It is almost a month that Dmitry Galko, a correspondent of the Minsk newspaper Novy chas, has been staying in Ukraine. When the Russian intervention in Crimea began, he came here to feel the mood of Ukrainians from inside and contribute for his newspaper from here. As the journalist admits, a staff correspondent in a foreign country is a rarity for the Belarusian media. Therefore, information about the world comes through the filters of Russian or Ukrainian publications. Galko is one of those Belarusians who have supported Ukrainians since the first days of Maidan protests. On November 30, when the riot police dispersed the protesters, he was supposed to celebrate his birthday. But he could not do so. “I sat before the computer all day and night long. I followed every piece of news and worried about you,” the journalist says. Then he visited the Maidan in December and January to write reports which revealed such characteristic features of the Ukrainian revolution as dignity, smiling faces, a dauntless spirit, and belief in the final victory. The Day has interviewed the Belarusian guest about his impressions of Ukraine.
You have already visited several cities in Ukraine. What is your impression of the south-east?
“This tour of Ukraine has opened my eyes and shattered a lot of stereotypes. I am more proud of your people now. I have long been watching the events in Ukraine. If you see my Facebook news ticker, you may think I am Ukrainian. After I had visited the Maidan and seen no Nazis there, contrary to scare stories at home, I could no longer watch this from afar. I will say honestly that sending a journalist abroad is a thing that our newspaper can hardly afford financially, although this is very desirable from the professional angle. So I wrote in Facebook that I was going to Ukraine and needed help. Friends willingly responded and raised money, and I set off. There are lots of impressions. Above all, I did not see south-eastern Ukraine in the traditional sense of the word. Every region and city is individual. I first traveled to Donetsk but then decided to get off the train earlier – in Kharkiv. I did not feel much tension there: the people are amiable, the city is beautiful.
“I stayed longer in Donetsk. My acquaintances were perhaps more afraid to go to this city than to Crimea. They told me I would be beaten up for my persuasions. But what struck me in Donetsk was different. It is by no means a ‘city of thugs,’ as it is often depicted. You can see a lot of foreigners, students, educated and intelligent people on the streets. Incidentally, I saw more ‘tough guys’ in Dnipropetrovsk. And in Donetsk – just fancy some men with an accordion and a guitar in hand sitting on a street bench and playing not Kalinka-Malinka [traditional Russian song. – Ed.] but… Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. I walk to a supposedly pro-Russian rally, speak to dozens of people, but I hear none of them saying they want the Russian troops or secession. No hatred for Ukraine. On the contrary, people don’t like it when the Ukrainian flag is torn down. They are saying: why not just place a Russian and a Donbas flag next to it? When they came to know that somebody had defamed the Shakhtar banner, they flew into a rage. They say those were not from Donetsk. They might ‘tear you apart’ in defense of this soccer club. I understood that Donetsk is not a pro-Russian region when I accidentally got in touch with a family – mother and two sons. The boys had different views on Europe: one was wholeheartedly for the association, the other for a strong independent Ukraine. Mother is paid a miner’s pension and says it’s good to live in the native land – and not a single word about Russia, even though they have a lot of complaints about the new government and some believe in scary stories about ‘Bandera followers.’”
A Ukrainian publication reported that our security service had apprehended you and some Russian intelligence agents. What happened in reality?
“This happened in the hostel. I shared a room with GRU agents [GRU – Russia’s military intelligence directorate. – Ed.]. The SBU must have tracked them down, but it was not clear which of us were the ones. They carried out the operation quickly, without too much noise. I came into the room, where several armed people had been waiting for me. They apprehended me, waited for a roommate, and captured him, too. Then they found out that I was a journalist and freed me. In general, it was a culture shock for me to compare your security service and our police. There at home, they can beat me for no apparent reason, stop and insult me on the street. But here, even suspecting me of terrorism, they not only freed me after all, but also apologized several times for inconvenience, offered me a place to relax and a shower. They never used force. But the point is I settled at the very first place I’d found and immediately came across a Russian agent. This means there are very many of them there. Incidentally, I noticed that when the agent was listening to Putin’s speech, he was critical of his words – he was indignant that the speech was not tough enough.”
Odesa and Kherson are closer to Crimea. What mood do you think was in these regions?
“After seeing a little ‘anti-Maidan’ in Donetsk, I was shocked with a rally in Odesa. I seemed to have moved from adequate people to a madhouse. Many people have a Russian TV set, not a head, on their shoulders. And while there were people of various social status in Donetsk, Odesa seemed to consist of marginal persons only – not hobos but ones with incredible mess in the head, Stalin’s portraits in hand, and calls for Russia to intervene.
“Kherson shocked me immensely – in a good sense. I arrive in the city and suddenly see thousands of people with Ukrainian flags, a toppled Lenin, ‘Heavenly Sotnia’ written on the pedestal, the self-defense headquarters in the oblast administration building. Supposedly, the closer to Crimea the hotter the heads should be, but Kherson is moderately Ukrainian. I can feel calm and free here. People help the military and man checkpoints. And there is another uniting moment: people in all the regions want real changes. So the new authorities must heed Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Kherson, and begin at last to work in the interests of the entire people. Then nobody will doubt the unity of Ukraine. But, having mingled with Kherson oblast bosses, I felt they were not prepared for radical changes. They are so far unable to live up to the grassroots’ expectations. This is an alarming trend, and the public should not remain complacent – it should control and goad the authorities.”
How do the media of Belarus cover the events in Ukraine?
“In general, there is a very scanty coverage of the latest events – usually, short off-the-front-page reports. State-run channels broadcast the way Lukashenko wants, that is, rather vaguely. Yet, during the occupation of Crimea, some channels began to air some neutral news, which is a sign of changes. There are different opinions in the Internet, but, as long as there are too few independent media, sound-minded debates occur in a narrow circle. What presents a big problem is absence of Belarusian staff correspondents in Ukraine. The media are looking at the world through someone else’s eyes.”
Is a Maidan possible in Belarus?
“In the near future – absolutely not. Should there be protests, this will result in something bloody and terrible. Our protesters are much angrier and more radical than yours. The dictatorship is so overbearing that an emotional burst is in the air. A Maidan needs a window of freedom in the shape of the media, non-governmental associations, and the will of millions, which Belarus does not have now. When tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2010, it was a trap, an illusory freedom, followed by repressions. I think this president may be overthrown by people from his inner circle under a pretext of popular will, but it is very difficult to foresee anything because there is almost no politics as such in Belarus.”