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Valery Kavaleŭski: ‘The Future of Belarus Is Being Decided in Ukraine’

Valery Kavaleŭski is the Head of Cabinet of Representatives of Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja, the assumed winner of Belarusian Presidential election of 2020.Kavaleŭski previously worked as a Belarusian diplomat and at the World Bank. Europe Elects interviewed him about Belarus, Russia and the Kremlin invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s 2021 pseudo-academic paper on the links between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus is now infamous. Its grim ideology played out on Ukraine’s ‘wild fields’ its arguments strewn on the bloody streets of Bucha and Mariupol, Borodianka and Kharkhiv. In the paper he argues that Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians are all descendants of ‘one nation’, bound together by history.

In some ways the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affirmed Putin’s thesis. But instead of demonstrating that the centralised state in Moscow is destined to rule Ukraine and Belarus, it has shown that the peoples of Eastern Europe are united in the fight against authoritarian hegemony.

For Valery Kavaleŭski, the head of Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja’s opposition cabinet of Belarus, the freedom of the country is directly tied to the independence of Ukraine. In a wide-ranging interview, exclusively with Europe Elects, he states that far from being a peripheral player, the government of dictator Alaksandr Łukašenka is a decisive actor in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, Kavaleŭski argues, Łukašenka’s actions in supporting Putin jeopardise Belarusian sovereignty more directly than ever. Whilst the dictator facilitates the murder of Ukrainians, the Belarusian people have joined the fight on the side of Ukraine. They know that the freedom and integrity of Belarus is directly at stake in this conflict for the heart of Eastern Europe.

Ruairidh Irwin, Europe Elects correspondent: Would you argue that Łukašenka is directly complicit in the invasion of Ukraine?

Valery Kavaleŭski: Yes, Łukašenka started this war. He is an accomplice. He’s an enabler and facilitator from day one. And I would even argue that because of Łukašenka’s willingness to host Russian troops on our territory, Putin decided to venture into this rather risky adventure and tried to capture Ukraine and sort of to try to achieve the objectives. Because with the Belarusian territory, Russia essentially encircled Ukraine received a significant military advantage and was able to attack Ukraine from the North. This is exactly why the Russians are now by Kyiv, the capital city [Russia announced a withdrawal from Kyiv Oblast on the 29th of March]. So the role of Łukašenka is really, really bad. This action should receive appropriate assessment by the democratic community of the West, the EU and others.

OMON riot police stand ominously over protestors. According to the UN the force is complicit in beatings, torture and even rape // Image: Ruairidh Irwin

RI: So you would say a huge part of the Russian strategy in Ukraine has been to utilise Belarusian space and infrastructure in order to launch the invasion? And that without this support the invasion would look completely different?

VK: Not just huge, decisive. He supported the invasion from day one. Again, this is an ally, the only ally of Russia that has now provided civil military infrastructure for Russians to launch attacks on the land and the air by missiles. They use the comfort zones of Belarus to replenish supplies, to rest, to heal the soldiers, to give them as much care as necessary to feed them and so on and so forth. So as this is a very important element of the war for Russians, they feel comfortable about this. Sometimes people ask me what happens if Łukašenka joins the war? What if he sends Belarusian troops to participate in combat operations in Ukraine? He is already part of the war. It is there already.

Łukašenka is trying really hard to portray himself as a peacemaker in the region proclaiming ‘I wish for both parties to make peace with each other. Russia and Ukraine’, but this is as hypocritical as one can get. There’s a good word in English to describe this, that I can’t remember at the moment…

RI: Conniving?

VK: Yes, correct. Something so hypocritical, to the point that it is perverted. He is part of the war, he’s killing these people and then he’s welcoming refugees from these cities, saying ‘you will have peace here. Please come. I wish you the best’. This is as low as one can get. He hit rock bottom not once every single day.

A protestor stands on the streets of Minsk in August 2020 // Image: Ruairidh Irwin

RI: Do you consider the Russian troops in Belarus to be an occupying force in that case?

