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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Special edition: Alexander Milinkevich Visits Pinsk

(Note: For more on Milinkevich’s visit, please see today’s BEING HAD: the Story)

Alexander Milinkevich complete with blue (jeans revolution) scarf with his wife at Pinsk’s Dom Kultura
On Saturday night, March 11th, the people of Pinsk had a chance to go and see the number one opposition candidate speak and the local house of culture. Mr. Milinkevich is making his appearance only a week after the arrest of Alexander Kozulin, his fellow opposition candidate in front of the All Belarusian People’s conference. Milinkevich, looking sharp as usual in a blue suit and tie and with a blue scarf around his neck (The Zubr inspired symbol of the so called ‘Jeans’ revolution) had only a few unenthusiastic words to say about the Kozulin incident and seemed rather in what of forgetting that it ever happened.

The Pinsk Dom Kultura theatre's 700 seats were completely filled and had at least 200 people standing I the isles for Milinkevich’s speech however the general mood was more curious than supportive. There were no great massive shows of support and only 10 to 15 people stood to applaud at his entrance. During the speech, the largest show of emotion was for his stance against the contract system in the work place and most of the other breaks were greeted with a respectful if reserved show.

As for drama, Pinsk had very little to offer. In the plaza out in front of the Dom Kulture, two young people were arrested beforehand and there was a demonstration by a group calling themselves Avangard Kracnooi Molodozhi (the Avant-garde Red Youth) who were actually demonstrating with signs and banners for Lukashenka’s re-election. This demonstration was also taken in with curiosity and amusement by the Pinskers standing by. Security for the appearance was minimal, only about 12 police were there standing in the doorway and looking rather serious as people entered. Milinkevich’s personal security team seemed to consist of about 10 as well.

Milinkevich took the stage quietly. One might even say of his gate and presence as being humble and understated. He spoke at center for about 30 minutes and then received questions from the gallery for another hour. He was calm and gentlemanly in his speech and manner while speaking to the audience but did tend to have to speak louder and louder to be heard over the Pinskers fighting to have their questions heard. But Milinkevich I the end handled it in a gentlemanly fashion and if anything appeared to be a bit tired. This last is quite understandable as this was his third stop of the day, and he has another such a day tomorrow.

Here is a reasonably accurate translation of the speech

Milinkevich takes the stage
Hello and good health to Pinsk a town I have had a long association with. I have many friends here and connection here. And I know the town very well and about its history.

You can look at our country these days and it is as if we were again in the time of Perestroika because everyone in the country is thinking these days about politics. But it is very important that we think of Politics at this time. The current regime is far from reality in terms of economics. They say that we have “stability”. But I say this stability is stagnation. We are living in isolation; our young people must run to other countries in order to find money. We have some seventy or 80,000 people in Moscow and as many in Europe and the US because here there is no place for them to work. Pensions have become smaller than the money we pay for middle wage jobs. I disagree with these things and with how closed we are. I want to go forward.

My team consists of 12,000 people. 5000 helped me gather signatures across Belarus. Amongst the leaders of my team are 6 academics, 22 doctors, candidates of scientific works, bosses of factories and Kolhoz (Collective Ownership, the state farming organization). I have people from all walks of life on my team but the one thing that they all have in common is that they now afraid for their positions and jobs and they are afraid to say that they worked for me. This is the sort of country that we live in.

But we got together and we have made a program. We made this program from speaking to people across our country. For a half a year we went around the country and spoke with people and in doing so we received thousands of suggestions from people about what sort of things they like and don’t like about the country. We built our platform, our program on these suggestions. We call it the Narodnya Program, the people’s platform. We made this program and it stands on Freedom, Truth and Justice.

What are we speaking of when we say the word freedom? Firstly, people need personal freedom live. People need freedom of opinion; they need economic freedom and freedom of movement. But firstly and most importantly, they need freedom from fear. And this is the most important thing that we want to do for Belarus, to release the people from having to live their lives in fear.

