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Andrei Sannikov

Tired but still fighting Belarusian opposition politician Andrei Sannikov on sanctioning Lukashenko’s regime and freeing political prisoners

Source: Meduza
Andrei Sannikov
Andrei Sannikov
Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees / Scanpix / LETA

I met Andrei Sannikov on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum in November 2023. As one of the press liaisons told me, the veteran opposition politician and activist has been coming to the security forum for years, relentlessly advocating for a free and democratic Belarus — and for the hundreds of political prisoners held hostage by Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime.

This advocacy work has been a through line in Sannikov’s career, during which he has repeatedly taken on roles that many people would consider the part of a lifetime. He’s been a nuclear disarmament negotiator, a high-level diplomat, a presidential candidate, and even a political prisoner.

Sannikov resigned from his diplomatic post in political protest just two years into Lukashenko’s first presidential term. This was back in 1996, when Lukashenko held a referendum that dramatically expanded his presidential powers. (To put things into perspective, I was a toddler then — and Lukashenko is still in power today.)

Fast forward to 2010, and Sannikov was one of the nine opposition candidates competing against Lukashenko as he sought reelection once again. The official results alleged that the incumbent won by a landslide of 79 percent, and Sannikov was the runner-up with less than 2.5 percent of the vote. Facing widespread allegations of election rigging and massive anti-government protests, Lukashenko oversaw a brutal crackdown on demonstrators and opposition figures. Hundreds were arrested, including Sannikov, who was later sentenced to five years in prison. 

When I asked Sannikov what it was like watching the mass opposition protests and bloody police clampdown that followed the Belarusian presidential election in 2020, he was quick to correct me. “We weren’t watching; we were organizing,” he said. The civil campaign he leads, European Belarus, began preparing for the presidential vote well in advance, he explained, seeing it as a real opportunity to challenge Lukashenko. But things didn’t go as they hoped. Still, Sannikov remains determined and defiant, though he admits to being “a bit tired.” Thirty years in opposition will do that to you. 

This interview, which has been lightly edited and abridged for length and clarity, first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email newsletter from Meduza. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Eilish Hart: What’s the main focus of your advocacy work right now?

Andrei Sannikov: Basically, I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing all my life in the opposition. Promoting a free, democratic, and European Belarus and offering my views on what to do in such a complicated situation. Of course, our priority is to help political prisoners, because the figure today is horrendous. Formally, human rights defenders have recognized about 2,000, but that’s probably because they haven’t had time yet to process all the cases, and the repression is ongoing on a daily basis. 

This interview took place in November 2023. According to the Belarusian human rights group Viasna, there are 1,415 political prisoners in Belarus today. 

Do you think the international community is losing sight of what’s going on in Belarus and the role Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime is playing in Russia’s war against Ukraine?

When the war started, of course, attention shifted towards Ukraine. And now, with the [October 7] Hamas attack on Israel, we have even less attention. But it is not a problem of attention. The problem is with the attitude because Belarus is not yet recognized as a very important factor for security in the region and in the world. In my view, if the Western democracies were more resolute in helping the democratic movement in Belarus in 2020, [in supporting the opposition] protests, speeding [up] sanctions against the regime, and helping us to get rid of Lukashenko, there would be no war in Ukraine because the Kremlin needed this springboard to attack. If Lukashenko’s regime is allowed to exist, then forget about [Russia’s Vladimir] Putin stepping down or being defeated. For us, this is very clear. Unfortunately, it’s not clear to everybody in the West.

Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko greet each other during the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit in Minsk, Belarus. November 23, 2023.
Sergey Guneev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Do you think the sanctions imposed on Belarus have weakened the regime in any way? Or do you think they’re just not adequate? 

They are not adequate because there are a lot of loopholes, and these loopholes haven’t been closed yet. Of course, the sanctions [are] much more meaningful than before. But “sanctions” is not a strategy. Sanctions have to be [put] in place to save people’s lives, and that is why I’m always advocating for stronger and stronger sanctions with the sole purpose of demanding the release of all political prisoners. Because you have to put up stop signs for the regime and its atrocities.

I think [the sanctions] are not enough because even with the most vocal critics of the regime, like Poland and Lithuania, Belarus has increased its trade turnover. So it’s a kind of hypocrisy: We are criticizing the regime, but, at the same time, we are not against dealing with it and making money. And we know that this is a very urgent issue today because the regimes in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are helping Russia and Belarus to avoid sanctions. It simply deprives sanctions of their power. 