VK: Yes. Łukašenka not only backstabbed Ukrainians, but also backstabbed Belarusians. He brought a hostile force onto our territory, a force that doesn’t look at us as equals, or as a nation of our own. Russians view Belarus in the same light that they view Ukrainians. So at any point of time if they see any signs of disagreement from Belarusian people, Russians would be willing to turn around and do the same against us.

If we had a legitimate government, there would be a procedure to talk to the parliament to ask permission to hear the voice of people. We could ask; ‘What do you think about bringing all these masses of foreign troops on our territory for unspecified purposes?’. The present situation is much, much worse because Łukašenka does not have legitimacy. He lost the elections [to Cichanoŭskaja] in August 2020. He maintains power exclusively by applying force against people, by repressions, by arresting, by killing, by torturing, by forcing people out of the country. So we have a situation where somebody who doesn’t have the right to be, in power is also doing a crime and exercising something so controversial, so dubious, to the point that it endangers the very existence of the Belarusian state. So there’s a huge pile of controversies, violations, and inconsistencies that make Łukašenka somebody who’s committing high treason on a daily basis against innocent people.

‘… we know for a fact that Russian counterintelligence is controlling General Staff and Ministry of Defence in Belarus.’

Valery Kavaleŭski

RI: Do you think his actions threaten Belarus’s sovereignty?

VK: Yes, very much so, actually in our assessment he has already lost control of several significant segments of the governance of the Belarusian state. This includes defence, foreign policy, national security, economic policy, and information security. All these segments are being controlled by Russians.

RI: What does that mean, directly controlled by the Russian state? Or simply that Łukašenka is in a position whereby he can’t act independently of the Russian state?

VK: Both. For example, we know for a fact that Russian counterintelligence is controlling General Staff and Ministry of Defence in Belarus. The second option is also valid; certain foreign policy choices cannot be made by Łukašenka because he is so constricted by Russians. He understands that he’s not able to make the choices that that might be helpful for the national interests of Belarus.[LJ1] 

RI: Did you say that the Russian military intelligence is directly controlling parts of the Belarussian Ministry of Defence?

VK: These are the reports we’re receiving from Belarus. Ministry of Defence and General Staff.

RI: Okay.

VK: This is why we’re saying that Belarus is under de facto occupation. Maybe it doesn’t appear to be the sort of belligerent occupation in which somebody applies force and replaces the administration. Instead it is a non-belligerent type of occupation in which a foreign power maintains strong control over the existing administration, limits choices, forces its will on the government and imposes decisions. That is what we’re seeing now.

RI: With that in mind, how has the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the strategy of the Belarusian opposition?

VK: for the last 18 months we were fighting for democracy and human rights in order to resolve the Belarusian crisis by peaceful means with new, free and fair elections. But on 24 February, everything changed. This still remains our priority and objective but at the same time, our ultimate priority became to defend and preserve the independence and sovereignty of Belarus, something that has become so severely endangered right before our eyes.

It has also changed the needs of democratic forces. Now we are working on subversive operations on the ground in Belarus. There are a lot of independent commissions who work on the ground who try to stop the advancement of Russian troops towards Ukraine through sabotage on the railroads or through cyber operations.

We see scores, hundreds of volunteer fighters go into Ukraine, joining the armed forces of Ukraine. There are different estimates, but by now, there are between 500 and 1500 of already on the ground. According to the estimates of journalists it is now the number two ethnic force now in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

So we see that the protest has evolved in many ways, and one of the ways is to run these sabotage operations against the regime.

RI: Do you detect significant opposition within the Belarus army to the potential involvement of Belarusian forces in Ukraine?

VK: Significant opposition, and I would say that this is a reflection of the mood in Belarusian Society. The Armed Forces is part of Belarusian society, and they essentially repeat this lack of support of the war. According to surveys, about three percent of urban dwellers would support the war.

We have never been at war, so there’s also this kind of very rational calculation in the military. Why would you want to fight someone who is so strong, who has proven rather effective and who is on their own territory? It is not like defending your own country, so the morale is rather low. The military understand that this is a war of aggression. It is an unjust war and it is a war of foreign interests against the people we consider our own because they are so close in terms of culture, in terms of history and in terms of language. Unlike, for example, with Russians.

