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“Even Russia does not get close to the level of repression we have in Belarus”, says Belarusian journalist

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Belarus – An interview with Inna Kochetkova, a Belarusian journalist who resigned in October 2020 because she refused to be muted after twenty years working for Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus, including five years as editor-in-chief of the newspaper’s weekly issue.

She lives in Minsk. Olivier Bault spoke with her on 23 March, asking questions about what has happened to the 2020 mass protest movement and what ordinary Belarusians think of their country being on Russia’s side in the war against Ukraine.

Olivier Bault: Please tell us something about your work as a journalist at Komsomolskaya Pravda Belarus and the reasons why you lost your job in October 2020?

Inna Kochetkova: The exact name is“Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus”, and I had started working there as a journalist 20 years ago. During the last five years, I was editor-in-chief of the weekly issue and deputy editor of the entire media outlet, as our newspaper had four daily issues and one big weekly issue. It was quite a big media outlet: we had about 80 employees and 30 journalists, and three departments for the daily issue, the weekly issue and the news website.

In August 2020, our newspaper covered all the events connected with the mass protests after the elections. On 15 August, we published an article about the violence and torture used against detainees in police stations and temporary detention centres in the first days after the presidential election. On the same day the editorial office learned that the latest issue was being withdrawn from news stands. It turned out that people had been going to protests with our newspaper, handing it out to passers-by and taking it to villages where people mostly watch state TV. Komsomolskaya Pravda had a large circulation, its readers trusted it, and its interviews with victims and photo reports of the protests shocked people living in the provinces.

That was the last issue of our newspaper to be printed in Belarus. Even private printing houses refused to print it. The newspaper was printed in a Russian printing house and brought to Belarus, but it was prohibited to sell it at news stands. It was impossible to subscribe to it. Only a few private supermarket chains still had it on sale.

Even though the Belarusian edition had an independent editorial board, it was part of the Russian Komsomolskaya Pravdamedia group. The Russian shareholders decided to appoint an editor from Russia and change the editorial policy. The newspaper was supposed to become more loyal towards the government and not to tackle topics that were too sensitive. For me it was a time of difficult moral compromises and, in October 2020, I resigned. I believed that change would come and that there would be a better time for the independent press in Belarus.

Alas, that has never happened. I still hope it will someday, though.

Cautious editorial policy, unfortunately, did not save the newspaper where I had worked. In October 2021 my former colleague, journalist Gennady Mozheiko, wrote an article about IT manager Andrei Zeltser. According to the Belarusian authorities, he had shot and killed a KGB officer during a search, after which he was killed in return fire. In the article, Zeltser’s former classmate spoke positively about him, which was seen as whitewashing a criminal. Since last October, Gennady has been in detention, the website of Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus has been blocked, and the newspaper has not appeared.

Last number sold in paper version and taken from news stands by the authorities

Olivier Bault: Have you been able to find a new job as a journalist since then? If not, what do you do for a living?

Inna Kochetkova: After I quit my job, I submitted a media startup project to the Belarusian Press Club, an informal association that helps with training, internships, and implementation of media projects. My project was aimed at people over 50 years old, with an emphasis on analytics, economics, educational services and longevity expertise. But two months later, the management and staff of the Press Club were arrested. The official reason was that they had not paid taxes, but I think it had to do with their supporting journalists, including those from the state media, who had quit their jobs in protest in August 2020. The Press Clubstaff were jailed for eight months, and a state TV journalist who was arrested with them is still in prison.

I am not abandoning the idea of my project, nor am I giving up hope that I can get it up and running. For now I earn my living as a copywriter, writing texts for advertisements. Frankly speaking, in our country right now it is scary to be a journalist.

Olivier Bault: Can you tell us, from a Belarusian perspective, what the repression looked like during the street protests which started in August 2020 when Alexander Lukashenko was accused of having rigged the presidential election?

