Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

February 26, 2011

Interview with Belarusian presidential candidate Jaroslav Romanchuk

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:32 pm
photo credit Stephen W Browne

Victory Square, Minsk

Note: They tell you in journalism school not to interview your friends, with good reason. But sometimes there’s nobody else to do it.

The interview, a result of my trip to Belarus was posted on The Atlasphere website. My last update generated a fair amount of controversy after my trip to Belarus, “the last communist dictatorship in Europe.”

I became acquainted with some sources I wish I’d had before I went, such as Irina Krasovskaya whose first husband was abducted and murdered by Lukashenko’s goons eleven years ago, and a European source who works with NGOs in Eastern Europe who wishes to remain anonymous.

I also had sources dry up on me. One who commented in the update never contacted me again after I offered space for his opinions on this blog – if he would identify himself. Another I suspect blew me off when I said Romanchuk was my friend – but I did want to know the truth and I’d follow it wherever it led.

Online sources vary in credibility. Telegraf seems, in the opinion of two Russian speakers I consulted to “have Russian footprints all over it.”

Charter 97 is better vouched for, as is the site Viasna (“Spring”,) and Romanchuk’s United Civil Party has its own website with an English section.

At any rate, to say the least, I got an earful. Some of what I heard might be passed off as intra-opposition rivalry or even KGB/FSB disinformation. But definitely not all.

Below is the edited interview where Romanchuk speaks for himself. I would add in conclusion, from contact with other members of the opposition and their supporters, the motion of no confidence by the United Civil Party leaders, and from talking to young people I made contact with on evenings spent roaming the streets of Minsk, I have to say as a result of the statement Romanchuk made under KGB pressure he has been totally discredited with the opposition and to an unknown but likely great degree, the people of Belarus.

And that in my opinion is tragic, because whatever his foibles or mistakes, Romanchuk was the most articulate advocate of pure free-market principles in the country.

This may not be fair. As a man with a family I know very well how vulnerable I am to certain kinds of threats, but that’s the way it is. If the intent of the KGB was to fragment the opposition (even more than it already was) – they seem to have succeeded.

Posted on The Atlasphere.

Belarusian dissident Jaroslav Romanchuk
By Stephen W. Browne

An official at the Minsk office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe once explained the country in one sentence.

“Belarus IS the Soviet Union,” he said, “it’s the rest of the country that disappeared.”

There is a huge bronze statue of Lenin in front of parliament, red stars and the hammer-and-sickle festooning public buildings, and they still call the secret police the “KGB.”

Belarus is a little smaller than Kansas, with a population of about 9.6 million. Once one of the constituent republics of the USSR, Belarus declared “sovereignty” in 1990, and independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1994 Alexander Lukashenko has been president. During his term he has continued the policy of state ownership of the means of production, suppressed opposition — often brutally —, and manipulated media and election results to keep himself in power.

Jaroslav Romanchuk is vice-president of the opposition United Civil Party, their 2010 presidential candidate, and a leading intellectual of the nascent Belarussian libertarian movement. He is also a popular speaker at Objectivist and libertarian venues in the United States.

After hearing reports Romanchuk was arrested, or forced to make public statements under duress, and accused of cooperating with the regimne, several members of The Atlasphere donated funds to help send reporter Stephen Browne to Belarus to investigate.

Subsequently other dissidents in the opposition have condemned Romanchuk for allegedly making libelous statements about presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his wife Iryna Khali, who at the time of this writing remain incarcerated in the KGB prison. On February 7 the leaders of the UCP voted a motion of no confidence, though he retains his position as vice-president at the time of writing.

The interviews took place in Romanchuk’s apartment in Minsk over three days during the week of January 8 to 15, 2011. He agreed to the interviews, though suffering from a touch of the flu and three previous interviews with the KGB.

* * *
The Atlasphere: Tell us about yourself — where you come from, your background, and how you became a libertarian economist.

Jaroslav Romanchuk: I am currently president of Scientific Research, Mises Center, and presidential candidate for the elections in 2010 in Belarus. I was born in a small town in the Grodno region, of 2,000 personspeople, so I’m a rural guy. Graduated from university with flying colors. Then I was into business, I was in the parliament, I did a lot of research, I ran a newspaper, I was involved in many, many, activities.

In The way I became a libertarian Objectivist was when in 1993 I met Charles and Susannah Tomlinson in Minsk, in the People to People exchange, and they presented me with Atlas Shrugged as a gift. The book turned my life upside down and I became so much involved with it in this that I quit the business and decided to carry outpursue an intellectual career.

In 2010 I was chosen by my party, the United Civil Party, to run for president.

My program was quite constructive, based on the ways to apply theory of liberty to practical environment problems in my country, and I’ve succeeded much because of polls, one week before the election, showinged my popularity rating was at about ten percent.

I have also written eight books of my own and more than fifteen hundred articles. I run my website, I have video and audio blogs on a regular basis. I am proud to be one of the multipliers of knowledge in my country.

I think we’ve expanded the foundation of liberty in Belarus, though the country is far from free. It’s an authoritarian country that is run by a ruthless authoritarian ruler, but the people are there, the ideas are there, and it’s just a matter of time before these ideas become much stronger.

TA: What are some of your other libertarian influences? You’ve mentioned Ayn Rand, who else do you think is an important thinker?

Romanchuk: Well Ayn Rand definitely. Ludwig von Mises, Rothbard, Kiersner, Reisman, just to name a few. Of course Friedrich von Hayek, and, of course in the methodology of science, Karl Menger. The people who created the foundations of an absolutely new science of human action. Human action that is different from just applying mathematical or physical methodology and tools to analyze a person with his values, and his hierarchy of expectations and needs.

