Can Viktar become next Lukashenka at head of Belarus? Interview with author of book Belarusian Sniper

Belarusian Sniper is a political thriller that appeared in Polish bookstores: the heroes of the book risk their lives to overthrow the Lukashenka regime. Its author Leszek Szerepka, a historian and Ambassador to Belarus in 2011-2015, granted an interview to Belsat TV host Syarhei Pelyasa.

The diplomat tells what trap Alyaksandr Lukashenka fell into, what might happen after him and assesses whether what the Belarusian dictator is doing is against Russia’s interests.

Cover of Leszek Szerepka’s book Belarusian Sniper

The book immediately attracts attention with its cover: a combination of white-red-white colours, a fragment of a painting by Marc Chagall, which comes from Belarus, below is a burned car. Does the cover make any sense other than to attract attention? What does it mean?

You need to ask the graphic artist about it: he came up with it, and I said I agree. I think the cover attracts attention and is connected with Belarus. In general, it conveys the meaning of what is in the book.

There is a controversial saying in Belarus that only a sniper will save the country. Is it a book about this sniper?

It’s hard for me to say. The name is connected with the fact that the protagonist is engaged in this profession, so let’s see what he will do next. At this point I can only say this.

I understood from the book that it is a mixture of real events, part of which you witnessed or knew people personally. You have changed the names of the characters, but they are very easy to decipher. Daiman – Viktar Sheyman, Pavel Shemet – Pavel Sharamet, Lukavy – Lukashenka. But there are people I can’t recognize. For example, Aleh Prybylouski – is he a fictitious or a real person?

These are the heroes of the novel. You have to stick to this genre. Probably, it is easy for Belarusians to understand who is who. It is not so easy in Poland. This is a completely different thing for Poles and the West. I wanted to write a book in this genre because for me it’s more freedom. When writing a research paper or even an essay, you need to have sources to defend all theses. I wanted to show the Belarusian reality, to make sense of it. If you make sense of it, you better understand the environment in which you live. Sometimes it is easier for a person like me to understand what is happening than for those inside.

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If there were no events of last summer and autumn, the Belarusian revolution, would you have written this book?

Such books are not written in one day. The idea came up when I was an ambassador. I was looking for suitable events. The main impetus was the death of Pavel Sharamet. I was thinking how to show it against the background of an era and what’s going on around. Probably, if I were doing this today, I would have done it a little differently, because things are not completely covered in this book. And after we’ve been watching what’s going on for the last few months (the regime has become even more repressive), I’d probably show the system’s actions even better.

You are a long-time analyst at the Centre for Oriental Studies, a government think tank in Warsaw. By the way, a few months ago you wrote an article in the magazine New Eastern Europe called The Day After Tomorrow. This is an attempt to analyse what could happen after Lukashenka. I read this text. The most important point, I think, is that you describe the trap into which Lukashenka fell. Could you tell us what kind of trap this is?

Most importantly, he must have thought that he was omnipotent, that there was no alternative for him, that he was the smartest, that he was doing good to everyone. And there is this character trait: when a person is in power for too long, he thinks he is the best, and does not invent another role in society. The most important thing in the article is that we can say what will happen after Lukashenka. After all, 10 years ago no one thought about it. It is now clear that he is not eternal. We need to think what to do next.

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I pointed out that if the dictatorship is too long, if it has huge roots, then it is very difficult to get out of the dictatorship. Maybe this is a problem for Belarus as well, because Lukashenka has been in power for 26 years, almost 27. This is a special kind of power, typically authoritarian. I pointed out that Belarus does not really have much experience of democracy. It is difficult to say how it will act in a democracy now. It will be easy to come to a dead end and go back to the past, to elect again such a dictator who will solve all the issues for us. Democracy is first and foremost a responsibility. Very few people are willing to take responsibility. Do you remember what Fromm wrote? “Escape from Freedom”. This has been observed in many countries and may be true for Belarus. We need to think now how to deal with Belarus after Lukashenka. It’s hard for me to say when it will be. But this is already the foreseeable future.

How do you understand Lukashenka’s plans: does he want to stay in power for as much as possible or still pass it on to his successor?

I think he would like to stay in power until the end. He has grave deeds on his conscience: he fears that if he does not have power, he will be responsible for them. It’s hard to say what he specifically wants to do, probably he’s thinking about the example of Azerbaijan. There is an elastic method of transfer of power to the heir while maintaining a formal democracy.

Can Viktar Lukashenka become the next Lukashenka at the head of Belarus?

I say that it may be someone from the family or close circle whom Lukashenka trusts, who will not let him down. As Yeltsin once trusted Putin so much he could hand over power to him, and Putin would keep his word. I would not pay attention to the constitutional plans: Lukashenka will do it all, and he will make it good for him, not the people.

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The last question is about Putin. Do Putin’s plans and interests coincide with Lukashenka’s plans? Does Putin want the same as Lukashenka, or does he have other plans for Belarus?

What Lukashenka is doing is not against Russia’s interests. Thanks to this, he stays in power for so long. He does what Russia thinks about in the long run. We are constantly talking about when Belarus will be included in Russia. This is evidence that Lukashenka has done nothing to rule out this option during his tenure. In fact, it blurs the line between Russians and Belarusians. He constantly repeats that Belarusians are Russians with a mark of quality. It is convenient for Russia. But he has been in power for too long, he has many levers, he is experienced, too strong a partner for Russia. Probably, if a new person came, who only has to build his system of power, it would be more convenient for Russia. I do not think that Russia will risk destabilizing the situation in Belarus to remove Lukashenka. This is impossible. But if the opportunity arises, they can take advantage of it.

Іnterview was part of Belsat TV news show PraSviet (World and Us)