Belarus’ national protests against alleged election fraud and police violence have taken on regional implications; particularly for Ukraine, the country’s southern neighbor.
Not long after the Belarusian protests began on August 9-August 10, 2020, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came to power after Ukraine’s 2014 EuroMaidan demonstrations, urged the Belarusian authorities to listen to protesters’ demands.
In an exclusive interview with Current Time's Iryna Romaliiska on August 18, 2020, Poroshenko, who served as Ukraine's president from 2014 to 2019, shared his impressions of how the standoff between Belarus' president and protesters could further develop; what the West can do to facilitate a peaceful outcome; and how Russia might respond to Belarus’ political crisis.
What’s your assessment of what is now taking place in Belarus?
Were the elections that took place on August 9 free, democratic, and in keeping with the standards of a democracy, with OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) standards, Council of Europe standards? I think that the answer is obvious, and we shouldn’t keep quiet here.
If the elections were not democratic, can the results of these elections be recognized by the world community and each individual country that cooperates with Belarus? I follow Belarus very attentively. Belarus is not just our neighbor; [they’re not just] our good, reliable friends, a fantastic people.
Belarus is also a very significant and influential security factor for Ukraine because we share a border. Amidst the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine, the defense of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty is a very important issue for Ukraine’s national security.
When the Russian aggression began [in 2014] and when it was decided that a Trilateral Contact Group session with Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and the OSCE should take place, I was the one who proposed that these meetings take place in Minsk. And not just because of logistics.
First of all, [I proposed this] to break through Belarus’ isolation, to soften the sanctions [against Belarus], and provide the Belarusian authorities with a very powerful motivation for [change]. So that Belarusians and the Belarusian authorities don’t feel themselves banished into a corner and pinned to the Russian Federation.
I had very big hopes then. You remember, this was the first trip of European leaders to Minsk. There were extremely important events concerning the softening of the sanctions [against Belarus].
Unfortunately, now, I’m compelled to state with what force those bureaucrats -- whom we see now from Minsk, from Homel, from Hrodno, from Pinsk, from Mazyr, and a large number of Belarusian towns -- put pressure on Belarusian citizens when the August 9 [presidential elections] happened there.
This is very disappointing, on one hand. But on the other, the courage and decisiveness of the always calm and thoughtful Belarusians to fight for democracy, to fight for their will, to fight for the independence of their state, sparked enormous admiration. All the world has already learned the greeting “Long live Belarus!”
It’s also very important to protect Belarus from attempts to influence it from the outside: First of all, not to allow influence from the Russian Federation [on the situation in Belarus].
And we’re not talking only about the threat of military intervention, which only a person half-asleep doesn’t talk about now. I believe that this is impossible because Belarusians will not accept such a means of influence on their sovereignty, their independence.
[I am saying this] despite the fact that information is constantly coming in about the movements of units of the Russian National Guard, personnel, cars, and armored personnel carriers. I really hope and pray that this will not happen.
I hope that the very bloody lessons of the  annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Donbas, and the high price that Russia has paid and will pay for these absolutely irresponsible actions, will stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin from [repeating] such things.
We'll talk again about Russia later. You were an active participant in the two Ukrainian Maidans. They’re often compared with what is going on now in Belarus. Where do you see the key difference and, possibly, the similarity?
The two Ukrainian revolutions are very different from each other. The 2004 [-2005] Orange Revolution was a protest by millions of Ukrainians against the falsification of election results, against seizing power. And in Belarus now, citizens are protesting against election fraud.
But in 2014, Ukrainians came out to fight for their European choice. They opposed the authorities' attempt to stop European and Euro-Atlantic integration; an attempt to turn the country around and pull it back into the Russian Empire, back into the Soviet Union. I am sure that the  Revolution of Dignity is very different from the processes that are currently taking place in Belarus.
In Ukraine, people, for the most part, grouped themselves together at one point: on Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square). They weren’t scattered throughout the suburbs. There were [protest] leaders on Maidan. Do you see differences in this that could, ultimately, impact how events [in Belarus] play out?
In 2004, we had protests all over the country, and [Kyiv’s] Independence Square was just their center. Unfortunately, I should say that this will not be a very short process for Belarus. And, unfortunately, it seems to me that there will be attempts by the Belarusian authorities to hold on and resist the will of the people.
However, I would look at the development of the situation differently. It would be in the interests of Belarus to invite the OSCE, to start a dialogue with the Council of Europe, to urgently take important decisions to preserve calmness and stability, and begin to prepare for new elections.
These new elections must be held in strict accordance with the standards of democracy and freedom. No other scenarios aimed at supporting the statehood of Belarus exist.
And would [Belarusian leader Alyaksandr] Lukashenka go for this?
I think that Lukashenka is now in a very complicated situation. If I could advise him, I would emphasize that there’s just no other way [than elections].
The second position on which I would insist is the prompt release of all political prisoners. Indeed, this (the presence of political prisoners) only sharpens the conflict and radicalizes what is going on.
I welcome the fact that all the genuine friends of Belarus – the European Union and the U.S. – are not silent now. I hope that Ukraine also, in the end, will express its position. Indeed, the Ukrainian authorities’ silence is not only incomprehensible; it’s unacceptable.
Tomorrow (August 19, 2020), a summit of the European Union, of the European Council will take place and these questions will also be discussed there. And, as far as I know, tomorrow the question of sanctions will also be examined.