Inna Kochetkova: These events are very painful to recall… On the one hand, it was a time of hope, a time when people felt like a nation, when they realised how many Belarusians were tired of authoritarianism and wanted democratic changes. According to various estimates, from 250,000 to 500,000 people participated in one of the largest mass protests on 16 August in Minsk, where the total population is only about 1.9 million. From August to November 2020, there were women’s marches, marches of the disabled, pensioners’ marches, and student solidarity actions every week.

On the other hand, in 2020 we saw repressions on a scale that the country had probably not seen since Stalinist times. In just the first five days after the elections, 13,500 people were detained, including 700 minors, and two were killed. The total number of post-election detainees was more than 35,000, and many were subjected to administrative arrests and huge fines, which sometimes reached the equivalent of several thousand dollars. The UN has confirmed that there was violence against detainees in Belarus, including prolonged beatings during transport, at police stations, and in detention centres.

Today in Belarus there are still more than 1,000 people recognised as political prisoners. They are not only politicians, but also students, teachers, journalists, artists, and mothers of many children. I, like many Belarusians, always see real people behind these figures. People like Olga Filatchenkova, a teacher at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Electronics, who participated in a video appeal by teachers against violence and also went on strike. She was charged with organising or participating in group actions that grossly violate public order, and was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. She has a young daughter waiting for her at home. Olga Zolotar, a mother of five children who organised backyard concerts and tea parties, was the administrator of a chat room on a social network. She was accused of creating an extremist formation and sentenced to four years in prison. All of her children are minors, her youngest son is five, and Olga herself had been awarded the Order of Mother

I remember not only the people in prison, but also the many ruined lives I have witnessed. The son of an acquaintance, who brought medicines to the city centre during the protests, was detained and badly beaten. Doctors had to take him from the detention centre to the hospital. The 14-year-old daughter of another acquaintance, who sang the song “Mury” at school during recess (yes, the same “Mury”, meaning “Walls”, that was the anthem of Solidarity, or Solidarność, in Poland, as this song is also translated into Belarusian). The school management called the police, who registered the schoolgirl, and she now has to be at home at a certain time and report constantly on how she has corrected her behaviour.

A photographer from a Belarusian media outlet who was covering the protests, although she was wearing a blue vest with the inscription “Press” and standing with a group of journalists separately from the protesters, was shot with a rubber bullet. Despite there being a video of the shooting and despite the fact she had to be taken to hospital, the authorities have never opened a criminal case. Actually, not a single criminal case has been opened regarding violence against protesters, even though more than 5,000 complaints of torture and beatings were filed in the second half of 2020 according to the Investigative Committee of Belarus.

Olivier Bault: What has happened to the protest movement since then?

Inna Kochetkova: The mass protests in Belarus ended in November 2020. After November 2020, the price of taking to the street became very high. Belarusians were still gathering for local street marches, without the usual symbols of the 2020 protests, but it was very dangerous. They could be detained for wearing white socks with a red stripe, for a blank sheet of paper in the window (a sign used by Belarusians to protest against violence and rigged elections), for emojis published on social networks, or for just subscribing on social networks to publications the authorities labelled as extremist. The sanctions were getting heavier. A person could serve 15 days in jail, then get another 15 days, and then again just because pictures from the rallies or a subscription to a banned Telegram channel had been found on his or her phone.

Probably the largest mass protest from December 2020 to date was on the day of the referendum on amending the Constitution of Belarus, which has further expanded Lukashenko’s powers as the head of a new body, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. Then, on 27 February, 2022, anti-war rallies were held, in which 908 people were detained. A friend of mine was among them. She was standing next to a woman holding a banner “No War”. She spent almost two weeks as one of 18 detainees being held in a cell meant for eight people, with no warm water and at times without heating, without basic hygiene products, with the light constantly on, and without any walks. Luckily for her, she was not beaten…

But I don’t believe that people have come to terms with this situation. It is just hard to resist such a repressive machine right now.

Olivier Bault: Has life in Belarus changed since the August 2020 protests? Or is it very much like it was before?

