‘Lukashenko is one of the worst COVID [deniers] on the planet’

| April 24, 2021 | 0 Comments

Alena Liavonchanka became the chairwoman of the Belarusian Canadian Alliance in Toronto in 2017. In that capacity, she works with fellow Belarusians in Canada and worldwide to promote its culture, language, arts and to raise awareness about the political situation in Belarus. She studied biochemistry in Belarus and came to Canada as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto in 2008. In her day job, she works as a deputy director at Sanofi Pasteur, a company that makes vaccines. She did this interview with Diplomat editor Jennifer Campbell by Zoom.

Diplomat magazine: Tell me first about your organization.

Alena Liavonchanka: I’m the chair of the Belarusian Canadian Alliance. It was formed in 1948 by post-war immigrants who escaped the Soviet Union because they were not wanted there. The main mission was to preserve the spirit of independent Belarus. They were hoping that one day Belarus would become independent and [worked hard on that]. They spoke to politicians and rallied and did the research and published widely on culture, language and political history. And their dream came true in 1991. Many of them actually saw the end of the Soviet Empire. They were pretty [elderly] people at that point, but they were able to go back and see the country and see their relatives, so that was really inspirational.
Then a lot of new people came after President Alexander Lukashenko’s repressions started to happen in the 1990s. This was the second wave of immigration and a lot of these people have the same values. They are pro-democracy, they want a free Belarus, and they want to see Belarus as a national state. So basically, they picked up the mission and the mission continues to this day, unfortunately.
DM: Yes, I guess it would be nice not to have that mission, wouldn’t it?
AL: Yes, I would very much rather focus on arts and culture and language. This is where my heart is. And I still do a lot in this domain, but [lately] it [requires] a lot of political activism.

DM: Indeed. So what kind of things does your group do?
AL: Politically, last year was quite heavy. We had to petition, we had to organize rallies, we spoke to many MPs. We sent letters to Mr. [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau and [former foreign minister François-Philippe] Champagne. We’re working right now with Democratic leaders in Belarus. They’re all in exile, but we call them Belarusians. With the offices of [Opposition leader] Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, we try to do a lot of co-ordination between the leaders in Europe and Canadian members of Parliament, trying to organize meetings and deliver messages. Canada [gave] two large grants to support Belarus. And we’re hoping there will be more support and the support could be directed to people who are in need because now there are a lot of immigrants who are fleeing Belarus, and they’re settling in the Baltic states, in Ukraine and Poland. So [groups like ours] are working with MPs at the Canadian embassies in these countries, to see if they can offer direct support to journalists, IT professionals, women leaders who are settling there. They are also starting to organize charities to support people who were prosecuted and injured, and so on. That’s our mission right now. And, of course, we do lots of arts and cultural things. But unfortunately, recently, it’s been a little bit on the back burner.

DM: How long have you been in Canada?

Belarusians have been taking to the streets — at their peril as protesting can result in fines and arrests — since the lead-up to the August 2020 election. This protest took place a couple of weeks after the highly questioned re-election of autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko. (Photo: CHECK!! Homoatrox)

Belarusians have been taking to the streets — at their peril as protesting can result in fines and arrests — since the lead-up to the August 2020 election. This protest took place a couple of weeks after the highly questioned re-election of autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko. (Photo: CHECK!! Homoatrox)

AL: I came in 2008. And I came as a postdoctoral scientist to the University of Toronto. And then two years later, I joined the Belarusian Canadian Alliance. And in 2017, I was elected chair. Staying in Canada was a very conscious choice because I knew Canada was really great at welcoming new immigrants and providing opportunities. I always thought it was going to be temporary, but here I am 13 years later, and I have no plans to leave.

DM: Would you return to Belarus if it again became liberated?
AL: I think yes. This is where my heart still is and my family and my husband’s family. So we pretty much are still tied to the country and a lot of people with European education in the sciences left, and a lot of them are [thinking] we should go back because they will need our skills to rebuild the country, kickstart the economy and minimize the damage that has been done over the last year.

DM: Are your parents and your siblings there?
AL: My mother is in Canada. She came last year because she was very anxious about COVID. Because Belarus was the only country [in Europe] where there were no measures and Lukashenko is one of the worst COVID [deniers] on the planet. You probably saw that he was saying there were no viruses there and my mom was calling me every day and was saying ‘OK, I hear sirens of ambulances every day.’ As soon as flights [were available] in May, I bought her a ticket, literally on the second flight that was available from Minsk, and she’s been staying with us for the last year. I’m happy to say that this week, literally yesterday, I signed her up for vaccination, because they opened the vaccination for people her age. Hopefully with this, she can go back.

