Non-governmental organisations in Belarus are in a difficult situation. Registration of an organisation is an arduous process frequently ending in fiasco, while financing the projects is successfully hindered by legal regulations. Ales Bialatski, head of the biggest human rights organisation in Belarus “Viasna” was sentenced to many years’ imprisonment for helping out the repressed. Bialatski’s sentence provokes a question: is it possible for human rights organisations to function in the atmosphere of permanent oppressiveness that is present in Belarus? Zmitser Salauyou, long-time activist of “Viasna”, assures us that it is, but the support is as crucial as ever.
Łukasz Grajewski: Ales Bialiatski is in prison. What’s going to happen to “Viasna”?
Zmitser Salauyou: “Viasna” will be working. Until the last man standing.
With no leader? No money?
For safety reasons, we are not going to discuss money. I will repeat: we will be working until the last man standing. We’ll be helping people, monitoring the situation in the country and organising information campaigns. We’re not an organisation which ends its activity together with ending some project.
And what if the authorities do not settle for Bialatski and other activists go to prison?
There are many people like us. They can’t put us all in jail.
They can simply shut in prison the main figures and threaten the rest.
No one got scared. We have many regional branches and absolutely no one got scared.
Where does this optimism come from? Your leader was sentenced to 4.5 years of imprisonment and there can be even more problems coming.
The fact that he’s in prison will not affect our activity. We can organise our work well and no one intends to withdraw. We also have great support from foreign centres, e.g. Human Rights House in Vilnius, where no one will interfere with our activity.
The main advantage of “Viasna” was the large-scale and efficient activity in Belarus. You acted directly where the help was needed. The day after presidential election you immediately organised help for detained protesters. You can’t do it while staying in Vilnius.
I have faith in our organisation. We have headquarters in Belarus and if they shut down any of the regional centres, we will open a new one. We are not withdrawing from direct activity in Belarus.
Are you hoping for the help from the outside?
Of course we are. In order to help, “Viasna” itself needs help. Paying lawyers, helping the political prisoners’ families, organising information campaigns – it costs. The fact that Ales Bialatski is now in prison will change only one thing: we’ll be working even harder.
Let’s assume the worst scenario: your offices are shut down, you don’t have money and the recent changes in the legal code prohibit foreign funds from being accepted by organisations. How will you survive?
There can’t be such thing as ban on foreign aid funds. This money is for the repressed and detained. The authorities block money which serve human rights observance in our country. States and organisations which helped have to work out mechanisms so that they could continue this activity. It’s a task for Poland and Lithuania too, since they are the countries which denounced Bialatski.
We’re talking while great protests against election fraud are taking place in Russia. Why does nothing change in Belarus?
The majority of political leaders are either doing time or their freedom is limited to the minimum. Their hands are tied. Political parties are a mess. Many people escaped from Belarus.
There’s no possibility of acting?
It’s bad but the authorities can’t arrest everybody who thinks differently. There are a few thousand social activists and opposition politicians. No one can force them to stop their activity. But the lack of the leaders and atmosphere of fear makes our situation even worse.
Changes in the near future are not likely to take place?
In the autumn 2012 parliamentary elections are held in Belarus. The political parties have to decide whether they’ll participate in it or boycott it. One thing we should demand from the authorities are changes in the election code. This is the political opposition’s task. We, as a human rights organisation, will focus on solid monitoring. Information devoid of emotions are crucial. They should concern the votes distribution, the functioning of individual commissions and the possible frauds. We’ll provide people with objective information.
How to reach those who have never heard of your organisation and stare at their TV sets?
More and more people are using the Internet and look for information there. Especially now, when life in Belarus is getting harder. The human rights problem is not only about the political prisoners. Builders are leaving for Russia because they no longer get paid in Belarus. Inflation is increasing, prices are higher…
Will Ales Bialatski be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize next year?
Bialatski has defended others for his whole life and is now in prison for that. He deserves the prize. The chances are big. There’s an international campaign conducted by Poland. His candidacy has already been supported by Vaclav Havel, Lech Wałesa and the parliaments of the two countries. Big support for Bialatski’s candidacy is very important for Belarus.
The interview was done by Łukasz Grajewski.
Zmitser Salauyou is a Belarusian human rights defender, long-time activist of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”. He lives in Navapolatsk.