Inna Kochetkova: Life has changed a lot. I do not even know where to begin describing how many freedoms we have lost, even if we did not have that many before.

As for myself, I no longer have the job I loved, and many of my friends and acquaintances have left the country. Some fled in fear of persecutions back in 2020. Some have left very recently, because they work in IT, and their employers fear for their ability to work under the international sanctions.One has left Belarus because he is a person liable for military service and he is afraid of being drafted into the army in case Belarus takes part in military operations in Ukraine.

I recently saw a photo taken five years ago, of my friends and me together in a café. I realised with horror that out of the 14 people in that photo only four are still in Belarus now, including me. The rest have gone abroad, to Warsaw, Vilnius, Lviv, Tbilisi, Batumi, Bonn…

Today we are deprived of the right to read the independent media which used to be published in Belarus. Now they are nearly all blocked. In 2021, Belarusian courts declared ‘extremist’ almost all of the major independent media outlets. Some of them were recognised as extremist organisations, and belonging to such an organisation can earn you up to 7 years in prison! There are 26 employees of the Belarusian media in detention. I know ten of them personally.

We do not have a single independent TV channel. They are all state-owned. Apart from the Belarusian ones, we have many Russian state-controlled TV channels.

We have no independent lawyers, as almost all such lawyers have been disbarred, and we cannot count on a real defence in court. You can just walk down the street with white and red ribbons on your backpack, but in court they will say that you were shouting slogans and resisting.

We constantly have “purges”, where those who signed up for alternative presidential candidates in 2020 get fired. A student I know recently told me that in their department at university one third of the teachers have been fired, and they were the best teachers.

We cannot move around freely, as one can only leave Belarus once every three months and only with a good reason for doing so, that is, with an invitation to work, for studies, or for a medical examination. Belarusians used to be able to fly to Europe via Moscow. Now it is possible only via Georgia or Turkey, which means the cost of tickets has grown many times over. Almost all independent civil organisations in Belarus have been shut down. Including the ones which helped women who were victims of domestic violence, and even those for bird-watchers!

We are deprived of the right to freedom of opinion, belief and expression, which is guaranteed to us by the Constitution. Let me tell you about one of the latest detentions in Belarus: on 1 March a woman and her granddaughter went to October Square in Minsk with a “Stop the War”poster and yellow and blue balloons. She was fined Br 3040 (app. 850 €, ed.) for participating in an “unsanctioned event”, while the average pension in Belarus, as of March 2022, is about Br 580 (app. 160 €, ed.). A student who took a picture of that woman was arrested for 15 days.

On top of this, the economic situation is becoming more and more difficult every day. Among my acquaintances there are many who have been sent on unpaid leave or have left on half pay due to lack of work. The Belarusian ruble has depreciated by approximately 40%, and the prices of many goods and services have risen accordingly. We can no longer buy many medicines and familiar foods. I must say that I dread to think about what will happen next and whether I will be able to provide for my two children…

Olivier Bault: In Russia, it looks like many people support Vladimir Putin’s war. What about Belarusians? Do they also think the democratically elected government of Ukraine and its president are “Nazis”?

Inna Kochetkova: It is difficult to speak for all Belarusians, but the propaganda in our country is very strong, and the state media, including TV channels, broadcast a pro-Russian agenda. I can only say that in my inner circle, including my elderly relatives who are over 80 years old, there is not a single person who would support Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Moreover, I am surrounded by many people who have been to Ukraine in recent years. They know first-hand how things really look there. I myself went to Lviv in 2021, and I had no problem communicating in Russian. I was at a media forum, and the level and diversity of the media in Ukraine, and also the possibilities they have, just amazed me. The Belarusian authorities like to scare their citizens by asking: “Do you want things to be like in Ukraine?” In 2021, I answered for myself: “Yes, I do.” I could see the Ukrainians’ national dignity, and their love for their culture and language. I could also see the number of tourists there, and how much journalism is developed. And all this in a country which saw part of its territory annexed in 2014 and against which military actions have been waged for years.