I have also written eight books of my own and more than fifteen hundred articles. I run my website, I have video and audio blogs on a regular basis. I am proud to be one of the multipliers of knowledge in my country.

TA: Libertarianism has been accused of being “theory heavy” and “experience light.” Of being able to envision what a free society would look like, but being a little weak on telling you how to get there. In Belarus obviously you have to concentrate on how to get there. Could you tell us something of how you envision making the change from a command economy in an authoritarian state to a free society with a free market economy?

Romanchuk: It’s a long-term effort, you cannot expect changes like this to happen overnight. That’s why you have to be very patient about how to structure your work, how to advocate for change.

We began to produce different programs and concepts, draft laws to address the most topical issues of the day. We’ve been quite successful at working with the entrepreneurs of the country. Jointly we produced the national business platform, which is a set of recommendations on how to improve the business climate, how to improve property rights, taxation, licensing, information environment, how to improve governance. And we have concrete proposals how to do that.

That is why we have achieved some very good success, even here in Belarus, which is far from being a free market country. We have a flat-rate 12 percent personal income tax, which is the envy of many western countries. We are one of the easiest countries to register business in. We have also urged the government to abolish the licensing of retail trade.

So when you have been campaigning on the issues for a long, long time, when you provide good arguments, it works even in Belarus. It’s a long-term process. But in order to spread libertarianism, spread the ideas of liberty, you must be very concrete.

SIf you talk about free trade — what it means to Belarus. Privatization — which process? Because switching from a centralized planned economy with 100 percent state assets to a full-fledged private economy doesn’t happen overnight. You have to know how to sell assets, how to enforce insure the rules of the game, and how to prevent oligarchs from capturing the state.

Our opinions are getting more and more popular, and the presidential election campaign proved that people listen to what we have to say, and more and more accept our agenda for Belarus.

TA: Speaking of oligarchs, this is such a pleasant country with such potential. The superiority of free markets has been demonstrated again and again around the world, wherever it’s been tried. So why doesn’t the Lukashenko regime try becoming something like an authoritarian capitalism on the Singapore model? Why doesn’t he just say, “Have fun, make money, just don’t ever forget who’s in charge”?

Romanchuk: He may move in that direction. Before now there was no need for that because those in power got everything they wanted. They got cash, they got power, they got immunity from the law, so they could do anything. And the reason they enjoyed this kind of welfare and power was Russia supported Belarus at 15 to 20 percent of GDP a year.
Plus they we had very easy access to the Russian market. We have two oil refineries, and Russian oligarchs and Belarusian oligarchs turned Belarus into a kind of offshore refining territory. We are also one of the biggest exporters of potash fertilizer in the world. And the Belarusian people are very hardworking.

However 2010 was the last year the situation was stable. The IMF made loans, and the national bank printed money to loan to enterprises, but and so at the end of the day we’ll have high inflation. In 2011 we’ll have a very bad situation in the banking sector and the doom of the system is inevitable.

Lukashenko will have to sell assets, and right now it’s uncertain how he will react. He will either move to a North Korea type of model or to a Singaporean model. I don’t think there is any other alternative right now.

We have the opportunity in Belarus to avoid this the kind of mistakes that were made by transitional countries in Eastern and Central Europe in the their move to capitalism. But in order to do that, we have to present this alternative and appeal to persuade the authorities to accept that.

But from what I see right now there is no political will to move in this direction. The authorities don’t know which way to move. And in this situation of course the only best strategy of action is to be patient, be present in intellectual debate, and to be willing able to present the alternative.

TA: What are some of those mistakes you are referring to, in the transition to free market economies, in countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and other placeselsewhere?

Romanchuk: Well first, copying the tax system of the United States and the European Union was the biggest, the gravest mistake. If you want to have a good tax system, you must not copy that of the European Union.

In many countries now the state distributes around 45 percent of GDP, and of course that’s just a different form of socialism rather than anything that has anything to do with capitalism.

Not a single country in the post-socialist area decided to destroy the monopoly of a central bank over money. We still have money that is nationalized by the government. That is why the government and central banks create bubbles, destroy wealth, redistribute wealth, and create a lot of distortions in the market.

You must avoid protectionism, and again I cannot name a single European, or Central Asian country which stands up for free trade and abolishes all trade barriers.

TA: Would you tell us something about the current situation in Belarus? Not a great many people in the west know anything about this country.

Romanchuk: Belarus is located between Poland and Russia (west-east,) Ukraine and Lithuania (south-north,) so it’s the heart of Europe. It’s an authoritarian country with no political and civic liberties. Belarus is the last centrally planned economy in the region, with predominant state ownership of the economy. So the government is the biggest owner, the biggest job creator, the biggest manager, and we are the only country where the KGB kept its name.

We Many of us in Belarus are trying not just to survive, but to promote liberty. We’re fighting against great odds but we’re providing a good alternative to the people. That is why we take part in civic society activities, in political activities, in order to reach out to as many people as possible.

Belarus was one of the most developed Soviet republics. Its infrastructure is quite well -developed, compared to Russia or Ukraine. The reason the regime is moderately popular is that it delivers on some social security issues. It’s quite safe to be in Minsk or any town in Belarus. Roads are OK, health care institutions operate (well enough.)

