeling that they can continue to stage peaceful protests despite sporadic violence from the authorities, Putin's message comes as a warning to the people of Belarus that things can get much worse in a heartbeat.

Or is Putin playing both sides, demonstrating his support for Lukashenko, while saying that he will not intervene as long as protests remain peaceful?

It is meant for public consumption by Belarusians. It is a threat on the one hand and a call for people to restrain themselves on the other.

The Belarusians have been astonishingly peaceful during protests and have refrained from looting or throwing rocks at police officers.

Yes, and while that is all well and good, what have they achieved?

You say that as if you believe the Belarusians should be more forceful when protesting.

I'm not in a position to advise the Belarus opposition.

However, I cannot think of any peaceful protests that led to a dictator apologizing and stepping down nicely in Europe from the last few decades.

At the same time, Lukashenko seems nervous – he appeared near his residence, wearing a bullet-proof vest and wielding a Kalashnikov assault rifle twice and called for military armored personnel carriers to guard his residence during the August 30 protests.

Naturally, you are nervous if you have over 100,000 people in the streets. Every dictator knows their fate should the people really lose their patience. Hence his reaction – he does not want that fate, while he sees there is no room for compromise in society. The only other choice is the use of force.

You do not think it possible the power pyramid in Belarus could see the kind of fracture we saw in Romania in 1989?

I would not introduce such a parallel. Of course, it depends on where the loyalties of the army, security and police forces lie. The thing that makes this question complicated in Belarus is the close relationship these structures have with their Russian counterparts.

To what extent can Russia look at events in Belarus more calmly than it could events in Ukraine in 2013-2014 as the Belarusians are not demanding the country move closer to the EU, not to mention NATO.

It is just the opposite. The situation in Belarus is a greater concern for Putin and those standing close to him than was the case in Ukraine.

Why? Belarus and Russia are more closely tied than Ukraine and Russia. The two countries are also ruled similarly – looking at how Putin has ruled Russia and Lukashenko Belarus, it is the same modus operandi. That is why the Kremlin sees Belarus as a scale model of Russia. Which is all the more reason for it not to be content to simply look on.

In other words, Russia is doing everything it can to avoid a situation where there would be a change of leadership in Belarus following popular protests?

Yes, of course.

There have been mass protests in several major Russian cities. Should the civil society or opposition in Belarus succeed in something like this [removing Lukashenko from power], it would inspire the likeminded part of Russian society. Yes, the Russian administration will do everything it can to burst the Belarus bubble.

Hundreds of people gathered to form a human chain in Tallinn to support Belarusians. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Do you believe the protests in Belarus are staged by a well-organized opposition or are they rather tens and hundreds of thousands of disgruntled people? A lot of chaos and a few leaders, in other words?

Rather it is the latter. We cannot see a very systematic political opposition movement, unlike what we saw in Ukraine for a time, as something like that has never been allowed to come about in Belarus. Lukashenko and his regime have made sure that anyone who sticks their nose out too far ends up in jail.

We cannot see clear political leaders [on the opposition's side] in Belarus today. Even Lukashenko's rival candidate at elections came about half-randomly when the wife of a famous blogger who was sent to prison had to take over his platform without any prior social activity on her part.

What we can see in the streets of Belarus is rather a display of public dissatisfaction, which actually sends a stark message to the regime. It means that this is not just political maneuvering and that a lot of people really want change. On the other hand, it might all come to nothing without a clear structure and activity plan.

Perhaps it is what these protests have going for themselves, that they cannot be quashed by picking off the leaders because they don't have any leaders and rulers have really come face to face with their people?

Indeed. But if nothing changes after you've spent weeks protesting in the streets…

Still, Lukashenko is talking once again about a constitutional reform that would mean a new constitution, a referendum, dialing back presidential authority and eventually new presidential elections. Could that bring about a long-awaited solution to this crisis?

I remain highly skeptical. Can anyone really imagine Lukashenko allowing a free referendum, honest debate over constitutional changes and free presidential elections? A person must be very naive to think Lukashenko could mean any of it. Even if he agrees to amend the constitution, it will be to cement his place at the head of the country.

Dictators like that do not change. He stands to lose a great deal. Even if Lukashenko were to give up power, can anyone imagine he could simply retire in Belarus after everything he has done to certain people?

He either has no future at all or it will be spent in oblivion in a dacha near Moscow.

Are you a pessimist?

I am a pessimist because I cannot see Aleksandr Lukashenko as someone with whom any normal kind of deal could be made.

What will become of Belarus?

(Pauses) That is difficult to say. I would like to see Belarus become a free society eventually as no dictator lives forever. But looking at developments today, Russia's role and Lukashenko's fear of losing power – it may take a long time.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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