"We are Lukashenko's fig leaf"
Alexander Tamkovitsch is the editor of the independent Belarusian newspaper Svobodnye Novosti and author of several books on political issues in his country. In April 2016 he published his book "The Philosophy of Good. In the Garden of Hope" on the history of the Children of Chernobyl Foundation (today called the Children's Joy Association), which, since it was founded in 1988, has helped over 600,000 children and youth from Belarus spend several weeks in numerous Western countries.
"There is one thing that I and most of the opposition can agree on with President Alexander Lukashenko: Belarus has to remain independent, and the Belarusian culture and nation must be encouraged. But that's it. Since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, Belarus is still closely tied to Russia, our independence has dwindled away into a de facto paper tiger and propaganda tool, and the Russification of Belarus is in full swing.
It's customary in Western Europe to say that Belarus is Europe's last dictatorship, but it's the second last. Russia is the last. As regards Belarus, our president's rule is increasingly becoming a totalitarian one. This is demonstrated perfectly in the media landscape. During the Soviet times, I worked as a journalist for the army and resigned with others in 1991, just prior to the ultimate end of the Soviet state. We set up an independent newspaper, Svobodnye Novosti, and quickly sold over 100,000 copies. When Lukashenko was elected president, we still had great hopes for him because he had promised a free and independent press. But that changed very quickly. There were arbitrary arrests as well as arbitrary convictions, threats and financial pressure. I found myself hit with a defamation suit by one of the president's close associates because I had described him as a bad writer in a commentary. That man is president of the government-related Journalists Union. He demanded 100 million rubles in compensation, more than 500,000 euros. This is about 100 monthly salaries. The trial was a farce. Everyone laughed, even the judge, but it was obvious that he had to hand down a verdict. In the end I was penalised with a million. I was able to scrape together the money with the help of friends.
Our newspaper circulation has shrunk to 30,000. Home delivery by mail is prohibited, and the preferential prices offered by the state's printing plant only applies to state-owned newspapers, so we have to pay the full price. This is depriving us of a financial base. Lukashenko is happy to refer to the opposition media, which can hardly stay afloat under these conditions, as proof of a free press in Belarus. We are his fig leaf. He has since lost ground. You're either for him or against him.
It's against this background that you have to understand our country's nuclear policy. 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster, which hit Belarus like no other country, a nuclear power plant is being built close to the Lithuanian border with Russian loans and Russia know-how. There is a lack of local personnel at the construction site, and from what we've heard a lot of Ukrainians are employed as temporary workers. The Chinese are building the high-voltage lines. And in Belarus, all state channels are suggesting that everything is fine in the contaminated areas and that you can lead a carefree life outside the exclusion zones. Lukashenko likes to show up there, and this is also probably the case: people like to hear good news like this, and we all want a life of normalcy. But this is wishful thinking. The reality is something different altogether. I was recently conducting research in Mogilev, one of the most contaminated regions in the country. Without even realising it, I was suddenly in the exclusion zone. The checkpoints have since become so spread out that you can hardly tell the difference between permitted and forbidden areas. Many people don't care or they have no other choice lest they become destitute. They collect mushrooms and berries from the contaminated earth and harvest timber. Nobody seems to care all that much – least of all the state, which doesn't care at all.