It’s worth studying why Belarus delivers something that other centrally planned economies don’t. But this is comparatively speaking. When the government controls the media, when just a tenth of the citizens have travelled abroad, then media becomes a source of manipulation and propaganda that Belarusian authorities use.

Belarus is a nice country, with wonderful nature, but we are unfortunate to have an authoritarian regime we’ve been fighting for 16 years.

TA: But unlike the darkest days of the Soviet Union, you obviously are able to form opposition parties. You are able to engage in activity, even though there is a KGB headquarters not far from here?

Romanchuk: (laughs) Not far from here.

TA: And the streets are full of uniformed men at all hours —; militsia, OMON, and such.

Romanchuk: We have a situation different from a Soviet-style totalitarian regime where anybody with a different mindset cis ould be arrested or put into a psychiatric clinic. This Ours is an authoritarian regime where the government allows some kind of activities. We can publish our articles on the our websites, we can publish books, we can hold different events — provided they have an innocent politically correct agenda like management, PR campaign, etc.

Continued on January 12, when Romanchuk had just returned from a trip to Lithuania.

TA: What were you doing in Lithuania? What are your priorities there?

Romanchuk: Now the most important thing is to explain to people what happened in Belarus. To meet experts, diplomats, journalists —, to collaborate on what to do next and to consolidate our actions to free our (imprisoned) political peopledissidents.

TA: So what did happen in Belarus? What happened in the election and the aftermath?

Romanchuk: The election campaign was more-or-less liberal – — by Belarusian standards. We could campaign, we could collect signatures, we could go around the country to meet people, and this time we didn’t have to ask permission to have meetings. With of course some obstacles, we could print materials, papers, and leaflets.

That was relatively free, and everybody expected the final day would be like this too.

On the 19 of December 19th I voted and we had another press conference. We waited until 8 p.m. because that’s when we appealed toasked our voters to meet on the main square of the town.

Before that I had a press conference in which I said the campaign was OK, but the fundamental point was whether we had a (fair) vote count. We had numerous cases of violation of the process, falsification of vote counts. (Many) people
were forced to come and vote early, and of course there were reasons to believe this time the election would also be falsified.

We got the first exit polls which said the incumbent president wouldn’t be able to win in the first round —, since (more than fifty percent is required for a first-round win —) while I got about ten percent of the vote. My team and I got together and marched to Oktyabrskaya Square. There were about 20-25 thousand people in the square.

We had a small rally. And, from what I saw, there were some candidates who took responsibility for the arrangement of the square. They were not quite ready, the response was quite weak, and they decided to march to a different square in town, in front of the house of the government.

As it turned out, there was a trap there, a provocation. I don’t know whether they knew about it or not, but the fact was that people went there and somebody began to attack the house of the government.

That was the very brutal part of the evening. The police stepped in, dispersed the crowd, and more than 600 people were imprisoned, including seven presidential candidates.

That was a very, very tough night. We expected even murders because of the very emotional response of the authorities to the situation.

TA: Were you warned in advance about agent provocateurs?

Romanchuk: From what I learned later, there were many facts proving it was either KGB or Russian FSB, or somebody else involved in staging provocations. But the fundamental blunder was to lead people from one square where there was an official meeting of a peaceful demonstration, to where the trap was staged. I don’t know who staged that.

And then I was told by my Russian friends that they knew two weeks in advance that provocations were being prepared right in front of the house of the government.

Of course the authorities were afraid the campaign would be peaceful and constructive and many more people would vote for us. So they believe the best way to get rid of the opposition was to portray them as losers, as rebels, as revolutionaries without any constructive program.

I think there must be some provocateurs among some candidates on the list (ballot.) What happened was that nowThen all alternative candidates are were described as people who are worthless, as people who are for a coup d’etat.

There were nine candidates (in the primary presidential election.) In It is my understanding that the authorities falsified the electionrigged the process when they registered peopleby putting candidates on the ballott who did not collect the 100 thousand100,000 signatures necessary for registration. And then when they saw that some people like myself managed to reach out for theattract people voters who weren’t before that already pro-democracy, pro-free market reforms, then they decided to put that (hooligan label) on everybody.

And now members of my team are put in jail, to eliminate democratic political parties and to put dirt on everybody.

TA: And what is your party?

Romanchuk: My party is called the United Civil Party. It was registered in 1995, and it was in the parliament before Lukashenko dispersed it in 1996.

Since that time we have been in opposition. We took part in the parliamentary election campaign, and the party nominated me to run as the presidential candidate for this election.

TA: And you got about 10 percent of the vote?

Romanchuk: I got about 10 percent of the vote, according to independent opinion polls and exit polls the day of the election.

But if you combine the vote that my colleagues got, it is obvious that — as suggested by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. (Radek) Sikorski —, it is obvious that Lukashenko did not win in the first round. (i.e. got less than, by getting the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff.)

I think that was one of the reasons why the reaction to the square was so emotional. Another thing was that there were obvious provocations. The interesting question was whether these were only from Belarusian authorities, or whether there was some involvement from Russia, or whether some presidential candidates were involved in discrediting all the democratic forces. Because there are people who have nothing to say but, “Lukashenko is bad, choose me.”

My campaign was different. My campaign was based on free market ideas, on openness, on privatization, and job creation by entrepreneurs. And that was different from the previous agenda of Belarusian opposition. And that is why the authorities didn’t know what to do about me. So they decided to put me in the rank of those people who had nothing to say, but maybe it was part of the provocation.

TA: How many opposition parties are there?

Romanchuk: There are 18 registered political parties registered in Belarus. Among the opposition, about eight.

