Putin is a Student of Lukashenka’s:
A Conversation Between Sławomir Sierakowski and Adam Michnik

Translated by David Kurkovskiy

August 21, 2020

Original interview in Polish, published by Krytyka Polityczna on August 12, 2020.

Whoever governs Belarus is fated to build relations with the Kremlin. And as long as the Kremlin remains as strong as it is, it is the Kremlin that will set the terms. At the same time, the situation will look different once something in Russia changes – says Adam Michnik in a conversation with Sławomir Sierakowski.

Sławomir Sierakowski: Adam, are you surprised by the level of protests in Belarus?

Adam Michnik, Editor-in-chief of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza: “Yes, I am surprised insofar as any explosion of social activity, anger, engagement and protests is surprising. I was similarly surprised in 1980, when all of Poland suddenly went on strike. Nobody had expected this to happen. Just like I was surprised when the Polish opposition crushed the 1989 elections, though they were not entirely democratic. But as far as the Senate was concerned, they were; the Senate saw a relative success. Just like I was surprised by the Ukrainian Maidan, and the Arab Spring before then. In much the same way, I am surprised and am now following the actions of the heroes of the Belarusian Revolution of Dignity with marvel and great respect.

SS: What do you think about the fact that women are leading the charge in this revolution and made it further than anyone preceding them? Why did this happen now?

AM: It is not easy to provide a comment about this solely based on information on TV and in the media. In my opinion, this is a particular process that takes root in various countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Belarus comes as just another example of this. Namely, the very nature of the Lukashenka project can be compared to what was said about the Brezhnev era: it is a time of stagnation. On the one hand, these years of stagnation are obviously on a much higher (or at least different) level than what had taken place during Soviet times. On the other hand, however, when I was in Minsk not so long ago, I heard a lot more complaints regarding the lack of democracy than the economic situation itself.  Obviously, I spoke with Democrats for the most part. And I was even chided by them, when I tried to somehow rationalize and even defend some of Lukashenka’s policies. They told me that perhaps from the point of view of a Warsaw intellectual I could even be factually correct, but the shoes they walk in are different. Now I must admit that they were 100 per cent correct. For it is always those that push the envelope forward that are correct, not those that try to put them down by claiming that everything they do is done in vain.

SS: You met both Putin and Lukashenka. What sort of politician is the latter?

AM: Yes, I met him. You know, it is very difficult to say something about a person, with whom you spoke for around 2.5 or 3 hours. He is a sort of collective farm [kolkhoz] sly old country fox, and a hooligan at the same time. A sort of common thief. And he is also rather unscrupulous about all of this. In Kyiv, I heard about an alleged conversation between Lukashenka and Poroshenko preceding elections for the latter – I don’t know how much of this is true, but it sure does make a good story: “Petro, are you having any troubles with the elections? Send me the head of your Election Commission for two weeks. I’ll let him know how it’s done.”

The problem is not so much that Lukashenkla could have made such a statement, but that he didn’t even turn red with shame immediately after doing so. He believes that this is completely normal and that everything that is usually said about countries ruled by law, European values and human rights around the world is nothing but smoke and mirrors, attempts to pull the wool over one’s eyes. He believes that politics are entirely based on the leaders running the show. I remind you that this is a person who had ambitions to become the Czar of all of Russia. The saddest day in his life was the day Yeltsin declared that Putin would take his place instead. And ever since that time, Lukashenka and Putin have had a relationship that was, and this is perhaps an understatement, rough around the edges. I would often see and read brutal attacks on Lukashenka in the Russian state media; they mocked his primitivism and so forth…And even from Putin himself, I heard that Putin sees the Belarusians in a worse light than Hitler ever did. Therefore, these relations actually tend towards the harsher side. For Putin, Lukashenka is someone along the lines of Enver Hoxha for Brezhnev or Khrushchov before him. In other words, Lukashenka is a little birdy hums to the wrong tune. His owner does not like him, but cannot kill him for political, climate-related and diplomatic reasons. This is what the situation looks like. It seems to me that Lukashenka is not the type of person that is able to hold a dialogue, just like all similar politicians: Kaczyński, Orbán and Putin, for instance. He will only begin dialogue in the midst of drowning, when the water reaches his nose and begins to flow in. But it is evident that at that point, it will already be too late for dialogue. The only thing that will remain to discuss will be the conditions for his surrender.

