Freedom all over the world is in danger today. Radio France Internationale talked to Andrei Sannikov, a former political prisoner, leader of the European Belarus civil campaign and candidate for presidency in 2010, who came to Paris for the Republican March.
RFI: More than two million people attended the historic Republican March. In your opinion, why did these people take to streets?
Andrei Sannikov: Firstly, it is very important that they came. It is important that there were a lot of them. The reason is clear. The concrete cause is the killing of journalists, hostage-taking and killing at a supermarket, acts of terrorist in France. The march attracted so many people because this violence, cruel violence, seems to have touched a sore spot.
I think violence against journalists and the killing of journalists caused such a reaction. It is important that people reacted like that and that the whole world supported the rally. It's interesting that the march hasn't received a clear name yet. I think it has sense. It is called the Republican March, the Paris March, the March against Violence, the Solidarity March, the March for Freedom. It unites many things. People expressed their attitude to everything that is going on in the world today. To violence, terrorism and aggression. Perhaps, this is how the march should be taken.
– The March can be compared with the liberation of Paris in the World War II. Would such a rally be possible in Russia or another post-Soviet state?
– We remember the Maidan protests. I think the number of people in the peak of the Maidan protests in Kyiv is comparable to the number of demonstrators in Paris. But the Lyiv protests had a different character. It was the struggle for freedom, and people were killed.
I can definitely say that such a march is impossible in Minsk or Moscow, because they have no democracy. This is the reason. Because when we take to streets there, we protest against such regimes as the ones in Russia and Belarus. We protest and they use force against us. Society there is not united like yesterday in Paris. It is just a confrontation between those defending the regime, also with arms, and unarmed people protesting against these regimes.
I hope such rallies will be possible with new authorities. I hope that peaceful demonstrations for free speech, values, freedom and civil liberties will take place. But we cannot expect today that a large number of people can take to streets without danger of being punished.
– The president of France, Francois Hollande, said Paris is the capital of the world. Fraternity is the slogan of the Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity). And we saw fraternity in Paris streets. We saw Francois Hollande with the leaders who can rarely be seen together. I mean Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Sergei Lavrov and Petro Poroshenko (amid the Russian-Ukrainian conflict). What impressed you? What did you think?
– Yes, the presence of a large number of top officials was impressing. But it doesn't matter. It didn't interest me how the leaders behaved, because we know there will be attempts to use the march for political purposes. I even didn't want to go the Place de la Republique to see the leaders. It would be more interesting for me to join ordinary people, Paris residents and those who came to Paris. Not all of the leaders present share the ideals of liberty, human rights and fundamental freedoms, to put it mildly.
– For example, there were representatives of Turkey at the march, but Turkey actively criticised Charlie Hebdo for its cartoons.
– Turkey was not the only country that criticised them. Let's count how many journalists were jailed by the leaders who attended the march. It wasn't the idea of the march. It is very important to keep this mood for it to influence the world leaders.
Why did I come? For me these are the same things: the events in Minsk in 2010, the brutal dispersal of peaceful protests, the Maidan protests in Ukraine, Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine, the killing of journalists in Paris (the entire magazine staff, in fact). These are the same things for me. They show that freedom is in great danger today. Even here, in democratic Europe, in democratic France.
I'd like the politicians who attended the march to understand that these things are really of the same rank. One cannot express solidarity with the people of France and continue stifling free speech in his country, continue the aggression, support terrorists in other countries and in fact back terrorism. I'd like to hear highly moral leaders, whom we have enough in the world, France and Europe, rather than politicians.
– Politicians made no statements. The march of the leaders lasted for a few minutes, and then Paris was given to the people who took to streets yesterday for freedom and other fundamental values. Many worried if the French authorities could ensure security. What did you feel in Paris?
– It was excellent. Firstly, it was a feeling of safety, though I didn't see many signs of security measures. The metro was open, and I didn't see much staff there. I didn't feel any tension, let alone danger. It is a new experience for me, because a demonstration in Minsk means danger for you personally, for your friends and family. You expect prison terms, beating and things like that before, during or after a rally. This peaceful demonstration was like a family gathering. I wore a scarf in the colours of our national flag – white-red-white. I don't think many people know that it is a Belarusian flag. But they see it, smiled and nodded, understanding that it was a symbol important for me and not only for me.
I saw astonishing things. The first thing I noticed was many flags of Muslim states in the place where I was. People applauded to them. Another impressive thing is that the dense crowd heard sirens and parted like the sea in the Bible to let an ambulance or a police car pass and then closed again. Without any interference of police officers, even without any calls to give way. Sirens sound and people give way. There were absolutely no signs of aggression or danger.