'No possibility' of dissent in Belarus against joining Russia's war on Ukraine: human rights activist
Ukraine says Belarus could become directly involved in the Russian invasion. This comes as Russia sent thousands of troops to Belarus to attack Ukraine from the north and NATO has accused the Russian Air Force of flying warplanes from airfields in Belarus last week. “We all know, see and understand that the territory of Belarus is used for conducting the war against Ukraine,” says Natallia Satsunkevich, an activist with the leading independent Belarusian human rights group Viasna. She links the degradation of civil society in Belarus to the criminalization of human rights actors and protesters. Satsunkevich also says the referendum vote on housing Russian nuclear weapons was unfair and describes how Putin’s backing of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus has worsened human rights in the country.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
As we continue to look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we turn now to look at the role of Belarus. On Friday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. The meeting came a day after a NATO official accused Russia of flying warplanes from airfields in Belarus. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Putin stationed thousands of Russian troops in Belarus. These troops then took part in the invasion of Ukraine from the north. Ukrainian officials have expressed concern Belarus may soon send troops into Ukraine and become directly involved in the war.
We’re joined now by Natallia Satsunkevich. She works with the human rights group Viasna, which is one of the top independent human rights organizations in Belarus. Viasna means “Spring” in Belarusian. Seven Viasna — of the group’s members are detained for their work. In 2020, the group received the Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel Peace Prize,” for, quote, “their resolute struggle for the realization of democracy and human rights in Belarus.” Natallia is joining us from Lithuania.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe the situation in Belarus, for people to understand it being used as a major staging ground for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
NATALLIA SATSUNKEVICH: [inaudible]
AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. If you could start again? You might be talking, but I can’t hear you, so I need to get a — well, let me go to, while we check your sound, the Belarusian foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, speaking —
NATALLIA SATSUNKEVICH: Can you hear me?
AMY GOODMAN: I hear you right now. OK, we will go right to you. Can you describe the role of Belarus in the invasion, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
NATALLIA SATSUNKEVICH: Yes, sure. Thank you for your interest in Belarus and this topic. And it’s a pretty hard question for Belarusians and civil society of Belarus and, of course, human rights organizations, because we work a lot with Ukrainian colleagues, and we see the situation, and we all know, see and understand that the territory of Belarus is used for conducting the war against Ukraine. But we see, from the first day of the war, that there are a lot of protests in Belarus from people against the war and participation of Belarus there. And there were arrested up to 1,000 people around the whole country protesting against the war. And also there are even criminal cases when people started criticizing the Belarusian authorities about their actions and participation in the war.
And also, I think that the main problem between these negotiations between Putin and Lukashenko is that the Belarusian people, do not know what is the sense and details of these meetings. Yeah, we can’t influence Alexander Lukashenko, on decisions, and there is no possibility to express your opinion now in Belarus and to influence the situation, and even any attempt to exercise your rights in Belarus now is strongly repressed by authorities. It started in summer 2020; until today, the situation goes only worse and worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about your colleagues in prison right now with Viasna?
NATALLIA SATSUNKEVICH: Sure. Today is exactly eight months that they were — three of my colleagues were arrested, and they are still now at the pretrial detention center. And we don’t know any details of their criminal case, because nobody tells us the details. And we see that there is an investigation, but it’s not very active. And actually, they are, like, blamed for doing a financial crime, but this repression is about human rights defenders from Viasna. It’s only because of their human rights job.
And I also would also like to remind you that my colleague, coordinator of volunteers, Maryia Rabkova, was arrested in September of 2020. So, about a year and a half, she’s in prison waiting for a court trial, and she faced up to 20 years. She could receive up to 12 years of prison. And there are more than 1,000 political prisoners in Belarus. And the conditions where they stay, are awful. It influences extremely on their health. And there is at least one case when a person died in Belarusian prison, a political prisoner. So, I really call you to keep in focus this topic also, political prisoners in Belarus, and to spread this information, to show your solidarity and to support them by sending letters and postcards of solidarity from all countries, from the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Natallia, can you talk about the latest referendum held just last weekend, the referendum opening the door for Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus, and the significance of this?
NATALLIA SATSUNKEVICH: Yeah, the results of this referendum, it was like as we expected, unfortunately. The whole process was done in this atmosphere of fear and repression. And those people who tried to protest against the results of the referendum were arrested on Sunday, on the elections day. And also there were no free media, no access to any information except propaganda, state propaganda. And, of course, we can’t rely on the results. And, like, this referendum, as all previous elections in Belarus, they were not free, not fair, and it’s not the result of people’s voting.
AMY GOODMAN: And the repression in Belarus after and during the protests that began in 2020, and Russia’s role in the suppression of those protests?
NATALLIA SATSUNKEVICH: Of course, we see that the Lukashenko regime is so strong because of the support of Russia and Putin personally. We do not see Russian forced agencies in Belarus, I mean, during the protests in August 2020 and later, but we know that it could happen. And that’s a very strange situation when one state influences so much another independent state.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation. It’s so rare to speak to someone from Belarus. You have left the country. We’re speaking to you now in Vilnius, Lithuania. Natallia Satsunkevich is with the Belarusian human rights group Viasna. Part 2 will be at democracynow.org.
We dedicate today’s show to our colleague Brent Renaud and to all those who have died during this invasion. He went to Ukraine to document the refugees from Ukraine and global refugees around the world.
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