Olivier Bault: What is the general feeling among Belarusians concerning their country being on Russia’s side in its war with Ukraine?

Inna Kochetkova: Again, it is hard to speak for all Belarusians, but in my environment the main feeling of many today is a feeling of guilt. From a country that wanted democratic changes and which was supported by many, Belarus has become a co-aggressor. I do not know what to do and how many years it will take to erase such a stigma. In the first days of the war, I could often see very harsh statements about Belarusians on social networks and in the Ukrainian media. It pains me very much, but I understand that the Ukrainians have a right to this rage, because missiles are launched from our territory, and the Russian military is deployed here. On the other hand, I have friends who are journalists from Belarus and who had been forced to flee to Ukraine. They are now working there as volunteers. Other Belarusians are joining the Ukrainian troops, and many are transferring money to help Ukraine, which is not an easy thing to do from Belarus.

In addition to feeling guilt, many of us are afraid that the situation in Belarus is going to be forgotten. Political prisoners, forced emigration, and the dictatorship will be forgotten. I am afraid that we will be isolated from the entire civilised world and that a free civil society will never emerge in my country.

Olivier Bault: What about the media? What do the pro-government media say about that war?

Inna Kochetkova: Most often, I try not to read government media or watch Belarusian TV channels. I only read the analysis of some of their statements by those experts I trust. Sometimes I am even glad that I am not a news editor who has to keep track of the main media outlets, including the state media. Anyway, if you look at the websites of media outlets like Sovetskaya Belorussiya or the website of the state news agency BELTA, you will read that Ukraine is being run by Nazis.

Olivier Bault: Is Belarus still an independent country in your view?

Inna Kochetkova: I cannot call my country independent, as hard as it is to admit. Its territory is made available to the armed forces of the Russian Federation, even though this is against the Constitution of Belarus. According to Article 18 of our constitution, the territory of our country cannot be used by another state for an act of aggression against a third state.

Olivier Bault: Is there a strong feeling of national identity in Belarus like in Ukraine, in spite of the fact that most Belarusians speak Russian as their native language?

Inna Kochetkova: It seems to me that this feeling has been growing in recent years. Few people who were born after the collapse of the USSR would want to live in an empire, and most are confident that a nation-state with good neighbourly relations with other nation-states will be focused on the people and their needs, and not on grabbing new lands and trying to increase its power.

I grew up in a Russian-speaking family, but the desire to read and speak Belarusian and to listen to Belarusian-speaking artists has become very strong in recent years. Perhaps the language issue will not be all-decisive in making us feel like a nation, but it will certainly be important.

Olivier Bault: As a Belarusian, what do you think of what Vladimir Putin said before launching an attack on Ukraine, about Ukraine not being a real nation? He could have said the same thing of Belarus: doesn’t that worry you? Are Belarusians worried about Russian imperialism, or not so much?

Inna Kochetkova: I find this very scary. We can see what is happening in Ukraine, which has taken the path of development of a nation-state aspiring to become part of Europe. I do hope that Ukraine will hold out, and that my friend in Dnipro won’t have to go down to the basement with her children and prepare Molotov cocktails for the territorial defence, and that my friend in Lviv won’t have to weave camouflage nets for the army and think about evacuation.

We have good reasons to be afraid here, as in addition to the imperial drive of Russia’s leader, we are ourselves ruled by a dictator. Even Russia does not get close to the level of repression we have here. When I watch the reports from the anti-war actions in Moscow, I am shocked: in Belarus, those who stood behind the camera and those who reported on the protests were taken away in the first place and given several years of jail time.

However, for many years Belarus was part of another empire that seemed monolithic. Empires fall apart and tyrants die. “Загляне сонца і ў наша аконца”, the Belarusians say. It means that the sun will also look through our window. Without this hope it would be very difficult to live.