Otroshchenkov: The KGB openly said they would trade us for western credits

The EU should not enter into a dialogue with the Lukashenko regime as long as Belarus has not started reforms.

During the 2010 presidential election the well-known Belarusian activist, Aleksandr Otroshchenkov, was the press secretary of the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, leader of the civil campaign “European Belarus” .

On the next day after mass protests on October Square in Minsk, Otroshchenkov was arrested and held for three and a half months in Minsk KGB jail. Aleksandr Otroshchenkov was sentenced to four years imprisonment and sent to the strict regime prison “Vitba-3.”

The international human rights organization, Amnesty International, has recognised Otroshchenkov as a “prisoner of conscience.” The activist was released on 14 September by a decree of pardon made by the head of state. In an interview with “Deutsche Welle”, Otroshchenkov told about his time in detention and urged European politicians not to provide loans to the Belarusian authorities as long as the country had not begun democratic reforms.

“Aleksandr, on 8 October the “People’s Assembly” took place in Minsk. You did not attend. Why not?”

“Although I have been released from prison, I am not a free man. My rights are severely restricted. I have to notify police of a change of address, and in the case of three administrative detentions in the course of one year I can be put under tighter supervision. This could result in a new prison term.

Nevertheless, I continue to engage in social and political activities as far as possible. I still am the press secretary of Andrei Sannikov and of the civil campaign ‘European Belarus’, and I am making every effort to ensure that the remaining political prisoners be released.”

“Do you remember the day when you were released from prison?”

“I cannot say that I immediately breathed the air of freedom. Of course, I was happy to meet those who were sick with worry about me. But my friends and colleagues are still in prison. The conditions of detention there threaten life and health.”

“Under what conditions were you detained?”

“The most difficult were the first three and a half months when I was in the KGB jail. There, the way arrested people are treated, human rights activists call torture. I agree with that assessment. For a few hours the officers on duty pretended to carry out searches. We were forced to stand in a cold room for 40-50 minutes on our knees. We were beaten on the legs and pushed in the back; very strong moral and psychological pressure was applied on us.

They made no secret about what I was required to do: make false testimony against opposition presidential candidates. They were not interested in what happened on the Square on 19 December. They said that they had put me in detention because I refused to testify against Sannikov.”

“What methods of pressure did the KGB use in your case?”

“Some politicians and activists who were released before the end of 2010 were threatened with the murder of close relatives. So I do not presume to judge anyone. These people were either broken or taken control under control. It was suggested that they should cooperate with the KGB. I was threatened with the arrest of my father and wife and it was proposed that I should become an informer or an agent of the KGB. They promised to put me forward for parliament. At such moments, I simply disconnected my brain and refused to talk.”

“What you underwent during this time, has it somehow changed you?”

“I have become a bit tougher and a little less sincere. The hardest thing was to travel back in time: from the 21st century into the 30s of the 20th century. After going through all this, you understand that neither the KGB nor the people who work there, in fact, have changed.

They frankly told me that the aim of the KGB is to protect the Lukashenko regime. They did not hide the fact that we all were hostages, that we would be released in exchange for Western loans and investments. They even used terms such as human trafficking.”

“Why do you think you have been pardoned?”

“It’s very difficult to talk about logic where there is none. It is highly likely that we were used for an advertising campaign, to create the illusion that the government is improving the situation for political prisoners.”

“Do you know anything about the health of Andrei Sannikov, Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitrii Dashkevich?”

“We know that Sannikov in Bobruisk colony. According to his lawyer, the psychological state of Sannikov leaves much to be desired; he is not even willing to write letters to relatives. About Statkevich almost nothing is known. According to the administration of the colony, he refuses to write letters to his relatives and call them.”

Letters are coming from Dashkevich, but unfortunately things are not getting easier. Judging from the letters, he is on the brink of life and death. I know him. This man is very strong and stubborn, but from what I read in the letters, I have begun to feel uneasy. He writes that the nine months he has spent in prison can be compared to nine years of hard labour; that he does not know how he will live after all that he has undergone.”

“How, in your opinion, should the EU act in relation to the Lukashenko regime?”

“Lukashenko is very vulnerable right now; he is in a difficult situation, and it would be foolish to go to him and make concessions. On 7 October he once again said that is no question of releasing the remaining political prisoners, especially of rehabilitating us.

Many people are mistaken, in thinking that by giving loans to Belarus, they help our people. These funds go to support the special services, to increase the pressure of repression, to support a huge bureaucracy and to pay those people who are now torturing Sannikov, Statkevich and Dashkevich. Each time the European authorities begin to engage in dialogue with the regime in Minsk, the situation of political prisoners deteriorates. According to the logic of Lukashenko, dialogue and compromise are the domain of the weak.”

“Do you think that Germany must make a more rigid form of demand from the Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners and to carry out reform?”

“Of course. There are several factors: the utter bankruptcy of power, its unwillingness to deal with economic challenges and the growing discontent of the Belarusian people. A principled position from the west, so that painless and positive change might take place in Belarus, is currently lacking.

Lukashenko is now under very strong pressure. But every time he gets into a difficult situation, a large crane arrives from abroad, which begins to pull him out of the mire. I would therefore appeal to the European politicians who make decisions: come on, let us not help him this time.

I do not think that the Europeans believe that Lukashenko will ever pay off his debts. The next generation of Belarusians will pay them. Right now the west is paying for Lukashenko to stay in power, with the money of its taxpayers and our descendants. This must stop.”