The rank and file are more opposed to the war, since they’re closer to the grassroots, to the society itself. As for the upper echelons, the top brass, they’re more inclined to support the invasion since they received military education in Russia.

‘The military understands that this is a war of aggression […] against people that we consider our own because they are so close in terms of culture, in terms of history, and in terms of language’

Valery Kavaleŭski

RI: Do you envisage the future of Belarus as within the EU?

VK: I would say that the future of Belarus is being decided right now in Ukraine. There’s no way for us to be independent and free if Ukraine falls in the arms of Putin. That’s why you see so many Belarusian volunteers go to Ukraine because they know they’re fighting for the independence of Ukraine, but also for the independence of Belarus. And Ukraine has made a very clear choice for European and for European future, for European destiny.

At the same time, in Belarus, we realise that an Iron Curtain is now falling on our lands because of Russia’s behaviour.  It is better for us to make sure that this Iron Curtain falls on the eastern border of Belarus, not on the western border.

We should we belong to the European civilisation. We must make sure that we also belong institutionally to the European civilisation. This does not necessarily mean that we have to apply for European membership for EU membership right away, but definitely that this choice must be more pronounced than ever before.

I would say that before the war, democratic forces of Belarus were trying really hard and not to fall into this geopolitical trap. However, time has shown, if you avoid geopolitics, geopolitics eventually comes to you.

We’re facing a very simple question; do we want to continue relations with Russia as it is now, a belligerent, lawless state that is absolutely dismissive of the value of human life and of the sovereignty and independence of its neighbours? Or do we want to make choice for a European family that is respectful, and that is based on values and principles and is true to all these values and principles?

RI: What more do you think that Western governments can do to support the Belarusian opposition?

VK: Do not let Łukašenka get away with this because he will now be selling himself as a peacemaker, as somebody who made an independent choice not to send in Belarusian troops to Ukraine. He will try to say that this is why he deserves forgiveness, and this is why he deserves lifted sanctions and political future. He does not deserve forgiveness because he is complicit in this war. He has enabled this war. He’s also complicit in the war crimes being committed in Ukraine daily. He should be derecognised.

Even now the US, EU, UK, US, Canada and others still continue recognising Łukašenka as a sort of de facto ruler, and also recognise his signature. This makes us very uneasy because essentially this means that tomorrow he could sign papers with Russians agreeing to merge into one state and the West would say, ‘Well, what can we do?’

RI: So do you think economic sanctions and sanctions of Łukašenka’s close circle an important an important part of challenging Łukašenka?

VK: Absolutely, yes. These sanctions should be strengthened. They should be smart sanctions designed against the people in Łukašenka clique, those who support him, who benefit from this support because this is not about friendship. This is not about patriotism. It is about the financial interests of those people. State owned enterprises should be targeted to ensure that he does not receive any support from trading with the European Union, with the outside world, but also so that he does not become an alternative for Russians to bypass Western sanctions, as happened after Crimea.

RI: If even after an increase in sanctions and economic and diplomatic pressure, the government of Łukašenka survives, what then is the plan?

VK: So the plan is that we will not give up. We will continue the pressure. We will continue raising the Belarusian issue in the international agenda. We also understand that the war has changed everything. There will be no turning back. There was no possibility for status quo for Łukašenka even before the war. And so many things have changed. So many crimes have been committed. With the war, the situation is getting much more dramatic. I don’t think that it takes Nostradamus to anticipate that things will never be the same again.

RI: Do you think it’s possible to change a violent regime like that of Łukašenka, who’s proven himself so willing to use violence and oppression, without recourse to violence in response?

VK: Well, it’s a good question, and this is actually on our agenda, too. You can imagine that we’re rethinking the forms of the protest of the resistance.

RI: You were at the protests in 2020, what can you tell us about that?

VK: That was the happiest time of my life. I had abandoned all of the hopes that I had for my country, and then finally I could see that they were not an illusion.