DM: Is vaccination happening in Belarus?
AL: Right now, only for frontline workers, and it depends on how fast they can get a supply of the Russian vaccine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have had an up-and-down relationship over the years. Belarusian citizens would like Putin to stop dealing with Lukashenko, whom they see as an illegitimate president. (Photo: Press service of the president of Russia)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have had an up-and-down relationship over the years. Belarusian citizens would like Putin to stop dealing with Lukashenko, whom they see as an illegitimate president. (Photo: Press service of the president of Russia)

DM: Can you tell me a little bit about how you find Canadians’ knowledge of Belarus? Do they know anything? And are they interested in the country?
AL: Surprisingly, they know a lot because of hockey and sports. Unfortunately, a lot of them know about Lukashenko, because he’s been in the news for a lot of bad reasons. So that’s negative, but it’s still publicity. What’s been amazing in the last year when we’ve been protesting, it’s amazing how many people support you on the streets. Elderly people and people of different nationalities come and say ‘Yes, guys, you are standing for the right thing.’ For example, in our protests, there are people from Iran and Venezuela protesting with us and the Ukrainian community as well. [Our] flags and colours became really recognized on the streets. And our chapter in Ottawa saw the same — really a lot of reaction from people because of what’s been in the news recently. And I think also [because of] Chernobyl.
I am a Chernobyl kid myself. I was seven when it happened and my village was evacuated within the first few months. So then, actually, partially I’m here because of this, because I was travelling as a kid on the Chernobyl Kids Assistance Program. They would take us to summer vacation in Europe. I was in Spain, Belgium, France. And I think that opened a lot of perspectives for me. Then I naturally went and studied in Europe after I graduated from university in Belarus. And I know, when I came to Canada, I was really touched because our Belarusian Canadian Alliance chapter in Ottawa was running a children’s foundation. Families would save up and invite kids for the summer to spend time in Canada. And they operated for almost 10 years and they brought about 5,000 kids to Canada. So, we are always grateful to Canada for this.

DM: Moving to politics, what do you think Lukashenko will do next?

Belarusian officials have cracked down on protesters who are demanding democracy in Belarus and, according to observers, protesting the neither free nor fair election of Alexander Lukashenko. (Photo: Homoatrox)

Belarusian officials have cracked down on protesters who are demanding democracy in Belarus and, according to observers, protesting the neither free nor fair election of Alexander Lukashenko. (Photo: Homoatrox)

AL: I think he will continue to increase the level of repression, and he will continue to prosecute people and do all he can to shut down the protests. And this trend we already see, you know, the numbers, we know that more than 36,000 people have been arrested and penalized. We know that right now we have 302 political prisoners [as of March 28, 2021]. And there are more than 2,300 cases still in court. More than 1,000 cases of torture have been documented by human rights NGOs. And we don’t see any lighter sentences or dropping cases, so it means he will keep pressuring those people and, potentially, we will see thousands of political prisoners. And the only thing that can stop him, I think, is an economic crisis, which is also looming. There’s a very high rate of inflation.
And that is growing. Reuters now places Belarus in the same bucket as such vulnerable countries as Sri Lanka, Jamaica and so on. They expect [it to] default anytime in 2021 because there is no money and Lukashenko destroyed businesses. He destroyed the IT sector, which was very profitable and was growing rapidly. The only thing that can stop him is if people go back to the street and there’s an economic crisis. He will not listen to any reason or to any attempts to diplomatically solve this crisis.
DM: You don’t really want to hope for an economic crisis though, right?
AL: No, but so far, I think there are signs that maybe someone in his entourage is listening, and he keeps shuffling the ministers responsible for the army and internal police forces. There is probably very little trust inside of the system and he’s trying to prevent a police or military coup.

Belarusian officials have cracked down on pro-democracy protests to the point where anyone showing the white and red colours of the revolution can be fined or jailed. So far, 36,000 Belarusians have been arrested and penalized, according to the Belarusian Canadian Alliance. (Photo: Homoatrox / Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News)

Belarusian officials have cracked down on pro-democracy protests to the point where anyone showing the white and red colours of the revolution can be fined or jailed. So far, 36,000 Belarusians have been arrested and penalized, according to the Belarusian Canadian Alliance. (Photo: Homoatrox / Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News)

DM: I’ve read about the termination of jobs, the university expulsions, politically motivated tax inspections. It sounds a lot like what Recep Erdogan is doing in Turkey against the members of the Hizmet (Gülen) movement. Do you see comparisons there?
AL: I don’t think it’s racial or nationality based. It’s really based on people’s activism. So if you even dare to walk on the street wearing national colours, you can get arrested. An 87-year-old Holocaust survivor was fined then arrested for holding a protest on her balcony by holding white and red balloons. [The fine totalled nearly a month’s worth of her pension.] And there was a senior woman who was fined for holding red and white marshmallows on the street. She was in court for that and she was fined.