You mentioned regional security and how Belarus isn’t seen as a piece of that puzzle. In the 1990s, you headed the Belarusian delegation to the Nuclear and Conventional Weapons Armament Negotiations. What is it like for you to see Russia move nuclear weapons into Belarus and withdraw from nuclear treaties

Of course, it’s very painful because we did invest a lot of honest effort — together with Russian delegations, by the way — to defuse this nuclear threat that was growing when the Soviet Union existed. And I think we had very constructive negotiations with the United States and with Russia. Of course, [Belarus is] a non-nuclear state according to the NPT [the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons], but we contributed to finding solutions for the treaty covering our territory and Ukraine’s territory.

So, of course, it is very annoying to see that this madman in the Kremlin is ruining the work of honest diplomatic and military experts — the work of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, [and] Kazakhstan — and it leads us nowhere. Unfortunately, the United States has had no other option but to freeze these treaties also. But I hope we will return [to them] because they ensured deterrence. And this is needed today because we have many more nuclear states than are officially recognized [under the NPT]. Deterrence has to be there. I don’t see any other instrument to prevent us from plunging into nuclear war. 

Do you worry about the risk of nuclear escalation, specifically with regard to Russia and Ukraine? Because I feel like this is a question we keep coming back to throughout this war. 

I worry about two madmen: Putin and Lukashenko. Nuclear weapons are quite sophisticated weapons, but, as time has proved, they are controlled quite well. During that time of nuclear weapons control, we had technogenic disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima, but nuclear weapons were safe because the facilities and, in accordance with the treaties, mutual inspections were quite well organized. And since I knew in more detail than ordinary people the process of securing nuclear weapons, I felt safe. So I’m worried not about nuclear weapons but about these madmen because they are really people who have no moral restrictions at all. 

Andrei Sannikov gestures from inside the defendants’ cage during a court hearing in Minsk. May 14, 2011.
Julia Darashkevich / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

I’d like to return to the domestic situation in Belarus. You ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential elections, and you were subsequently imprisoned. What was it like for you watching Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign in 2020, the mass protests that followed the official election results, and the crackdown after that? 

We weren’t watching; we were organizing. We were actively working on the 2020 election from outside and inside the country. We knew that 2020 would not be easy for Lukashenko, and we had a real chance to challenge him, a much stronger one than before. We had a real window of opportunities in 2020, [though] not many believed it. 

When we started [working], there was no Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, there was no [Viktar] Babaryka, and there was no Siarhei Tsikhanouski. When I say “we,” I mean the European Belarus civil campaign. Frankly, our candidate was [veteran opposition politician and Social Democratic Party leader] Mikalai Statkevich. In 2019, in Warsaw, the Belarusian National Congress held a press conference and said that Statkevich was our candidate. (He’s in prison now.) We knew quite well that Statkevich would not be allowed to register his candidacy because he was in prison before and, according to Lukashenko’s law, he was prohibited from running. But knowing this, we said we wanted him as our candidate because he’s the protest leader and we trust him. 

Opposition leader Mikalai Statkevich rallies supporters in Minsk’s Kastrycnickaja Square ahead of a march after the annual Independence Day celebrations on July 03, 2017
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
Siarhei Tsikhanouski in 2020
Strana Dlya Zhizni
People taking part in a protest against the presidential election results in Minsk on August 16, 2020. The protesters demanded Lukashenko’s resignation and the release of political prisoners.
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

When Statkevich came back to Belarus, he started to organize groups of “protest candidates,” as he called them, and one was [Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband] Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Then, Statkevich and Tsikhanouski started to travel all over the country. Tsikhanouski was a very popular YouTube blogger, and they made a very good [pair]. That is why Statkevich and Tsikhanouski were arrested first, because the authorities knew what was coming. They were the first to be arrested to prevent mass protests in May 2020. After that, of course, we were following [everything] very closely and trying to help the protests in any way we could. But then it started to go in the wrong direction.

How would you describe the state of the Belarusian opposition right now? In particular, how effective do you find the opposition politicians working in exile?

Frankly, this is not something I want to go into detail [about]. It is well known that I’m a very strong critic of Tsikhanouskaya’s office because they are raising expectations on issues they cannot resolve. Like, for example, the [alternative] passport that they want to produce. But I’m happy that all leaders of the opposition, even [those] in prison, are fighting against the regime. And I think there is a synergy despite the different relationships within the opposition. 

Read more from The Beet

‘I’m back to being afraid’ Three years after mass protests rocked Belarus, exiled Belarusians still fear Lukashenko’s long arm

Read more from The Beet

‘I’m back to being afraid’ Three years after mass protests rocked Belarus, exiled Belarusians still fear Lukashenko’s long arm

Some people argue that Ukrainian victory is the first step towards political change in Belarus. But experts I’ve spoken to worry that Belarus could just become a bargaining chip in some kind of post-war settlement because of its integration with Russia during the war. What’s your perspective on this? 