TA: And what is Lukashenko’s party?

Romanchuk: Lukashenko doesn’t have a party. From his perspective he is the president of everybody and he doesn’t need a political party to run the country. He has what we call a vertical line of power, which includes everything.

TA: L’etat cest moi.

Romanchuk: (laughs) Yeah. He’s got pseudo NGOs. There is a notion in Belarusian law called “state non-governmental organization,” which is a wonderful oxymoron.

TA: What happened in the aftermath? Who among the opposition is in jail? And what happened to you? Did you see Lukashenko?

Romanchuk: That night when everybody was being arrested and harassed, I had a very long and very tense three-hour meeting with representatives of the authorities, and they told me if I didn’t make a statement people might be murdered or put in jail for life. The pressure on the system was so tense, and Lukashenko was so nervous that things could have gotten out of control and much bloodier.

So I faced a choice, whether I could save people, release the pressure, and reason with people the authorities so they would stop this chaotic assault on the people.

That was definitely one of the most difficult times of my life. But I had to do that to save lives and keep people out of prison. The next day I got a call from the presidential administration concerning the case ofabout the leader of my party, Anatoly Lebedko. He was detained, when the door to his apartment was kicked in and he was dragged out by the hair, and it was very brutal.

So I was very much afraid for his life and I thought in this situation if I could help him out of prison and at least keep him alive, that was should be my top priority.

He is in KGB prison right now, and my top prioritynumber one goal is to release him from prison, because he’s a member of my team and he has never taken part in any bloody provocation. He was part of my constructive campaign. I think he was taken by police as part of this wide-scale campaign to destroy the opposition.

TA: Has anybody seen him in prison?

Romanchuk: Yeah. He saw an attorney and hopefully he’s well. He was on a hunger strike for about five days and but then he got out of itstopped because he realized that it’s notit wasn’t going to be a matter of one- week detainment. His situation is much more difficult.

I don’t know, but I hope he will be released in the near future. But that night, my biggest concern was to have everybody alive, before even free. Because the situation was really, really very tense. I’ve been in such a situation for the first time in my life, and when everybody is out of prison, when everybody is free, then we can have a more reasonable discussion.

TA: To those of us who were watching from outside the country, it looked like you were making statements under duress, and according to a Google translation of an interview with your mother, your mother said you were making statements under duress.

Romanchuk: Well that would be an understatement! If you are beaten, that’s one thing. But there are many other forms to urge you to say something. But again, fundamentally the issue was the lives of the people. And in this situation I made the choice I made because I wanted to save people. At that time I didn’t think about my political career, about anything else, about what people would say, because at that time the situation was out of control. The person who made decisions was definitely off-balance and he could have given orders that could have lead to a much worse situation for everybody.

TA: Is there anything you said that you’d retract now?

Romanchuk: Anatoly Lebedko and the people in detention must be free. Then we can have a thorough investigation of what happened. When you want to save your friends in the first place, you think about the political consequences later.
If you’re in front of a firing squad, it doesn’t matter if you wear a suit and tie, or sporting boots and trainers. We can talk about statements and word choice later. Right now I want to have my friends out of prison, out of danger, and that night the danger was absolutely imminent and real.

TA: Did you come under some criticism from some other members of the opposition about this?

Romanchuk: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m still under a lot of criticism from other people.

(Some background) there was not one single presidential election campaign of all democratic candidates. TIt’s important to remember that the nine candidates were not part of one team. We tried to make attempts to come up with a single candidate, but failed.

We tried to cooperate with some alternative candidates —, for example, Mr. Nekliayev until August —, then he withdrew (from the cooperative effort.) Then some presidential candidates wanted me to give up and join their teams. And that is why we ran our own campaign.

I had ran a very open, very low budget campaign. I spent all my personal savings for the campaignon it. That is why the criticism of the campaign is not about myself, it’s about the choice. For me the fundamental choice is the lives of the people. If there is any danger to the lives and health of the people, you must take care of these things first, before consideration of considering anything else.

If other people believe I should have taken responsibility for deaths of the people, I wasn’t ready for that, and that is why I made this choice. I still believe that people must be free. I still believe in having free and fair trial for everybody who is under arrest right now. And of course I do not recognize the elections as free and fair;, the results have been falsified.

So people didn’t know the circumstances, they didn’t know the motives, and I tried to explain as much as I could, because, at that time — and even now — I can’t talk and elaborate more because during the investigation I signed a KGB paper agreeing not to talk about that case. If I violate that I can go to prison.

TA: Did somebody actually say, “Well Stalin sacrificed his own son”?

Romanchuk: Well for me the situation is not all black and white, like Lukashenko is black and the opposition is white. The opposition has different elements — and of course some people made the decisions to lead people into the trap. So the question is whether they did that consciously as part of somebody else’s plan, or if they were fooled into acting like that. And of course they should take responsibility.

But other people like Anatoly Lebedko, I’m 100 percent sure he hasn’t been involved in any plots. Other people from my party who were there, they weren’t involved in any plots. They were there for a peaceful demonstration, because we’re planing a long-term strategy of the country’s democratization.

All western European countries and America insisted on peaceful demonstrations after the election —, and that’s what we wanted. Other people didn’t like that.

And now as the smoke clears we see that Lukashenko is one-and-one against the Kremlin, (and has) very bad relations with the West. It’s almost complete self-isolation.

So who has won? Some forces who were instrumental in having that (provocation) staged. Belarus as a sovereign state is facing very difficult challenges, and some candidates I believe played a part in this.