SS: Who makes the better political player: Lukashenka or Putin?

AM: I think Lukashenka would win such a competition. He came first. It was only afterwards then Putin that started to follow his lead. We can therefore even make the claim that Putin is a student of Lukashenka. But their relationship is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Lukashenka is more primitive than Putin. He is likely devoid of values, likely not at all a believer in the power of argumentation; Lukashenka only believes in argumentation through power. Apart from this, Lukashenka always had a good feel– I don’t know if this is still the case; it could have changed – for the spirit of the conservate, post-Soviet, Belarusian province. Essentially, it is the province that brought him to power, for it considered him its product, “one of us.” In terms of identity, Lukashenka was quite close to his populace; in this regard, we can most definitely compare him to the others. But he is different than, say, Kaczyński, even though there are obviously similarities. Different than Orbán. Than Putin.

SS: If he will not hold any dialogue, could he end up like Ceaușescu?

AM: Well, rather no. Ceaușescu was, after all, a tyrant, a mass murderer. I would actually not compare Lukashenka to him. Ceaușescu was also perpetually limited by the language of Marxism-Leninism, in the so-called “doctrine.” Lukashenka, on the other hand, is entirely free from such doctrine. There are no marxisms on his mind.

SS: How do you view the position adopted by the Belarusian opposition?

AM: So far, the opposition has been making smart moves. Namely, they are specifically choosing not to clarify what the future Belarus should look like, speaking instead and modestly about a Belarus without dictatorship, Belarus as a fair and honest country. And this is very wise, because the movement includes in its ranks vastly different powers. At the same time, I cannot say what will happen next. If we are talking about Russia – it seems to me that there are two possible scenarios, as far as the Kremlin is concerned – or simply receiving permission to overthrow Lukashenka, then a relatively chaotic situation could arise. This is because there is nobody that could take Lukashenka’s place. Yeltsin was well-positioned to take Gorbachov’s place; Wałęsa, in turn, was able to take the place of Jaruzelski. There was a Yushchenko to take the place of Kuczma. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya does not want this kind of scenario at all. She has repeatedly said that her goal is to (re-)organize free, democratic elections and free Belarusian political prisoners. I think this is a very wise approach.

At the same time, if we are talking about Russia, that country will want Lukashenka to be so compromised in Western Europe so that he would never again be able to play that card (if Lukashenka stays in power). This was the case until recently, as one of my Belarusian friends puts it; relations with Russia were based on exchanging crude oil for kisses. That is, Lukashenka received crude oil and gas for a cheaper price, offering the language and national symbols of Belarus up in exchange. To reap such rewards, Lukashenka allowed the omnipresence of Russian television in Belarus and so on. I am of the belief that the Kremlin now wants Lukashenka to up the ante; they want him to go so far as to integrate the two “partners,” so that Belarus would have the same de facto status as, say, Abkhazia and [South] Ossetia, to have Belarus switch over to the Russian ruble, etc. It is difficult to say what will actually happen. Putin never took Lukashenka seriously; he never respected the Belarusian leader, did not care for him and simply believed that Bats’ka [the Belarusian word for “Father” or patriarch — DK] would get what he deserved. Russians remember what a huge mistake they made with Ukraine, so they will be a lot more careful this time around. The position espoused by our PiS minister was very on point, clear, unwavering and firm: namely, Lukashenka’s regime has become completely removed from the country’s civil society. Put in short, the minister spoke as if Sławomir Sierakowski himself wrote those words for him. That is a huge compliment coming from me, as I am so rarely able to say anything good about the ministers in the government of the Kaczyński regime.

SS: Did Russia lose Ukraine?

