Aleksandr Lukashenko leads Protasevich to a private room, just the two of them, so he can have a face to face talk with the activist. They sit across each other, the moment tense.
‘I forced your plane down… to have you make the confessions that you started mass unrest here in Minsk. I could do it and I did… but that doesn’t mean that I don’t admire you.’
Protasevich is surprised by the statement.
‘Yes, admire you,’ says Lukashenko.
‘I admire… that when you were only 17 you started being an activist against my regime. At that young age, you had a strong belief that Belarus should be a free nation… not under the influence of Putin.’
Protasevich is surprised by Lukashenko’s candor. He lowers his head, not sure what to say. He now looks up at Lukashenko. ‘Do you want to stay under Putin’s influence?’
Lukashenko looks off, uncertain.
‘I’ve not felt free as a leader… not felt like I could do what was right for Belarus.’
‘Why not?’ presses Protasevich. ‘What is stopping you?’
‘I’ve made mistakes… have not had advisers with independent minds… but that’s my fault.’
Sensing an opening, Protasevich leans forward, and as he eyes Lukashenko says, ‘You feel trapped?’
Lukashenko stares back at him.
‘I don’t even know why I’m having this conversation with you. I don’t have to. Do you understand?’
Lukashenko’s cold stare sends a wave of fear through Protasevich, but the activist holds his gaze.
‘Maybe I do feel trapped…’ continues Lukashenko, ‘no way out for me… maybe life in a dacha near Moscow while Putin is alive. After that, who knows what.’
‘You could…’ begins Protasevich, tentatively… ‘decide to change course…’
‘I mean…’ continues Protasevich, making bold, ‘you could ask to meet with the opposition’s representatives… and begin talks for a transition to democracy.’
Lukashenko pauses, reflecting, then leans forward with a hint of interest. ‘I’ve thought about it.’
Protasevich pushes on, ‘You worried about what Putin might say… or do?’
‘I suppose…’ answers Lukashenko.
‘What if… we guaranteed your safety.’
Lukashenko laughs as he sits back. ‘You can’t do that. Putin has long tentacles.’
The men stare at each other for a moment.
‘No… there is another way…’ restarts Lukashenko. ‘What I’d like to do is send word to the resistance… that I will begin to be more lenient… little by little… and maybe… in two years… we can have another election… but this next time… whatever happens, happens… I will not interfere… and if I lose, I’ll step down… but I’d like to have assurances that I won’t be sent to prison.’
Protasevich sits back.
‘What will Putin say?’
‘I’ll have to deal with him. There are risks, of course. But let that be my contribution to the process.’
Protasevich clasps his hands in front of him, conscious that he is witnessing a special moment.
‘I would like to speak only to you… only you will be my contact with the opposition,’ says Lukashenko.
Protasevich nods, intrigued by why he’s been chosen.
Lukashenko reads him accurately and says, ‘Why you? Because you have shown uncommon courage… and you love Belarus.’
Protasevich looks down at the ground, then, ‘Why now?’
Lukashenko stares at his strong hands as he pauses. ‘I don’t want to go down in history as Putin’s puppet.’
Then he extends his hand to Protasevich. ‘Do you accept?’
The two men shake hands.
‘A security force will drive you and your girlfriend to the border with Lithuania tomorrow morning. We’ll be in touch. This conversation is to be kept secret, to be shared only with your top people. Or I will deny it.’
‘I understand,’ replies Protasevich.
Lukashenko rises and exits.
It could happen, couldn’t? Maybe it has. Maybe it will. We can only hope.
Oscar valdes oscarvaldes.net
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