I arrived at the airport in Minsk late Sunday the ninth, in a state of some trepidation.
When the mission was first conceived among us, the original thought was that it might be a “witness bodyguard” mission, i.e. to live in the lap of a person in danger of assassination on the assumption the dictatorship wouldn’t want to murder a dissident in front of a foreign witness – or be forced to murder the two of us with all the resulting complications.
Thankfully, before I left it was established that Jaroslav Romanchuk, though under pressure by the Belarussian KGB and threatened by imprisonment, did not appear to be in immediate danger of liquidation. Though of course, that could change.
I tried to contain my disappointment.
The purpose became a fact-finding mission after claims by some factions of the opposition that Jaroslav had caved under pressure and made statements against the interests of the pro-freedom movement.
Nonetheless, I was worried. Did the “organs” (KGB) know I was coming to make contact with a prominent dissident? Would customs get suspicious about my camera, digital note taker, and Flip video camera? Had my emails been intercepted? When I contacted Jaroslav, would his apartment be under observation?
I passed through customs without incident. I must say it’s a weird experience to fearfully approach an intimidating Soviet-style uniform – filled by a beautiful Belarussian blond. No inconvenient questions, no demands to know why I was in the country, no bag search – that I know of. I’m still trying to find an address book.
I checked into my $20-per-night room, located in the heart of downtown Minsk, and made contact with Jaroslav the next day. I had arranged with a friend to call him and give a phrase with an allusion he’d recognize so he would know who was coming.
Jaroslav appeared shaken, but not broken. He had a touch of something flu-like, which hardly seemed to slow him down. He’s free but has been interrogated by the KGB three times (as of now.) However many of his comrades are still incarcerated, threatened with long prison terms on charges of attempting a coup d’etat. A charge that could get them fifteen years hard.
It also appears the KGB hinted broadly they could be killed if he didn’t cooperate.
Jaroslav is walking a tightrope, keeping the lines of communication with western countries open through interviews and negotiations, while bearing the awful responsibility for the lives of his friends and countrymen.
I conducted three interviews on wide-ranging topics with Jaroslav, over the course of three days. I am currently transcribing and editing the audio and video.
On my last night in the country I attended a small party in his apartment where I met a couple I knew from the our Liberty English Camps, and a few new friends. I also met Jaroslav’s fiancée, a beautiful young lady and fellow-economist, who stuck with him through the stress of the presidential campaign and the aftermath.
When the transcript is ready, we will be looking for a venue that will give it the widest possible distribution.
And my sincerest thanks to all the donors who made this trip possible.
“The secret to happiness is freedom. And the secret to freedom is courage.” – Thucydides