The brutality of the police must be investigated, that is obvious. People must be freed. At the same time, when such things happen, and if some presidential candidates did that (participated in the provocation,) there should be a fair trial and punishment. But now the KGB says up to 15 fifteen years in prison, that is definitely out of the question.

TA: What are the charges?

Romanchuk: Of inciting a coup d’etat.

TA: So this is much more than merely inciting to riot?

Romanchuk: Of course. I, incitement and mass protest or, mass disorder is one thing. But coup d’etat is a very, very grave accusation. We should have evidence, if that crime ever happened.

So from what I know, that kind of campaign (is meant to) block activities of all democratic forces, leading to arrests and assaults on independent media, on human rights organizations. Now the arrest and search campaign is everywhere.
Anybody can be searched, arrested, be summoned to KGB anytime, any day. We are like on a volcano.

TA: How many times have you been to the KGB headquarters?

Romanchuk: I was there three times for interrogation in this case.

TA: And do you expect to be hauled in again? Do they arrest you or do they just tell you to show up?
Romanchuk: They told me to show up, and if I didn’t show up they would come and arrest me. If I had wanted to hide, I would have hidden the 19 ofon December 19th. But I’m innocent and my friends are innocent and that’s why I want to protect them by being free and using this opportunity.

TA: You said they’ve threatened you. Have they tried to offer you anything? There was a story in one publication that you might be offered a position in the government.

Romanchuk: Bullshit! Complete bullshit! Nobody offered me any position at any time.

Of course the authorities use my ideas, use the programs that I’ve presented to the government. We’ve been quite constructive for many years and many proposals that we’ve made have become part of legislation. For example, the personal flat income tax at 12 percent.

TA: Russia did that too, didn’t they?

Romanchuk: Yeah, personal income tax at 13 percent, but Belarus did it two years ago.

TA: It’s worth repeating at this point that earlier in our interviews you mentioned the one free market reform that’s necessary is not to imitate the tax structure of the U.S.

Romanchuk: Exactly, absolutely. That’s one of the ideas the authorities took from my program.
The other thing is Belarus is in the top ten countries in the world in terms of the ease of entering business, which is again part of our activities. Another (of our suggestions) is abolishing licenses for retail trade.

So these kind of activities have been going on for many years. Nobody offered me any position, but say, “ Iif you have any ideas….” And I share ideas. I send books, articles to the government all the time and I give them feedback and ideas about what should be done if they care about having free market reforms.

So that’s the only fundamental issue that we have, and our party congress of democratic forces emphasize many, many times that we are in favor of constructive dialog with the authorities on the matter of free market reform.

TA: As far as the opposition goes, I would say you are on the extreme classical liberal/libertarian wing. Obviously the opposition is not all like that.

Romanchuk: Most of the opposition is more like social democratic/socialist, unfortunately, but there is a huge deficit of people with a constructive mindset.

That is why my party is the only serious political structure with a serious program that Lukashenko considers as an alternative to his own. That is probably one of the reasons I was not arrested —, because they wanted to have somebody to generate ideas.

And when I generate ideas, one thing I say is, “OK you have my books and concepts, but another thing is how to understand them.”

One thing we’ve been working on is ways to improve the business climate further, through tax reform, licensing reform, property rights, and privatization. It’s like pieces of the puzzle. You know all the pieces but you don’t know how to get all the pieces together. That is why I think if they are serious about reforms they will definitely address these issues.

Of course the KGB followed every step of every candidate, all the time. And during the 28 days of the campaign I visited 35 towns. I made official presentations, they were on media, on audio so they saw that I’m a constructive person.

For me fighting for the liberty of my country is not saying, “Lukashenko is bad., I’m good., Vvote for me.”
That was a very simplified version of some of the candidates program.

That is why my program, philosophically, was philosophically to turn people’s attention in Belarus to libertarian ideas in various forms, in the areas they care about. They care about jobs. They care about savings. They care about open trade. They care about production, and I told them the best way to do that is just to have a free market, to have liberty, to have freedom of exchange, to have private property.

That is why I think I’m faced with opposition from inside the opposition too. Because iIdeologically they’re much closer to Lukashenko in terms of economic policy, in terms of running the country, than myself.

TA: Is it possible that you were left free in order to sow suspicion and divide the opposition?

Romanchuk: Well again, that’s part of the provocation on the part of the opposition structures and people, because if somebody was involved in some kind of plots or provocation, that’s why he must say now that Romanchuk is bad because he part of Lukashenko gang or somebody else’s gang.

My idea is that I don’t want to divide anything. First I join the people in my party and everybody in the opposition, that we should have free trials, that we should release these people. We should have a thorough investigation of what has happened.

I was, and still am, in favor of Belarus opening up to the world, having good relations with the European Union, with America, and at the same time keeping good relations with Russia.

Now the opposite has happened, which is complete self-isolation. We don’t have good relations with Russia. We don’t have good relations with the European Union or America. So at the end of the day, somebody got us into a position which is the worst for Belarus. Not just for Lukashenko, for Belarus. And he should take responsibility for that.

That is why I’m not there to divide, I appeal for the release of the leader of my party. I don’t want to take his position, because for me he’s the only valid, legitimate, president of my party.

I am a volunteer in the party. I have never worked a (paid) single day in the party. I ‘m president of a think tank.

TA: This think tank is?

Romanchuk: Scientific Research Mises Center. It’s a think tank that deals with economic analysis, advocating free market reforms in Belarus and in the region.

TA: Of course it was named after (Austrian free-market economist) Ludwig von Mises.

