AP Interview: Ex-official urges transition talks in Belarus

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Belarusian opposition activists, members of the coordinating council, from the left, Pavel Latushko, Maria Kolesnikova, Olga Kovalkova, Maxim Znak, Sergey Dylevsky attend a joint news conference in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The opposition is creating the Coordination Council to discuss the transition of power. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — As a former culture minister and ambassador to France, Pavel Latushko is the most well-connected member of a new council established by the political opposition in Belarus to facilitate a transition of power amid massive protests challenging the continued rule of the country’s authoritarian five-term president.

Defying the government he previously served has earned Latushko threats. His house in Minsk was doused with red paint overnight. Prosecutors opened a criminal probe into the opposition council Thursday. But the dapper 47-year-old ex-diplomat appears uncowed.

Latushko, once an associate of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and a member of the political elite, rejects accusations that the Coordination Council is plotting to overthrow the leader of 26 years, arguing that the group is seeking dialogue between the government and protesters.

“There is no other way,” Latushko told The Associated Press in an interview. “The society is offering that mechanism to the authorities to conduct a dialogue. Even if strikes subside, they will resume in half a year.”

The 65-year-old president so far has rebuffed opposition offers for dialogue and threatened the council members with criminal charges. The probe by national prosecutors focuses on potential charges of violating the constitution and threatening national security, accusations the opposition leaders dismiss as unfounded.

After leaving the Belarus Embassy in Paris, Latushko served as the head of the Ylanka Kupala national theater in Minsk. He was fired earlier this week after expressing solidarity with the demonstrators who took to the streets to protest the official results of the Aug. 9 vote that declared Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term by a landslide.

Latushko said that he couldn’t remain silent after seeing the brutal police crackdown on the peaceful post-election protests. His theater troupe quit en masse in protest against his dismissal.

He said he has received repeated threats and warnings to leave the country and that he sent his daughter and mother abroad. On a somber note, he warned that if reports surface about him changing course and accepting the election results, it would mean that he spoke under duress, perhaps after being drugged.

“Yes, I fear arrest,” Latushko told the AP. “But I say that I haven’t committed any criminal offense and I’m not breaking the law by expressing my opinion. I have no intention to leave the country.”

Nearly 7,000 people were detained and hundreds were injured in the first four days of protests. Police dispersed the demonstrators with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three protesters died, and many of the detainees described savage beatings, torture and abuse in police custody.

“That has drawn a line for me,” Latushko said. “Actors were saying, ‘My brother was detained and many people suffered abuse.’ Those horrible scenes couldn’t leave me indifferent.”

Latushko acknowledged that a lack of leaders presents challenges for the protest movement, but he noted that it couldn’t be otherwise in a country where Lukashenko has relentlessly stifled dissent.

Lukashenko’s main challenger in the presidential race, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, left for neighboring Lithuania in the wake of the vote under pressure from the authorities. The Coordination Council includes her top associates, prominent journalists, rights activists and representatives of striking factory workers. It also includes the nation’s most famous author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.

But Latushko is the only former senior official in the group, and he brings a close knowledge of Lukashenko and the inner workings of the Belarusian leader’s regime.

Latushko’s experience also makes him a perfect candidate for sensitive negotiations with the government, and the years he spent as an ambassador to France, Spain and Poland mean he’d be well-prepared for talks with foreign officials.

He thinks many Belarusian officials are repulsed by the brutal crackdown, and fear speaking out but nevertheless could put a wrench in the wheels of the state machine.

“The state apparatus is demotivated,” Latushko said. “I felt and saw that the vast majority of government officials are tired of that pressure and are ready for changes, they want those changes.”

He said many public servants secretly detest the powerful role of the Belarusian State Security Committee, which still goes under its Soviet-era name: the KGB.

“The KGB trace is clearly visible in the election campaign,” he said. “While it’s nominally responsible for protecting security of the state, it has undermined public confidence in state institutions. It has caused the society to explode and do its own vote count.”

Latushko isn’t driven by anger over Russia’s continued influence in Belarus. Neither is the anti-government protest movement, unlike the 2014 protests in Ukraine that ousted the country’s Russia-leaning former president.

Latushko says it’s important for Belarus to keep close relations with Moscow while developing ties with the West.

“We have very broad relations with Russia,” he said, adding that Moscow is interested in seeing a stable Belarus.

However, Latushko noted that many Belarusians are starting to ask why Russia has remained tight-lipped about the harsh crackdown on protests and failed to condemn it.

“It would be an ideal option if the European Union and Russia jointly play mediators to help settle the Belarusian crisis,” he said.

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This story has been corrected to show that Latushko’s brother was not detained but actors he worked with had relatives detained.

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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