World Senior Belarus official fears consequences after siding with protesters

10:46  17 august  2020
10:46  17 august  2020 Source:   news.sky.com

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The first high-ranking government official to side with protesters in Belarus has told Sky News he expects to be sacked after likening state violence against them to the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Mass protests are posing the biggest challenge to Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year rule of Belarus © Getty Mass protests are posing the biggest challenge to Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year rule of Belarus

Igor Leshchenya, the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, said he suspects many colleagues share his view but have not gone public for fear of the consequences.

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a man sitting in front of a window: Igor Leshchenya used a video statement to support protesters © Reuters Igor Leshchenya used a video statement to support protesters

He admitted he was frightened too, but mounting evidence of police brutality towards anti-government demonstrators over the past week was too much to bear.

"I made a decision, I crossed my internal Rubicon," Mr Lushchenya, 52, said in an interview from Bratislava.

"I expect a lot of headaches," he added, describing the reprisals that will surely follow from the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

He anticipates hearing from the foreign ministry on Monday and being ordered to return to Minsk.

"I expect a lot of difficulties, I have fears, I am a human being, but from the moral point of view really it was a real relief."

The ambassador was speaking on Sunday evening after releasing a highly unusual video statement in which he expressed shock at "stories of torture and beatings" of protesters in the wake of disputed presidential elections the previous weekend.

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a train on a track with smoke coming out of it: Protesters and riot police clash in Minsk © Reuters Protesters and riot police clash in Minsk

He also declared his solidarity with those who took part in peaceful demonstrations.

"I sincerely hope that the future of my country will be based on taking into account the positions of all sectors of society," he said in the video.

Asked whether he had spoken to colleagues who felt the same, the ambassador told Sky News: "I have a suspicion I am the only high-ranking official in Belarus or abroad who was so brave or foolish to make this statement.

a group of people performing on stage in front of a building: Opposition supporters stay in front of officers blocking a street © Reuters Opposition supporters stay in front of officers blocking a street

"I have a feeling that a lot of colleagues, they should share my position, but of course they have fears, they do not want to be fired.

"They have some thoughts about their comfortable life, but from a moral point of view it's a real relief. Sincerely I think it is a very important hallmark in my life, in my career."

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The intervention is an important moment in an unprecedented week of defiance against Belarus's strongman leader.

It shows how anger at the regime over its response to the elections and the protests that followed is even felt within its own ranks.

Mr Leshchenya has been a previously loyal public servant, once working as a presidential aide.

He is the only Belarusian diplomat who also served during the Soviet times.

He then opened the country's first embassy in Cairo more than two decades ago, becoming Belarus's youngest ambassador at the age of 30.

Mr Leshchenya went on to head the Belarusian mission to Israel and moved to Slovakia four years ago.

But he described growing increasingly uncomfortable at the events of the past week back home as images emerged online showing significant bruising on demonstrators protesting the election result, after they were rounded up by the authorities and detained.

"There was a certain ideology that infiltrated in some groups of law enforcement officers. I link it with the name of Stalin," he said.

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The last straw was when he recognised among the victims of police beatings a young man who had once been in the same class as his daughter.

"We knew this boy when he was a boy," the ambassador said.

"He was very silent. He was not the person who is able to do some wrong steps, to formulate some claims against the authorities.

"And we found the photo of this boy after meeting with OMON [the riot police]. I think it was the last step which pushed me to undertake the decision to make this statement."

He said, as an ambassador, he was responsible for a strong Belarus and this included the right for its people to be heard.

"I'm responsible for defending my country," Mr Leshchenya said.

"But the necessity to hear the voice of the people, the necessity to respect the voice of the people, is the core of a really strong country which may not and should not be a subject to any influence from abroad."

The ambassador added: "I think the only obvious exit, the only decision from the situation is to hold new elections."

He said the opposition to Mr Lukashenko's 26 years in power was not centralised but more a mass movement of the people, without any geopolitical agenda.

This distinguishes the events in Belarus from what happened in Ukraine in 2014, which was a struggle between pro-European Union and pro-Russia factions.

"Belarus is doomed to have very close ties with Russia [and] we are doomed to be friends with the EU as our second major trade partner," he said.

Mr Leshchenya said he would return to Minsk when - as he expects - he is summoned back following his video statement, a move that he said even took his colleagues at the embassy by surprise.

"My statement was a statement from my heart - a very sincere statement," he said.

"Of course I have some fears concerning me, concerning my family. But I don't want to be treated as a person who made such a statement only in order to obtain status of some political asylum or something else.

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"Of course, it's obvious I will be fired, I will be [told] to come back to Belarus. And really I am going to come back to Belarus."

Video: Belarus' president warns of tough crackdown (Sky News)

Belarus braces for mass protests as Lukashenko orders army to defend nation .

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