Romanchuk: Absolutely, and the only reason I named it after Ludwig von Mises was so people would start asking what Mises means. Because many people in Belarus and in Europe think that Mises is an acronym, not a name unfortunately.

That is why all my activities that I began from 1993 when my dear American parents, Charles and Susanah Tomlinson gave me Atlas Shrugged, was to promote the philosophy and libertarianism.

The presidential election campaign was directed at getting more people involved and letting them know what these ideas are all about.

All of these trifles and accusations that I would like to have a political career have nothing to do with reality. I want explore different ways to fight for ideas and for freedom.

TA: On the philosophical side, what would you say to people who say bourgeois liberty is a Western, or even specifically Anglo-Saxon concept that doesn’t transfer to other cultures?

Romanchuk: That’s like talking about anatomy or physics that doesn’t apply to Slavs. I don’t believe in this geographically based explanation of culture. The philosophy of liberty originated in Britain, but at the same time we know many outstanding French philosophers who contributed to the development of the philosophy of liberty. We have Austrians, we have people all over the world. I’m in Belarus, but I also contribute to the development of the ideas of liberty. I’m a Slav but does that mean I can’t appreciate Anglo-Saxon culture?

My premise is there is no Anglo-Saxon, French or Continental division in the ideas of liberty.

The size of the government in Great Britain is more than 50 fifty (AP style 50, all numbers above 9) percent of GDP, similar to France. In the United States the size of the government is over 43 (AP style 43) forty-three percent of GDP. Whatever you call it; Anglo-Saxon, Continental, whatever, you have the situation where interventionists own half of our economies and countries.

That’s not the culture that goes back to the roots of Adam Smith, or John Locke, or Menger — that’s the culture of socialism, of interventionism, of statism, where people must toil for somebody else. And that was a trap built by Western philosophers and supported by Soviet-style interventionism all over the world.

I believe we must challenge this world, main-stream culture of greynessgrayness, moral ineptitude, and interventionism and build on the system of capitalism.

Because the system, like in Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged, is falling apart. Financial and world trade crises will definitely follow in the next five years, and we have to give people an alternative with which is not based on exploitation, but rather on individual liberty and the basic foundations of capitalism.

Note: According to an UCP article posted February 23,

Alexander Lukashenko told on Monday that he would not have hesitated to use army to handle street protests against his re-election last December if the demonstration had got out of hand.

According to Lukashenko, the 19 December events revealed another conspiracy against our country. The conspiracy was sponsored by foreign intelligence agencies; the role of the executors was given to local political “chiefs” whose strenuous efforts (allegedly in Belarus’ interests) were not known to the public.

Lukashenko added that “a huge portion of the money on these events, and this is already a fact, came from Germany and Poland, as well as through other states. The programs to overthrow the government in Belarus were prepared there, too. These are the real facts based on the documents and testimony of those who organized this all, the president stressed”- BelTA quoted Lukashenko as saying on February, 21.

“We defended the constitutional order, prosperity and independence of Belarus,” he said. Lukashenko clearly stated his position: if the situation were developing differently, if there were a real risk of a coup d’etat in the country, if there were a threat to the ten-million nation, he would not have hesitated to use the Armed Forces.

February 8, 2011

You know you’re a contrarian when… redux

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:34 pm

This looks like it’ll become a regular feature.

You know you’re a contrarian when you read Pamela Geller (who blogs at Atlas Shrugs) in The American Thinker quoting Robert Spencer,

“Muslims are the first immigrant group that has ever come to this country with a ready-made model of society and government they believe to be superior to what we have here.”

and you like Pam Geller, and Robert Spenser, and you agree with the main point about Muslims… until you remember there was an immigrant group before Muslims who also arrived in America with a ready-made model of society they believed superior to what we had, even while fleeing here to escape what they had in their lands of origin.

The first group were Eastern European/Russian Jews, and the ready-made model was communism.

February 6, 2011

It can, and does, happen here

Filed under: Free Speech,Media bias,Politics,Terrorism — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:54 am

Good news on the free speech front from Europe. Lars Hedegaard was acquited in Denmark of charges of saying true, but not nice things about Muslims resident in his country.

The hate-speech trial of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff in Austria is still ongoing though. Frau Sabaditsch-Wolff is facing similar charges stemming from… well it appears that in support of her xenophobic, racist, etc etc rants she (this is shocking but I have to say it) actually quoted the Koran

And in America a big-time Washington D.C. lawyer Paul Mirengoff, who happens to be a conservative blogger was made to grovel in public, take down a blog post, and shut up.

Mirengoff is a partner in the employment law group at the firm of Akin Gump, and one of the founders of Power Line blog.

The offending post was about the Tuscon tragedy. The specific offensive part concerned a prayer offered by a Yaqui Indian shaman. Luckily the post was preserved elsewhere – and now here. Take a half-minute and read the offending thing in its entirety..

In the post immediately below, I praised President Obama’s speech in Tucson this evening in honor of the victims of that horrific shooting spree. His speech was part of a larger ceremony which, on the whole, was rather a mixed bag.

The best thing about the evening, even better than Obama’s speech, was the news he delivered that Rep. Giffords today opened her eyes on her own for the first time since she was shot.

Other good spots: Daniel Hernandez, the intern who helped save Rep. Giffords life, gave a brief and impressive talk in which he insisted that he was not a hero. And Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano used their time at the podium not to deliever speeches but instead to simply reading from scripture. This may have been designed to keep things fresh for Obama’s speech, but it was appreciated nonetheless.