I’m very much afraid that Belarus will become a bargaining chip. And speaking of Tsikhanouskaya, she is not the strong leader that would be opposing this resolutely, unfortunately. That is why we need to concentrate on preserving our independence and not allow Belarus to be used as a bargaining chip in, let’s say, “under the table” agreements — or on the table [ones]. But it is important to include Belarus in the security negotiations. Without a democratic Belarus, [you can] forget about security guarantees for Ukraine because [Belarus] will always be a springboard for Russia. After some short break, Russia will mobilize itself again for an even more large-scale intervention into Europe, not limiting itself to Ukraine. 

I think that it is true that Ukraine’s victory will bring Belarus closer to freedom, and probably the regime will fall. My suggestion now, and I’m discussing it with our friends abroad, is to start with Belarus: Help us get rid of Lukashenko’s regime, and it will be easier to deal with Putin. It’s much easier and cheaper to deal with this dictator in Belarus. And forget about what Putin will say if [the West] becomes more resolute in its support for Belarusian democratic forces. The attitude toward Belarus must be that it’s not for Moscow to decide. In 2020, the people of Belarus demonstrated to the whole world that they want to be free and rid of Lukashenko. 

Lukashenko speaks with riot police and OMON special forces commanders in Minsk. August 21, 2020.
Andrei Stasevich / Belta / EPA / Scanpix / LETA
Belarusian law enforcement officers attempt to detain participants of an opposition rally protesting against police brutality and the presidential election results in Minsk. September 19, 2020.
Tut.By / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

We need our partners and our friends to be with us at this time and to help us. When I offer such a different perspective (start with Lukashenko and then deal with Putin), they ask me, How? [My answer is] to introduce extremely tough sanctions with only one demand: All political prisoners must be released. It will immediately change the political landscape in Belarus and create a window of opportunities. Then we can demand elections, and we can proceed towards our goals with very non-violent methods. (I’m a very strong supporter of non-violence.) That would be the best scenario for this region. 

You were released from prison in 2012 because, in the face of international pressure, Lukashenko pardoned you. Do you think this kind of international pressure could help political prisoners in Belarus today?

Yes, but there has to be real pressure. Why was Lukashenko scared at that time? Because the European Union introduced economic sanctions for the first time. Before, it was [just] a visa ban, which I don’t call sanctions — it’s tourist restrictions. But then, in March 2012, they introduced the first economic sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime, and in April, my friend [Dmitry Bondarenko] and I were released

We were the most prominent [political prisoners], together with Mikalai Statkevich. We were actually winning in the elections in 2010. Lukashenko tried to make it very chaotic because they registered nine candidates besides him. Maybe I cannot claim that I got more than 50 percent [of the vote]. Still, taking into account that there were several [real] opposition figures, like Statkevich and [poet Uladzimir] Niakliaeu, there definitely should have been a second round. So yes, because my name was quite well known, as I had very good international contacts, attention was on me, and Lukashenko calculated very cynically that if he released me and Bondarenko, who was my campaign manager, the West would come down. And that’s what happened; they stopped introducing sanctions. 

But pressuring for the release of thousands of people is arguably different. Do you think the same method could really work? 

Yes, there were not so many [political prisoners] at that time. But it doesn’t mean that nothing can be done [now]. Lukashenko is very vulnerable because his economy is in very bad condition. If real, tough sanctions are introduced, loopholes are closed, and the Western politicians and businessmen helping Lukashenko circumvent sanctions are exposed, that will work. Believe me. But it has to be a very consistent policy. 

I always say that people are not “kept” in Belarusian prisons — people are being killed there. We already know of such cases. And, for example, we [haven’t received any information] about Mikalai Statkevich for [more than] nine months. Can you imagine? There is a very good initiative by Libereco, the German-Swiss human rights group, called “Godparents for Political Prisoners,” and there are many distinguished people [involved] — parliamentarians, politicians — but they are not active. They are not bombarding the authorities with letters (I know that this helps), they are not demanding that the Red Cross go [to Belarusian prisons], and they are not requesting that parliamentary delegations see if people in prisons are still alive. 

From left to right: Opposition figures Artsiom Sakau, Ihar Losik, Uladzimir Tsyhanovich, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, and Mikalai Statkevich inside the defendants’ cage during the verdict hearing in their closed-door trial. Gomel, Belarus. December 14, 2021.
Sergei Kholodilin / Belta / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

A lot could be done. I’m a bit tired, but, of course, I will not stop calling on them to do much more than is being done now. Since I’ve been there, it is emotionally very difficult even to think about [political prisoners like] Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, who is the bravest woman in Belarus, who stands up against the system, calls them bandits and criminals, and doesn’t recognize any of her sentences and punishments. She’s been badly beaten [in prison], and she’s been denied medical assistance and medicine. Sometimes, it is so hard that, at night, I find myself in a cell. It’s a nightmare when I think of my friends there.

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Interview by Eilish Hart for The Beet

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