As former Minister of Culture from 2009 to 2012, ambassador to France, Spain, or Poland, and - until Monday - director of the national theater Ianka Koupala in Minsk, Pavel Latouchko is one of the most senior officials of the government of Alexander Lukashenko to have joined the camp of protesters of the regime he once represented.
Dismissed from his post on Monday, he joined the ranks of the "coordination council for a transfer of power" led by members of the opposition, which met for the first time on Wednesday and called for the organization new elections and the opening "to a dialogue with the power", as Belarus enters its thirteenth day of massive demonstrations.
Pavel Latouchko told the Parisian the reasons that prompted him to express his support for the demonstrators and the pressures he suffered from the regime.
When did you decide to defect?
PAVEL LATOUCHKO. A multitude of events that have occurred in recent weeks in Belarus have shocked me. On election day, August 9, many independent observers at the polling stations warned of the falsification of the results of the presidential elections, which gave Lukashenko 80%. When counting the votes, no alternative observer was allowed to be present in the rooms.
When the results were published, many people took to the streets to demonstrate against this overt electoral fraud. In response, the security forces responded in a violent manner. Internet access has been cut in the country. The only way to find out was through the government media. When the Internet came back, we were all shocked to see the violent crackdown by law enforcement agencies against peaceful citizens. According to human rights activists, three to five people have died in the clashes, hundreds are hospitalized, and others are still missing.
The theater troupe - of which I was the director - requested a meeting with the members of the management. They announced they were going to strike in order to challenge the government's actions and called for new elections. It was then that I realized that I could not remain silent, and I decided to express my support to the citizens.
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What has been the government's reaction?
They started to put a lot of pressure on me. I was immediately invited to the Ministry of Culture to discuss with the Minister, Yuri Bondar. They tried to fire me last Friday, but the entire theater troupe and representatives of twelve theaters in Belarus came to the building to express their support.
This Monday, I was officially sacked by the Prime Minister without an official reason. But, face to face, it was explained to me that it was because of my position.
However, you have been a senior official under Lukashenko for many years ... Were there not other times when you did not agree with his way of running the country?
Of course, in recent times there have been times when the law has not been respected and we have seen human rights violations. Human beings manage to tolerate certain negative behaviors or injustices, but when the critical mass becomes too important - as in a nuclear reaction - there is an explosion. This is what happened to me and to Belarusian citizens. I don't have a particular political opinion, I speak as a humanist and a former diplomat. The government's actions were not in line with my principles.
What is preventing other members of the government from joining the opposition?
In discussions I had with members of the government, many were very critical of the way things were going. But why don't they speak out publicly? There is an atmosphere of fear… At this moment, I am the victim of a very important pressure on the part of the authorities. I was summoned and questioned six times, in particular with the representative of the intelligence services. I was told that I was going to be arrested and placed in a detention center. I was warned that I should leave Belarus, and I was offered to flee abroad.
Yesterday (Thursday) I was asked again for news about my state of health and where my daughter was. One of my colleagues disappeared Thursday morning. Unfortunately, people are afraid. But many continue to take to the streets peacefully. As Belarusians, we want to be free to express our opinion and not be punished for having one.
What was your role in the “coordinating council” formed by the opposition?
I received the invitation to join the council from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, presidential candidate, who had to take refuge in Lithuania. It was she who created this council in order to organize a dialogue with the government and the citizens. Some criticize us, others think it is illegal, but no one else has come up with an alternative idea so that we can get out of this political crisis.
Our demands are an end to the repression and violence, the opening of an investigation into the violence experienced by several thousand citizens, the release of political opponents, and free and transparent elections.
The members of this council obviously received a lot of pressure. On Thursday, the Belarusian authorities launched a lawsuit against us for undermining national security and attempting to seize power. It is not in our intentions. This Friday, two members were summoned by investigators.
With these pressures, do you plan to stay in Belarus?
Yes, I am Belarusian and I love my country. I am not breaking any law by expressing my opinion. And I will do anything to stay until the last moment.