DM: [In March,] the crisis was entering its eighth month. And now Russia seems to be actively involved in Belarusian affairs. What can the pro-democracy activists do about that?
AL: So that’s a really interesting question. As you know, the relationship with Russia has been long and not always friendly. So basically, for 200 years, we’ve been under the Russian protectorate, in one or another form. People tried to break free and they were not successful until 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart. At that point, we took it for granted and didn’t seriously reflect on the crimes of Communism and how bad Stalin was.
Now we have basically reflected and we’re doing our homework. What activists are doing now is trying to send signals to Russia that it’s not OK to support Lukashenko. And just before [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Lukashenko met last time, there was a wave of bloggers and articles saying that ‘No, you should listen to the Belarusian people, we don’t want Lukashenko. We don’t like the fact the Russian regime financially supports Lukashenko. And basically, you’re paying for beatings and shootings on the streets.’ That’s the only thing people can do publicly — voice the concern and make it loud and visible.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is leading the resistance. She's shown here at a rally in 2020. (Photo:  Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News)

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is leading the resistance. She’s shown here at a rally in 2020. (Photo: Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News)

DM: Will the Kremlin listen to them?
AL: I think there are signs now that they’re in a tight spot, they don’t have much space to manoeuvre. At the same time, they are scared by the fact that there will be a free democratic country next to the Russian border. And if the revolution is a success, it’s going to set a very good example for Russian democratic activists. I think the Kremlin and Russia are two different things. And I strongly believe the Russian people are normal people. Like anyone else on the planet, they want to have basic rights and they want to live prosperously. They want to do business. But unfortunately, what unites Russia and Belarus is autocratic leaders who do not listen to the people. What I admire is how persistent our protests are and how consolidated people are — and with very limited means — there is still a very loud voice that is saying ‘No, we don’t want Russia to support Lukashenko.’

DM: Does it worry you that they’ve held back-to-back military exercises that were just announced?
AL: It does, because it seems like too many coincidences. The national traditional celebration of freedom was on the 25th of March so I don’t think it’s a coincidence they planned it around that date [because they expected] major protests to be back on the streets. But at the same time, it’s going to be very dangerous for the reputations of Putin and Lukashenko. People still remember the [Second World War] and I think in Belarus, the reason the protest is peaceful has to do with war memories, like how bad it was then, and how many people were dying in concentration camps and just in mass killings. I think the association is very strong and if there is any military action, people will not tolerate it. It’s just dangerous for the reputation of politicians because of our history.

DM: How would you describe what happened in your country on Freedom Day (March 25)?
AL: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called for a renewal of mass demonstrations in Belarus. On March 24, Minsk saw celebratory fireworks set up by the opposition to the regime in different parts of the city. “The winter is yours, but the spring will be ours” became a popular [slogan.] Police preventively detained at least 42 people in 10 Belarusian cities on March 24, according to the Viasna Human Rights Centre. There were multiple detentions on March 25 and the centre of Minsk was completely blocked off by police forces. The government took extreme measures to prevent any protest activity, including massive fear-mongering campaigns in universities and enterprises. Despite these measures, freedom marches popped up in different parts of Belarus, even though, due to a heavy police and military presence, they could not be centralized.
The same day, Belarusian Canadians marched in socially distanced columns on the streets of Canadian cities carrying historic Belarusian national flags in solidarity with the protesters in Belarus. There was a particularly large gathering in Toronto.

DM: In early 2021, your group stated that Belarusians have not seen this level of repression since the Second World War. Is it worse now or about the same?
AL: It’s worse in the sense that you really cannot do even minor things. First, they took people from the streets, then they banned gatherings in [their own] yards, or in front of buildings and now they even fine individuals on the street. People are afraid to wear red coats or white scarves. If you’re wearing any national colours, you can get arrested. On International Women’s Day, my friend couldn’t buy white or red flowers because the vendors would refuse to sell the combination of flowers. You could buy red or white, but not red and white together. It’s literally shutting down every possible channel of even the slightest dissent.

DM: And people are being detained for displaying these colours?
AL: Yes, they can just stop you on the street and bring you to a police [precinct] and interrogate you and search through your phone without anything like court orders or permissions. They can do it on the spot and then you can get either fined or 15 days in jail for a violation of the administrative code.
What breaks my heart is a group of seniors wrote a letter saying that it’s unbearable for them to see this level of repression. They see their kids and grandkids going to jail for nothing. And, many of them are survivors of the Second World War. They were concentration camp survivors and they still remember fascism. And they’re saying ‘We never thought we would [see] this again in our lifetime, but here it is.’ I can give you citations of many women who were detained or fined, and it just breaks my heart. They built this country, they invested in it and now they see this.