On the negative side of the ledger, I didn’t appreciate the president of the University of Arizona (and master of ceremonies) telling us how lucky we are to have Barack Obama as our president and Janet Napolitano as our homeland security chief. Nor did the frequent raucous cheering by the huge crowd seem appropriate at what was, at least in part, a memorial service.

As for the “ugly,” I’m afraid I must cite the opening “prayer” by Native American Carlos Gonzales. It was apparently was some sort of Yaqui Indian tribal thing, with lots of references to “the creator” but no mention of God. Several of the victims were, as I understand it, quite religious in that quaint Christian kind of way (none, to my knowledge, was a Yaqui). They (and their families) likely would have appreciated a prayer more closely aligned with their religious beliefs.

But it wasn’t just Gonzales’s prayer that was “ugly” under the circumstances. Before he ever got to the prayer, Gonzales provided us with a mini-auto biography and made several references to Mexico, the country from which (he informed us) his family came to Arizona in the mid 19th century. I’m not sure why Gonzales felt that Mexico needed to intrude into this service, but I have an idea.

In any event, the invocation could have used more God, less Mexico, and less Carlos Gonzales.

That’s it. The unforgivable offense was to suggest that prayers for Christian victims might appropriately be… Christian.

I myself cheerfully accept anybody’s prayers for my safety, salvation, or good luck with the lottery. The good wishes of a good person may or may not help, but they certainly can’t hurt.

Of course, that’s not the whole story as you find out when you follow the money.

But that was not good enough for one of Mirengoff’s law partners, James Meggesto, who issued a sanctimonious statement saying he was “shocked, appalled and embarrassed” by Mirengoff’s “insensitive” “web posting” (emphasis mine):

“As an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation; as an attorney who has dedicated his life and law practice to the representation of Indian tribes, tribal organizations and tribal interests; and as a partner in the American Indian law and policy practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, I was shocked, appalled and embarrassed by a recent Web posting by another Akin Gump partner, Paul Mirengoff, who posted on his personal blog an insensitive and wholly inappropriate criticism of the use of a Yaqui prayer as the invocation to the recent memorial service held in Tucson, Arizona. As soon as I and the firm became aware of this posting, the firm took immediate action to deal firmly with this unfortunate situation. Accordingly, Bruce McLean, chairman of the firm, issued the following statement: “We sincerely apologize for the blog entry posted by Akin Gump partner Paul Mirengoff on his personal blog, Akin Gump is neither affiliated with, nor a supporter of, the blog. We found his remarks to be insensitive and wholly inconsistent with Akin Gump’s values. Mr. Mirengoff regrets his poor choice of words and agreed to remove his post.” ”
Meggesto doesn’t say who dropped the dime on Mirengoff. How this even came to the firm’s attention is surprising. After all, the paragraph in question was pretty mild, part of a larger post and not really much different than a lot of others were saying. Perhaps some innocent concerned citizen just happened to read Power Line that night and call Akin Gump, but it’s equally likely the watchers were behind it, directly or indirectly.

The criticism by Meggesto and Akin Gump was disingenuous at best. There was nothing in Mirengoff’s post which was a “criticism of the use of the Yacqui prayer”; Mirengoff was making a point about the absence of a Christian prayer at a memorial service for religious Christian victims.

And just what are Akin Gump’s “values”? The primary value at stake here seems to be money to be generated from representing Indian tribes and financial interests. Nothing wrong with that, but Akin Gump should have just said what it really meant: “We are afraid that left-wing bloggers and others who hate Power Line will make a big deal about this and try to use it against the firm to disrupt our relationship with clients who pay us millions of dollars in legal fees each year.”

If Akin Gump had justified its actions based on its own financial interests, rather than hiding behind words like “insensitive,” I would have respected its decision (although still disagreed with it). A law firm has a legitimate interest in maintaining client relationships. Instead, Meggesto and Akin Gump chose to portray Mirengoff at best as insensitive and at worst as a bigot, which conclusions were not supported by the blog post in question.

Mirengoff obviously feared for his position at the firm, because he issued a confession/apology worthy of a political prisoner in (insert name of tyranny here):

OK, I have to say I support Mirengoff 100 percent – but I can’t help but think he’s kind of a wuss.

Dammit shyster, couldn’t you have taken the hit and sued the bastards? That’s what lawyers do!

Maybe I should be more charitable, and maybe I’m not in the mood because I’ve just come back from Belarus where a friend and comrade was forced to make public statements by threats on the lives of his partners.

Mr. Mirengoff I’m sure you have a family to support, but that redskin lawyer (yes I’m being deliberately offensive, sue me) isn’t going to scalp your wife and children. “Attorney” is a portable skill you can take damn near anywhere. And if you have sons, wouldn’t you rather they saw their father as a man who stands up for himself, than a provider of new BMWs for graduation?

I’m living a lot closer to the margin of poverty than you are – and I’ll say whatever I damn well please on my blog PRECISELY BECAUSE THERE ARE PEOPLE TELLING ME I CAN’T.

February 3, 2011

Don’t let that little girl in!

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:56 am

I rented Let Me In the other night, now I can say I’ve seen the movie for the first time twice.

I mean of course, that I first saw the Swedish original, Låt den rätte komma in, 2008 (Let the Right One In.) It’s a charming coming-of-age-young-love-wimpy-kid-turns-on-the-bullies vampire story.

Stephen King called it, “The best American horror movie in 20 years.”

