Andrei Sannikov was arrested after the falsified presidential elections in Belarus in 2010 and as other opposition members faced the charges of preparing “massive turmoil” in the country. His only fault, as well as in case of other opposition members, was his political and social activity. As a pro-European and pro-democratic candidate, he took part in the presidential election campaign. He was one of the most popular opposition candidates and is still very well known opposition politician from Belarus.
After the elections in 2010 he was sentenced and imprisoned. Released from prison in 2012 he had to leave his country. Now he is active as a dissident and tries to help his country from abroad.
Zapad exercises are in his view a very dangerous development not only for Belarus, but also for all the region and NATO. He stresses we have more and more Russian exercises on Belarusian territory.
He calls the democratic community in the West to react to repressions in Belarus.
Agnieszka Kamińska, PolskieRadio.pl: What do you think about Zapad exercises, how do you perceive them as a diplomat and as a person who once co-shaped the international politics in the region?
Andrei Sannikov, opposition leader, former deputy foreign minister of Belarus: These military exercises are very dangerous development. They started in 2009, and then, as was revealed later, their targets were Poland and Baltic states. This is already 3rd exercise of this kind.
This year it is especially dangerous because of what has happened in Ukraine. We know that Russia has been acting very aggressively, not only in Ukraine, but also in Syria.
The exercise on the territory of Belarus with the huge number of troops can be definitely considered as training for the offensive. I think military people are recognizing it.
It is dangerous for Belarus as an independent state, because it shows that Russia controls the policy of Lukashenka, that Lukashenka is obeying orders from Kremlin in military area. Of course it undermines our independence, our sovereignty. And this is also quite a dangerous development in the region.
There is no enough information about these exercises, they are not transparent. It means that the number of the participants may be much higher than Russian or Belarusian officials state. It incites questions about the real objectives of the Zapad exercise
It is clear that they are not transparent. But military exercises in Russia are never transparent. They conceal information. I think that we should trust the military people here. They are very concerned that this is the preparation of something bigger than just military exercise. And some experts even refer to "Caucasus 2008" exercise, which was on the territory of Russia and then the war in Georgia happened. Some territories of Georgia have ben annexed, northern Georgia is still occupied.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence says that Russia will probably train offensive operations during these exercise. I think that in any case such huge exercise in the region where Russia is already waging the war is a cause of concern for everybody in the region and not only in the region, also in NATO and in the West in general.
What could we do in this situation?
Belarusian opposition declared their position that they are against this exercise. And the Lukashenka’s regime is persecuting people who protest against Zapad and Russian army in Belarus.
The politicians should pay more attention to the democratic opposition in Belarus. They have not paid attention to the arrests of oppositionists. Such kind of behavior – that nothing is happening, that opposition is not under repression, that military exercise is something that does not deserve much attention, may become dangerous for Poland, and as well, for the Baltic states, for Europe.
If there is not proper reaction from the politicians – it will be not good. The military people are reacting adequately. And deployment of NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic States is the effect of it. In the case of politicians – I do not think they understand the situation is dangerous.
If the politicians could not react to the exercises they could react after the arrests of oppositionists who protested against these exercises and they could call on international community to take measures to prevent these exercises, to prevent the occupation of Belarus, which might happen.
What have they ordered 4200 railcars for?
According to experts, they do not need such a big number of railcars. The journalists who asked what are they ordered for, have not get clear answers.
I want to stress one other thing. Shortly before Zapad exercises we had Russian paratroopers' exercises in Belarus. Generally, the number of exercises of Russian army, involving Belarusian territory, has increased dramatically during last two years.
If Russia may have an aggressive scenario concerning Belarus?
When I hear people saying that Lukashenka can be used against Putin, I am struck with the naivety. Lukashenka will never go against Putin, Putin will never go with NATO, I am speaking about their personalities. So why support people who are the enemies of the Western world? The West should support democratic changes in Belarus instead.
o I think, yes, we can expect anything from Russia after the war in Georgia and Ukraine.
And the West has to take care of its own security and the best way of doing that is to promote democracy, democratic values and principles.
Before the Zapad 2017 we had arrests of opposition members who protested against Russian military presence in Belarus. Mikola Statkevich, Maxim Winiarski were arrested.
These arrests show at whose side Lukashenka is placing himself. We must watch very closely not only the situation during the exercises, but as well after them. We do not know, what Russia is preparing for.
I would like to point as well that repressions against independent trade unions (REP) are taking place– their positions is clear as far as Belarusian regime and Russia is concerned.
Belarusian regime is trying as well to silence independent media. They talk about it even with western diplomats.
We have to be cautious. The Kremlin may take the steps to take more control of Belarus. And we know on whose side is Alexander Lukashenka.
And the visit of Polish parliamentaries in Belarus just before Zapad 2017 was not adequate.
What can be the scenario in the Ukraine now? The war is still there.
The conflict is still going on. I think the fact Russia is not going to do anything to stop killing people in the eastern Ukraine, to stop fighting proves that they have further plans. If they did not have plans of further aggression, they would probably stop fighting. But there are no signs of that. On the contrary, Russia is trying to move further.
Zapad exercises are probably just next step to prepare itself for further aggressive deeds.