So what would I do if I were to be elected president? My first act as president will be to close the contract system because the most horrible thing about it is that you only have your job for a certain length of time. And people are afraid that they will lose their jobs. Other countries do not have such system and people are free to find the best jobs for themselves that they can. But here in Belarus, you have to know somebody in order to get a job and then management uses the contracts system to control its people, building on their fear rather than their work. This is wrong. This we do not need. (Solid applause)

About the media: At the moment television and print journalism in Belarus is all propaganda and nothing more. They don’t show us ‘the life’ in the world on television and the same is true for newspapers. We want to change this because we want to see, listen to and read something that is real. As of now we have only three state newspapers which show us nothing but propaganda and all of the independent newspapers have been closed down. Editions of the Narodnaya Volya (The Will of the People) are sitting because they are not allowed to be sold in the state kiosks. Here in Pinsk you have a problem with a newspaper as well. In all the world people have access to cable television but here in Belarus, we spend money to make an ugly television tower. You know our television situation yourselves. There is nothing to look at but endless propaganda for the president. We hear nothing about foreign countries and he (Lukashenka) makes us like zombies with the endlessness of his propaganda. People ask me all the time about how much all of this must cost and how Lukashenka pays for his commentary shows and the (bubblegum) concerts that are constantly on the air. This situation must change. (Mild applause)

There is a large difference now between simple workers and the bosses in terms of wages. Though the accepted number for the middle wage is stated as being $250 a month, this is far from the truth. The great majority of simple workers still receive less than $100 a month on which to live. And what is more, you can only get a job if you have a friend in the organizations. This is a closed system and people have nowhere to go to make a better life for themselves. In order to find a job you have to know someone and then once you have a job, you are obligated to work under a one-sided contract. This is not the way that it should be.

In Estonia they have a smaller country then we do. They have less people and they have a smaller land mass on which to live. But In Estonia the average wage is 700 euros a month. Do they have better workers than we do? Are their experts better than our experts? Are their workers any less skilled? And they have the same technology as we do. Why should they be earning three times what we are? Where is this right?

And when it is time to go to the universities, children from simple families do not have access to a free education system because those place, those places without payment are taken by families with “connections” and so children from the villages must pay in order to get into the universities. This is not right.

Our country is producing many products now and this is the truth. We are doing much better. But the problem is that the products cannot be sold abroad. Did you know that we have more than $1 billion in goods is sitting unsold because there are no markets to sell them in? And what is more, we have in our factories old machines which produce goods of lesser quality and which are therefore uncompetitive. We can’t find markets because there is a wall that we ourselves have built between us and Europe. Yes we have an ally in Russia and we sell goods there. But we are now selling less and less every year. This year we sold 45% less than last year because Russia has started to produce good quality products themselves.

Yes I am strongly in favor of integrating with Russia. I believe that we are a common people and that this is a good thing. But Russia is producing more goods for themselves and are buying from Belarus less and less. Therefore foreign investments are needed. We must have modern machines in our factories if we hope to compete. Of course there are countries that would make these investments. And foreign investment is not only credit (loans) on which our children will have to pay in the future. And yes of course these investors will receive profit but the results to us will be that our country will have places for our people to work, we will receive better wages and from these new businesses we will take taxes. (Polite applause)

Gas: Now we have cheap gas from Russia. We pay right now only one fourth as much for our gas as Europe pays. And yes, this is a great asset to our country. But the prices will grow and this will happen very soon. This will be our first (biggest) problem. Our program has some ideas about how to handle this, but in any case, it is a very serious thing.

About the elections: Since we have begun our campaign 220 people from my team have been fired from their jobs and some students have been removed from the universities. We have submitted some 74,000 names of people who would act as observers on March 19th. 74,000 names. And do you know exactly how many have been accepted? One. (strong reaction) This is right. Only one person out of 74,000 names was given accreditation. We will of course ask about this again. In every place where there will be a vote I want at least one of our people there. Only after this can we say that the voting was correct. And if we cannot see that the vote is fare, we will take to the streets and our voices will be heard.