I don’t read much of King’s fiction, though what I have read is very effective in it’s genre. Once when I was living with a woman and working the midnight shift, I left for work one night leaving her reading Pet Sematery in bed.

I came back from work in the morning to find her sitting bolt upright in bed chewing her nails.

What I do read of King is his writing about writing. Dance Macabre is the best survey/analysis of horror fiction in print and movies I’ve ever read. He also gave the best advice about writing I’ve ever read. (Well, together with Heinlein’s James Forrestal Lecture to the graduating class at Annapolis, but that wasn’t exclusively about writing.)

King said, “You lift weights every day, you get big muscles. You write every day, you get to be a good writer.”

So it pains me to say, what the hell are you talking about Stephen King? Let Me In is not the best American horror movie in 20 years, it’s a Swedish movie!

Let Me In is Låt den rätte komma in, pretty much scene for scene, in most places line for line. I don’t see how they could credit Matt Reeves as the writer. He’s the adaptor. They should have credited the translator.

This is one of those things that legitimately embarrasses America in front of the Europeans, stealing something and filing the serial number off.

Oh there are some differences. In the Swedish movie the boy is blond and the girl is dark. In the American movie the boy is dark and the girl is blond. Oh yes, and it’s set in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Understand, they did it just as well as the original, but only just as well – not better.

The movie took the trope of the little-girl vampire, first created I believe by Anne Rice, and did a better job with it. This of course is a variation on the evil children theme.

By the end of the movie you realize that Eli/Abby has recruited Oskar/Owen to be her new familiar, after the old one is used up. In return, he gets a friend cum demonic avenger.

(That has to be a universal desire among young boys. I recall a meeting with my son’s first-grade teacher after he made another boy cry. He’d gotten mad and told him he was going to send his pet cobra to bite him. The teacher asked a little uncertainly, “He doesn’t actually have one, does he?” Which should tell you something about the perceived eccentricity of our family.)

The film does a great job of portraying the seductive power of evil. As Eric Hoffer once said, “One tactic of the weak is to hint at their capacity for evil.”

Though Eli/Abby and her familiar kill several innocents, by the end of the film something inside you wants her to survive. And you feel a triumphant “Yes!” when she rips those nasty little shits to shreds in the swimming pool – because that’s what you wanted to do to them.

And maybe that’s the central point. What we want is not always what we should have. This is a horror movie where what you’re scared of isn’t external, it’s inside you.

Bottom line: even if you watch only the occasional horror movie, this is one you should check out. But if you’re not going to watch both, watch the Swedish version with subtitles.

February 2, 2011

You know you’re a contrarian when…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:20 am

I just got this email circular about Democrats.

Most of it is I think, both witty and on the mark. But… (There’s always a “but,” isn’t there?)

On a few of these points, I have to ask some searching questions.


When your friends cannot explain why they voted for Democrats, give them this list. They can then pick their “Top Ten” reasons from this list.

1. I voted Democrat because I believe oil companies’ profits of 4% on a
gallon of gas are obscene but the government taxing the same gallon of
gas at 15% isn’t.

Always a good point. Anybody got anything to say about the fact the oil companies support Democrats more than Republicans and cheerfully accept the ethanol subsidy, i.e. a license to sell watered-down gas at a profit?

2. I voted Democrat because I believe the government will do a better job of spending the money I earn than I would.

3. I voted Democrat because Freedom of speech is fine as long as nobody is offended by it.

Hmmmm, I’m old enough to remember when “offensive speech” meant pornography – and right-wingers were tying themselves in knots explaining how it wasn’t protected by the First Amendment. I believe you can still get that argument from say, L. Brent Bozell.

I’ll concede that even if the First is interpreted to mean, “only political speech is protected” it’ll do less harm than “speech offensive to protected minorities” (or women, still 51 percent last I looked.) But I have great faith in the ability of intellectuals of all stripes to redefine “political speech.”

4. I voted Democrat because I’m way too irresponsible to own a gun, and I know that my local police are all I need to protect me from murderers and thieves.

Just remember by “murderers and theives” the Founding Father’s meant, in government. This makes both sides uncomfortable.

I’m also old enough to remember that once fiery liberal Hubert Humphry was an avid hunter and un-abashedly thought gun ownership was an insurance policy against oppressive government.

5. I voted Democrat because I believe that people who can’t tell us if it will rain on Friday can tell us that the polar ice caps will melt away in twenty years if I don’t start driving a Prius.

6. I voted Democrat because I’m not concerned about millions of babies being aborted so long as we keep all death row inmates alive.

Agreed. But I also remember when the Right supported a draft, the Left’s rejoinder was, “It appears the Right believes in the right of individuals to life – until they’re old enough to be drafted.”

I don’t think anybody is advocating a draft anymore though.

7. I voted Democrat because I think illegal aliens have a right to free health care, education, and Social Security benefits.

8. I voted Democrat because I believe that business should not be allowed to make profits for themselves. They need to break even and give the rest away to the government for redistribution as the Democrats see fit.

9. I voted Democrat because I believe liberal judges need to rewrite the Constitution every few days to suit some fringe kooks who would never get their agendas past the voters.

Good one, except when the states take the Federalism built into the Constitution seriously and decriminalize medical marijuana…

10. I voted Democrat because I think that it’s better to pay billions of dollars for oil to people who hate us, but not drill our own because it might upset some endangered beetle or gopher.

11. I voted Democrat because while we live in the greatest, most wonderful country in the world, I was promised “HOPE AND CHANGE”.

Still pretty good boys. Needs work on a few points though.

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