Staunton, December 16 – Yesterday, Stanislau Shushkevich, the former Belarusian president who promoted democracy in his own country and the dissolution of the USSR, marked his 80th birthday with a major interview in which he says that Karol Vojtyla, before the latter became pope, showed him why communism had to be rejected and the Soviet empire destroyed.
Shushkevich says that he “grew up a Soviet man even though his father had been exiled to Siberia” but that as a result of his experiences, he gradually came to understand “what the Soviet system was” and why it had to be dismantled if Belarusians and all the other peoples of “the evil empire” were to be free (charter97.org/ru/news/2014/12/15/130762/).
The former Belarusian leader said he came to a full and final understanding of this in 1974 when he was at the Jagellonian University in Cracow and heard four homilies delivered by the Polish priest. “This man explained everything to me,” Shushkevich says, even though the Belarusian said he feared the police would come and arrest Wojtyla for his “anti-Soviet” words.
The Polish priest’s words never left him and ultimately gave him the courage to speak out. Four years later, Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, and a decade after that, Shushkevich became the first elected president of Belarus and then the co-signer of the Beloveshchaya agreement that ended the USSR, his “most important achievement,” he says.
Reflecting on his past, Shushkevich says his greatest regret is that he did not protest as much as he should have against the shameful aspects of the Soviet system. “The worst thing I did was to be silent” because “I lacked the courage to be a dissident” and to speak out “like Sergey Kovalyev and Valeriya Novodvorskaya.”
But the Belarusian leader adds that he is happy when he is “correctly understood” and when “there is no suspicion that he “says one thing and does another,” when he has been able to help someone even in a minor way, and because of the more open and democratic way he ran his nuclear physics laboratory at the university, a way that he imported from Poland as well.
Shushkevich says that he got into politics by accident having promised friends that he wouldn’t withdraw his name for one election or another in Gorbachev’s time. He had been quite content with his work as a nuclear physicist, although that informed his commitment to getting rid of nuclear weapons from Belarusian territory later.
The former Belarusian president also gave his assessments of three key leaders with whom he has interacted. First of all, he says that he “is a Yeltsin man,” respects his memory “for one very simple reason.” Despite his mistakes on Chechnya, the Russian president “was not hypocritical and was a true democrat and fighter for human rights.” Moreover, “compared with Soviet politicians, he was a very intelligent man.”
As far as Mikhail Gorbachev is concerned, Shushkevich says he first “deified him” but then was terribly disappointed when the Soviet leader tried to hide the Chernobyl nuclear accident and its consequences for the peoples of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Gorbachev deserves a memorial for allowing Germany to be reunited, but he did many terrible things.
And concerning the current Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Shushevich said that he “didn’t disappoint” him because he “never considered him an orderly and intelligent man” given his proclivity to lie, his low level of culture, and his fundamental ignorance of the way the world is.
Lukashenka has blood on his hands, is clever but not intelligent, and not surprisingly has adapted well to the situation that now exists in Belarus and Russia as well, Shushkevich says. As for the future, the former Belarusian leader says that he “wants to see Belarus as a free European country.