Not long ago both Alexander Kazulin and myself were asked to withdraw from the elections. At the meeting of All-Belarusian People’s congress, Mr. Kozulin was arrested for fighting with a security guard and was taken into custody. He suffered a broken lip because of this. In his last meeting in Minsk, 10 people were arrested simply because they were listening. Everywhere around Belarus, and especially Minsk people are searched during our rallies and those who have Milinkevich election materials have been arrested, and this is even now during the candidate’s time when these materials are allowed. This is our country. People are afraid to say the truth.

So I am standing here asking you to vote from your heart and from your soul. You be the judge as to what is right and what is wrong. Do not be made to vote from fear. And most of all, when the time comes to make your vote, please think of your children and your grandchildren; this is the most important thing. Thank you for listening to me.


On his way home afrter the speech
During the question and answer session, the audience was asked to write down their questions and pass them to the front to be read and answered by the candidate. He also placed a microphone in the middle isle so people could answer questions directly. However, most of the questions were answered directly from emotional Pinskers who simply stood and shouted their questions to the candidate who did the best he could to hear out what people had to say.

Can you tell us concretely that in 8 or ten years you will not be the same as Lukashenka and controlling everything?
This is the easiest question for me to answer. Yes, I promise and I promise I will always be democratic. And what is more, 10 years is a very long time and so really, if I cannot accomplish what I want to do by then, certainly it will be time to go.

Are you looking for a color revolution?
The answer is no, I am not asking for a revolution. I want evolution (got a laugh)

Why do you have such a name and where do you come from?
My father was a great teacher and had received the Order of Lenin for education. But his last name however was Baran (a ram, or a goat- a mild insult in Russian) so I took my mother’s name.

What about the people who disappeared?
Yes, this has happened and probably they are dead. They were against the regime and after they were gone the regime only half heartedly looked for them. If I become president, finding the truth about this situation will be a priority.

What was your job and why did you destroy Alaya Komsomolskoy (a street) in Grondna?
This is a very popular question for some reason and I hear this all the time. I don’t know why this is so but it is. So I will tell you about my jobs. In 1991-96 I was the number two man in the Grodno mayor’s office. And I am very proud that people voted for me. During this time I cared very much about social life and road restoration. I left his job because of a referendum that I did not agree with. But while I was there we did much restoration work in the historical district. We put up a new building for the mediciny scorust (The state urgent care or ambulance service), new memorial for soldiers from Afghanistan, a clinic for paralyzed people and made several things for the improvements of local sports. And I should add that we were very proud that we had Korolovich who was a three time winner in the Olympics. And anyway, it was during the restoration process of the historical district that we did some work near the Koloskaya Church and consequently on this street.

How do you live? (Where does your money come from, how much do you earn?)
I receive $400 a month from my work as a translator of documents in the Czech Republic. I am an accredited University professor, I speak five languages and I have been a candidate for the presidency of Belarus so I think I would be a very highly sought after teacher. But since 2001 I cannot work in the universities because during the election that year I worked for Simon Daman when he wanted to be president. And after this, I was fired from my job and have since not been allowed to work in the universities any more. So now, in my papers for his candidacy, in the part where it calls for my financial declaration, it says that I am not a worker. But I assure you that I do work. I work both as an editor and a translator of documents in the Czech republic and, I am campaigning for the job of President of Belarus, which I assure you is very hard work.