And I will use all my possible influence so that those security forces, those who are directly guilty of beating peaceful citizens, those who are guilty of abusing democracy, become the subject and target of these sanctions. But at the same time, I will request [the EU] to hold off from economic sanctions toward the state. Because the Belarusian people will suffer from this. We definitely cannot allow this to happen.
And should there be personal sanctions against Alyaksandr Lukashenka?
In this case, that falls under the competency of the leadership of the members of the European Union.
Mr. Poroshenko, when was the last time Lukashenka and you saw each other?
It seems to me that it was at the beginning of 2019.
How did it seem to you: Did he already sense then that citizens’ trust in him is decreasing? That his popularity is slipping?
No. Mr. Lukashenka was very confident then. In general, I am convinced that it was in the interests of Belarus, and in the interests of Lukashenka, to invite the OSCE and [international] observers [to monitor the presidential election].
I am proud that I, as president, twice participated in organizing elections. And they were recognized by the whole world as the freest, most democratic in the entire history of modern Ukraine.
During my presidency, an absolutely European procedure for the transfer of power was demonstrated for the first time. I am sure that the same procedure for the peaceful transfer of power is in the interests of Belarus and the Belarusian people.
Mr. Poroshenko, you know Lukashenka more than most of our viewers or I do. Do you think he will go for a hardcore use of force?
“Lord, grant me the strength to change what I can change, the courage to bear the things that I cannot change, and the sense to distinguish the first from the second!”
I am firmly convinced that this, among other things, is not in his interests. And that is why it is very important for the world to display an absolutely wise and responsible policy so as not to drive Belarus to Russia; to motivate the Belarusian authorities to find a way out that will democratically preserve peace, tranquility, and the prospects for the Belarusian state’s development. It is very important to keep the Belarusian authorities from making fatal mistakes.
And by what means?
By the strategy of a dialogue with Belarus. There is one person who is interested in the destabilization of the situation in Belarus. His name is Vladimir. His patronymic is Vladimirovich. You’ve guessed his last name.
What can Vladimir Putin do in an extreme case? What’s the worst scenario that you fear?
In 2014, Mr. Putin demonstrated a very broad range of his irresponsible actions when he launched the extremely dangerous – not only for Ukraine -- annexation of Crimea and aggression in the east [of Ukraine]. This was very dangerous for global security in the world, when a country that is a permanent member of the UN, with its irresponsible actions, destroyed the entire military system for global security.
The prospects for growth and democratic development were stolen from Russia itself, and Russia's participation in the G7 was made impossible. After that, there were already terrorist attacks with the participation and on the order, as it turns out, of the Russian leadership against MH17 (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine in 2014); orders to shell Ukrainian land from Russian territory. This practice shows that, unfortunately, there are no red lines for Russia and its leadership. And the whole world sees it today. And the Belarusian leadership needs to be very responsible in how it relates to this [phenomenon].
So, what do you think he’s ready to go for?
I emphasize that red lines do not exist for Putin. He can do anything.
What's your assessment of the Ukrainian president’s position? What should it be related to what’s going on in Belarus?
Ukraine must give an absolutely clear assessment of whether the August 9 elections were free and democratic, whether the results of these elections give Ukraine the opportunity to recognize Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the elected president. And today, it will certainly be necessary to correct these actions. Security issues also need to be considered.
As the fifth president and supreme commander of the armed forces of Ukraine, I know this very well. Because in 2014, thousands of Russian mercenaries entered Ukraine, shooting civilians, using weapons, and de facto pulling along the Russian Federation's armed forces [into eastern Ukraine] in August 2014.
Russian paratroopers were captured by our soldiers and presented to the world. Today, these instruments of Russian foreign policy are not only very dangerous for Ukraine; they are dangerous for Syria, Libya, Africa.
Practice shows that they can be dangerous for Belarusians as well. These "Vagner people" (the 33 Russians detained by Belarus in July 2020 and described as mercenaries for the Russian private military company Vagner) were not sent to Ukraine to be held accountable here for their participation in the armed aggression against Ukraine.
But there are grounds [to think] that individual members of these Vagner formations, including those who were detained, may be involved in the terrorist attack against the MH17 aircraft. And they may be charged or suspects in the process that was initiated at my request by an international investigation team in the Netherlands.
Instead, they were simply returned to Russia; a very irresponsible step.
You were [Ukraine's] economy minister, you’re a businessman. For that reason, I want to ask you: Will the Belarusian economy not collapse because of these strikes that now are taking place in Belarusian factories and companies?
I believe in Belarus. And I believe that neither Belarus, nor the Belarusian economy will collapse.
The Belarusian people, as the bearer of power, can use the tools at their disposal to protect their right to choose a government. Traditionally, among the workers, among the people, strikes are those instruments that can force the authorities to adhere to the law.
After all, only the authorities have a monopoly on the use of force. And it is extremely important to preserve the peaceful nature of the protests for Belarus, for the Belarusian people.
I am proud that so far (and I pray that it will be so in the future), the protests have been exclusively peaceful. The role of those for whom the people are going [into the streets] is also very important here.
As far as I know, that means [presidential candidate Svyatlana] Tsikhanouskaya, for whom, according to the Belarusian people, preliminary data shows the majority voted. By the way, I was told that her husband, [jailed blogger] Syarhey Tsikhanouski has a birthday today, [August 18]. I have never seen him, but I congratulate him on his birthday.
And I urge everyone to take responsible steps. Everyone should respect the will of the Belarusian people, the only bearer of state power. Belarusians, the whole world admires you now: your self-control, your intelligence, your return to the Belarusian language, which sounds very nice and is understandable for Ukrainians.