AM: Like pigs gorging themselves on cabbage, they inserted themselves where they had no business being and effectively took over Crimea, which was already culturally Russian (and Russian-speaking). They flooded it with money, but this did not bring about any results other than to turn up the heat on Great Russian chauvinism. And they screwed up Ukraine. Now, in Ukraine, no matter who is president of the country – and that even includes Zelenskyy – the leader is forever bound to a pro-independence policy, if only for the fact that the president would otherwise be driven out. In other words, the Russians lost all of Ukraine, half of which was Russian-speaking and culturally very close to Russia. Pro-Russian tendencies in Ukraine used to be quite strong; now, they are marginal or at the very least hidden. Instead of a Moscow-led policy, we now only see the work of various security agencies.

SS: Will Russia definitely not invade, no matter the scenario?

AM: I don’t think it will. At least not at this moment.

SS: Does Russia think that if the opposition comes to power sooner or later, it will begin to fight among itself and will be easier to manipulate?

AM: If the scenario you describe comes to fruition, then in the moment Lukashenka falls, we can expect chaos, muddy waters, then Russia will be able to profit from the situation.. On the other hand, if the Belarusian opposition does not break up, then Russia will maintain its long-reaching neutrality. Russia will not support Lukashenka.

SS: Belarus is Russia’s closest ally. Is an independent Belarus possible?

AM: Belarus is in a similar situation to Armenia. That means that whoever governs the country is fated to build good relations with the Kremlin. And while the Kremlin remains as strong as it is, it is Russia that will constitute the dominant side of the relationship; Russia will set the terms. At the same time, the situation will start to look somewhat different if something changes in Russia itself. But we have a long way to go until that happens…though this, too, remains unclear. You asked before whether anything in recent events surprises me. I am indeed quite surprised by the explosion of democratic tendencies in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East. Nobody expected this. We are thus living in a time of heightened uncertainty. But now it is Belarus that is at the center of Europe’s attention. And that ought to be the case. I am convinced that Belarusian democrats are not only fighting for themselves, but also for democracy in Ukraine, democracy in Russia, democracy in Poland, as well as democracy in the Baltic countries. Today, the Belarusian struggle is the most important struggle for democracy in the entirety of the region.

SS: What should the West do about Belarus and the protests that have been brutally squashed by the Belarusian authorities?

AM: This is a very difficult question to answer. It is the exact same question that the West faced ever since 1955 when looking at the East. There never was a clear, single answer to the question. Obviously Western support for democratic movements such as KOR and Solidarność was significant to a certain extent. But this requires a politics of elasticity, reason and – most importantly – patience. This will not happen immediately. Reagan’s sanctions only started to work after five years.  They started to work and helped the opposition, but this did not happen right away. Secondly, they supported various civil and democratic initiatives in a smart way. Indeed, in the countries where authoritarian tendencies tend to win out, it is important to set various media resources into motion, so that the citizens of such countries will have access to information. It is important to support demcoratic and intellectual initiatives, as well as all sorts of enterprises that seem weak and marginalized. In fact, all of us – including Wałęsa, Havel and Sakharov alike – were weak and marginalized, but without the weak and marginalized democracy would have never had the opportunity to arise. So thanks to the Revolution of Dignity** in today’s Belarus, the prospect of democracy exists today once again. It must be supported, respected and nurtured. We must write about it. Just like the Prague Spring – in spite of the Soviet intervention – changed both Czechoslovakia and the entire world. Just like the year 1980 and Solidarność changed Poland and the world, even though it was followed by martial law. Just like Perestroika and the Maidan, today’s world is being changed by the Revolution of Dignity in Belarus.

SS: Why do you consider 1955 to be a watershed year?

AM: In 1955, when Stalinism ended and the so-called Thaw began, Westerners began to ask themselves how they might positively influence the evolution of Central and Eastern Europe. For some, the answer was to sharpen the West’s course, while others considered it better to soften up their rivals. If we look at those events in hindsight, we see that both sides were correct. Both the stick and carrot are necessary. So too was the Helsinki conference, as well as Jimmy Carter’s Human Rights foreign policy, thought up for him by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

**Michnik is referring here specifically to the popular title of the 2013-2014 (Euro)Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, resulting in the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych. In Ukrainian, it is called Революція гідності, or the Revolution of Dignity.