What freedom will we have?
All people need freedom; freedom for our children and for ourselves. But freedom is the one thing that the regime does not allow. And I assure you, that if the elections are not right we will go to the square in Minsk and we will stand watch in order to show Belarus the truth about what we think.
Where will you find the money to make larger the women and children’s fund?
Firstly we will kill the bureaucracy and we will no longer put the money in the president’s pockets. The president must have only his money like all people and there should be no “private” funds for him to use to manipulate things. We will never hide, we will show all our money if we sell guns. We will make our products in 3% more from new machines. 3% is a lot. There will be new markets and we will be able to sell our products abroad. And we will spend money where it is really needed. Lukashenka will build a huge national library in Minsk. This is great but what about the rest of Belarus. Our smart children from the villages cannot even find a normal book to read. This is where the money will come from.

Please tell our concretely a concretely how much will you pay for the raising of our children.
As I have said, I will pay 2.5 thousand euro. This will be a one time payment.

And how much will you pay a month?
And every month $350! (7 times more than now)

And if everyone starts to have children because of this money?
I have no problem with this. I like children.

If you do become president, how do you intend to deal with a parliament that is 100% behind Lukashenka?
This is a good question. We will be a different country. There will be real elections and you will judge for yourselves who you want in the parliament. Obviously, there will be new people.

Is it true that your son studies in Poland I the university?
I have two sons, one of them has already graduated and he is now a lawyer and so is far away from the universities and their problems. My second son is in the 11th class. But we have with him because he was studying in a class where all subjects were taught in Belarusian language. But then it came a time when they closed this program and it was said that all students must only study in Russian. So we had to stop and they closed all such Belarusian schools and now we do not have them any more. But if I am elected president, I will work with this problem and I will ensure that we will re-establish this in our schools the Belarusian language and classes about our cultural heritage. (At this point two large groups of people in the first 10 rows got up en-mass and left the theatre. Their seats however were filled immediately from those who were standing in the isles listening.)

What about the flag ands the symbols of Belarus?
I have no abrupt plans about changes. Everything will have to go through parliament. We have a lot of old people who remember things a certain way, so I don’t want to make drastic changes. But we can make historical programs for television and then after a while people will decide for themselves how they wish to think about their history.

What do you think is bad about Lukashenka?
He seems like a tsar and this is not right. And more so, he has no right to divide peopleinto groups in which one group is good and another is bad. It is his job to get people together and move forward. And this is exactly what he is not doing.

I am on pension and I am worried about my money that is in the banks. Can you tell me that you are the right man for Belarus and that you will protect our money that we are saving?
I understand about what you are speaking of. I remember all what happened myself. But I assure you that the banks are working very normally now and we are not expecting anything again like what happened in 1991 and 1998. However, I will say that if you lost your accounts in the banks, it was because the banks took them from you and they are responsible to pay it back.

I am a student. Can I speak to you in Belarusian? (This and the next two questions were both asked and answered in Belarusian)
Of course I can, please continue.

Please tell me if the university system will be the same as it is now with Lukashenka that the students will have to work where the state tells us to for three years to pay off their student debt?
Yes, we will show our students these jobs in which we need people, and we will ask our students to do these jobs. But we will not demand that they do them and the Universities will be free for all to attend and not just free for those with connections. Lukashenka always says that the state pays money for the students to study in the universities and this is why they must go and work for the state. But what does this mean “The State”? This is money from us, from people. The parents have already paid for their children with their taxes. There should not be any need to pay this money back.

But what about jobs in places such as in the radiation zones? Nobody will work there unless there is this “distribution” system.
We will do this in another way. We will give much larger payments for these jobs and then people will go by choice.

What can you do about the problems of alcohol abuse in Belarus? I am from the village and you can see how the woman who care for the cows are drunk and the men who drive the trucks are always drunk. The fields are in grass and nobody cares.
Of course we have bad agricultural organizations but we also have good ones. What I was is more privatization opf our agriculture. And of course thepeople who are working in agriculture should receive more. Of course they drink because they feel they have no purpose in life.

Do you speak English?
I speak English, Italian, French, Belarusian and Russian.

Do you believe that Belarus should try and join the European Union and NATO?
Yes, I think this a strategically good move to make. Yes, I would do this.