DM: Many international reports are citing murder, rape and torture in detention centres, crimes that do not result in police investigations. Do these persist? What do you know about these?
AL: Yes, one man was shot in August in Brest. He had five children. So his wife is now alone. And in the trial, there were witnesses, the soldiers. And these guys on the streets were not in the military uniforms. The orders came from the defence minister — that was stated in court. Sending regular army on the streets to deal with protests is forbidden because the army is strictly for dealing with external enemies. But they admitted that and still nothing happened. There was no action. Actually, the person who was a friend of [the man who was shot], who was the witness of this, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail. But nothing was done [to] those soldiers and the military commanders who actually did that. And I think the other big case was the death of Roman Bondarenko, who was beaten to death. He died within 24 hours. He was captured in his car and then brought to police and he was dead next day in the hospital. [A doctor] reported that he had zero alcohol in his blood because officials were trying to say that he was drunk. It’s not OK to kill drunk people either, but it was an excuse. And so [the doctor] was jailed. And then the journalist who was reporting on this was also jailed. They both were sentenced.

DM: What about the treatment of people in detention centres? Is there really rape and murder and torture?
AL: Yes, and we have a lot of witnesses. Now there are actually several initiatives to collect witnesses’ reports. I think the UN investigation officially recognized 450 such reports.

DM: You said a lot of your fellow pro-democracy activists are in exile. Where are they?
AL: They’re mainly in the Baltic states, because Belarus has a direct border with Lithuania and Latvia, and also Poland and Ukraine. Those are the main places now. Some people fled to Russia, but there have been a couple of cases where Russian authorities deported Belarusian activists.

DM: What do you expect from the new Biden administration?
AL: Hopefully more co-ordinated action with European leaders because I think the U.S. can apply its weight and image as a pro-democracy country and act in co-ordination with European countries to put more pressure on the economic front and also on the political front. I think it’s important to have the U.S. as a voice in this, because it has a reputation for democratic change worldwide. If the U.S. is on our side, it’s going to send a very strong signal.

DM: It has a reputation for that, but have you seen it over the last four years?
AL: I think they were focused mainly on U.S. domestic affairs, and not so much on external affairs. Also, Belarus was relatively quiet and stable until 2020. And then what happened with COVID and then the elections — basically two campaigns — Belarus’ election and then the U.S. elections. I think when you are in an election year, you focus on your home situation, and you don’t focus much on outside situations.

DM: That said, it didn’t seem as though Lukashenko was that concerned about COVID.
AL: He is one of the worst. There were no measures. I think Belarus was the only country in Europe where there was no lockdown, ever. There were no mask requirements, there was nothing in place and there were mass gatherings with no restrictions, full steam ahead. The rationale was that [lockdowns] would do economic damage.

DM: If you were an adviser to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, what would you tell her?
AL: She and her office are doing a good job of co-ordinating all the politicians and delivering news and [making requests for help from] people and political leaders. The only thing I could add to that is to create a structure that would co-ordinate all the Belarusian diasporas abroad. We have probably between one to two million very active, very educated people, and that’s a great resource that could help influence the situation in many, many ways.

DM: In what ways do you think they could help influence it?
AL: In the U.S., Canadian and European diasporas, you can call your MP and discuss the situation. We’ve called many MPs and organized the parliamentary group for democracy in Belarus. I know similar consultations were done in the U.S. There, the diaspora spoke to senators, and they pushed for approval of this bill on democracy dollars that happened late last year. And this kind of political action is happening pretty much in every country. I think there is a little bit of centralized support, because the asks, at least, are co-ordinated. We always ask for tougher sanctions, for international criminal prosecution of all the violence and all cases of killing and torture, and also call them to influence the new election. So, [we ask them] to mediate the conflict and insist that new elections should be held and Lukashenko should resign. That’s been very consistent, and everybody knows what to do.
Diasporas can also create awareness. People are posting videos; they’re organizing video conferences. Many diasporas also run direct support projects. We collect money and buy food and necessities for people and families. The situation is now pretty dire in Belarus. Many men, for example, have been arrested and their wives are left with children and with no means. And they have to pay for the husband’s necessities in prison, because the Belarusian system is pretty awful. They give you food, but they don’t give you clothes. You have to bring vitamins and fruits, because the food is terrible. It’s just oats every day. Basically, it’s a double burden [on these women.]

DM: What would you ask Trudeau to do if you spoke to him today?
AL: I would ask him to be more direct in his condemnation of what’s happening in Belarus and I would also ask him to be more serious about sanctions. I know Canada has a limited economic relationship with Belarus, but still, it’s important to show your position. And I would also ask him to, as much as possible, work with Canadian embassies in the European countries around Belarus, such as the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, to deliver direct help for people who are fleeing. I know Canada has done a great job of accepting refugees from different crisis zones before, but now, with COVID, we cannot. So if you cannot bring them to Canada, at least please help those countries that are taking the heat and do something for those people.


Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Category: Diplomatica

About the Author ()

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *