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Europe's Last Dictatorship: An Interview with Jaroslav Romanchuk

Europe's Last Dictatorship: An Interview with Jaroslav Romanchuk

12 Mins
December 21, 2010

Editor's Note, Dec. 21, 2010: On December 20th, 2010, the government of Belarus launched a sweeping crack-down (see news photo below) against opposition political figures. Many were detained, beaten, or worse. Among the nine presidential candidates who opposed dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko in the elections December 18, we at TAS are particularly concerned about the fate of Jaroslav Romanchuk, a friend of our organization and stalwart defender of reason and liberty in Belarus. He is among the opposition.

In the Summer 2006 issue of The New Individualist, Robert Bidinotto interviewed Romanchuk about the political and economic situation in Belarus and the struggle for freedom there.

Summer 2006 -- When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its member republics declared their independence. They began to establish democratic governments and the rule of law and to implement free-market economic reforms, as they understood them at that time. Some, like Estonia, did well; others, like Russia, still struggle.

Belarus is a former Soviet republic with a population of approximately 10 million people and is often referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe.” Alexander Lukashenko (pictured at left), the country’s leader, is more like a Stalin than a Gorbachev or a Yeltsin. He has resisted radical economic reforms and still maintains a secret police that uses violence to intimidate regime opponents. He rigged the country’s March 2006 presidential election on his own behalf, just as he has rigged all the elections held in Belarus since he came to power in 1994.

But his regime faces strong opposition, and one of its leaders is 40-year-old Jaroslav Romanchuk. Jaroslav not only is a top official in a leading opposition party, he also is an Objectivist—and the intellectual leader who is spreading the philosophy and principles that are the necessary foundations of any free society.

On Jaroslav’s recent visit to the Washington offices of The Atlas Society (see photo below), TNI editor Robert Bidinotto and TAS executive director Ed Hudgins sat down with him to discuss the situation in his country, and how the right ideas are the best antidotes for dictatorship.

TNI: Tell us a little about Belarus. Prior to independence, had it always been part of Russia’s domain?

Jaroslav Romanchuk: No. Historically, Belarus was the core of a very powerful European state that was often at war with Russia. Its name was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At that time, the territory that we know today as Belarus was called Litva. It wasn’t until the Napoleonic era, in 1795, that what is now called Belarus was annexed by the Russian empire.

TNI: What is the religious makeup of Belarus?

Romanchuk: We have about 70 percent Russian Orthodox, 15 percent Catholic, and the rest other religions. There is a very big and growing Protestant community. It went from nothing to 150,000 in a very short time. Lukashenko hates them.

TNI: Why has Belarus stayed a hard-core dictatorship?

"The authorities have confiscated my computer and they have confiscated my money."

Romanchuk: Belarus was one of the most communist of the Soviet republics. At the same time, it was the most industrially advanced. As West Germany was a kind of showcase for the West during the Soviet era, Belarus was the showcase for the Soviet Union. That’s where the communist regime located many of the country’s production facilities, at the expense of the rest of the Soviet Union. Thus when reform and revolution came to the Soviet Union and when communism fell, the corrupt, privileged leadership in Belarus did not want change. One man, Lukashenko, has held onto power.

TNI: What were you doing, initially, after the fall of communism?

Romanchuk: In the early 1990s, I was general director of a foreign company. Essentially, I was in business. I was enjoying, more or less, the chaotic liberalism of post-Soviet era. But then the tax police came to us and told us how harshly they planned to treat our business. Many more state bodies also began to exercise their powers over private business. Thus, the decision to stop doing business and to take up an intellectual career came very easily. So in 1995, I joined the first think tank in Belarus: The National Center for Strategic Initiatives “East-West.” This was the first organization in which I could really deal with ideas on a professional level.

TNI: Why a think tank? What got you interested in the realm of ideas?

Romanchuk: It all started in May 1993, when I met two Americans, Charles and Susanna Tomlinson, in Minsk. They were on a People-to- People mission and they wanted to learn more about post-socialist countries. We talked about the situation at that time in former Soviet countries, and also about deeper ideas. They spoke about one thing that shocked me at that time: the morality of making money and of capitalism. I had never thought of capitalism in those terms. After they returned home, they sent me this big book by an author unknown to me.

My major at the university had been American and English literature, so I was supposed to learn about all major American and British authors. But I had no idea who this author was. So it was like a revelation to me when I read this book, Atlas Shrugged . And I immediately ordered more books by its author, Ayn Rand , and more books about her philosophy of Objectivism .

Also, I began to read extensively—in Ludwig von Mises and other free-market and freedom oriented thinkers—about philosophy, ethics, and economics. And that is what changed my life.

The members of the think tank I joined were young and the organization united many prominent thinkers of Belarus at that time. They did not have the perspective of Objectivism or the classical liberal thinkers of the West. But they were good guys who wanted to resist communism, and they wanted to broaden the debate on various issues.

I wanted to understand where I fit on the spectrum of different ideologies. The open atmosphere and intellectual debate at that think tank really helped me. Before that, all I had was the Soviet-style experience, with Marxists lecturing me on so-called “scientific communism.”

TNI: It was after you read Rand and other advocates of liberty that you decided to go back to school?

Romanchuk: Yes. As an undergraduate, I majored in British and American literature. These subjects had nothing to do with philosophy and economics. After I had been in business and read Rand and others, I decided that I loved economics. To enter postgraduate studies, I had to pass exams in micro-economics, macro-economics, economic theory, English, and philosophy. So I changed my sphere of interest radically.

TNI: Tell us a little about your early activist ventures.

“The KGB boss said that everybody who showed up for post-election demonstrations would be considered a terrorist.”

Romanchuk: At that time, I began to speak and write, principally on themes of individualism versus collectivism, and analyzing the situation in Belarus from that perspective. The reactions were interesting. One future friend of mine, who didn’t know me at that time, read an article of mine and thought, “Who is this guy? He must be 50 years old with these sort of thoughts.” When we finally met, he turned out to be something like 23, and I was only about 27.

TNI: How widespread are Rand’s works, especially Atlas Shrugged , in Belarus and in Russia?

Romanchuk: My colleagues from St. Petersburg translated Atlas, The Fountainhead, and We the Living into Russian. It sold out very quickly. So at that time, I was giving out the books on what might be called “long-term lease.” I’d tell people to read them and pass them to somebody who might benefit from them. Thus each copy of the book might be read by at least ten people.

TNI: Wow!

Romanchuk: Then we published the second edition of Atlas and Fountainhead . A third edition has been released in July 2006. So thousands of people now have read her books. When you ask people in Belarus, “Have you read Rand?,” they don’t look at you as if you were a lunatic. She is becoming more and more popular, and there are people now who would like to publish different excerpts from her novels—for example, about money or individualism—as brochures, and give them to hundreds of people.

Recently, I received really wonderful feedback from giving out copies of Rand’s works and posting information online. In many cases, people in Belarus, and its capital, Minsk—doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs—really love Ayn Rand but just don’t know there are others in Belarus who read and like her. So I tell them and help them contact one another. I give them a wealth of information, and they are so overwhelmed. They cry like kids.

Sometimes individuals don’t know that I am the one who is circulating the materials and books. For example, we had an important meeting and I saw a guy reading Fountainhead in Russian. So I asked him, “What do you think about the book?” And he said, “Wonderful! I love it! It’s really fine!” He told me, “You must read it!” I told him to look at the introduction, which I had written.

These are the moments worth waiting for, you see.

TNI: You told us that it was the Tomlinsons who sent you a copy of Atlas and started you on this path. Could you tell the story of what happened after you received those books?

Romanchuk: They sent me the book, but I lost touch with them. Four years later, after reading those books and other freedom literature, I decided to attend the 1997 conference of the International Society for Individual Liberty, which was held that year in Rome. They had a grant for somebody from Belarus, because they never had anybody attend from my country. So I went to Rome, and that is where I met you, Robert [Bidinotto].

TNI: Yes.

Romanchuk: And when we began to discuss how I became acquainted with Rand, I mentioned the Tomlinsons. You said, “You’ve got to be kidding! They are good friends of mine. What a small world!” And that’s how I renewed my contacts with them, which later led to visits to them in the United States and to Atlas Society Summer Seminars, which they also attended.

TNI: You are not only a philosophical activist but a political activist as well. Tell us about your political activities and the recent election.

"My telephone has definitely been bugged. No doubt about it."

Romanchuk: There is a coalition of democratic parties and non-governmental organizations that unites about 95 percent of all democratic opposition in Belarus, from the political left to the right. I am vice-chairman of the United Civil Party, which is part of the coalition. We chose our single candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, at the congress, which was a gathering of over 900 people. I wrote the economic and reform program for him. Another candidate was Alexander Kozulin. He is chairman of the Social Democratic Party. He signed onto my reform program as well.

The principal points of the program were as follows: privatization, social security reform, free trade, sanctity of private property, and a small, transparent state in the environment of political competition and free media.

For the March 2006 election we had a very intense campaign, because our party had organizations all over the country.

Our campaign had great impact and we brought the message of freedom to a lot of people. Kozulin and his Social Democratic Party did not have an extensive party organization like ours. But Kozulin has a charismatic personality.

He used to be in an army elite unit. He is a powerful, energetic man, but intelligent as well: he used to be president of the Belarusian State University. So the two campaigns complemented one another nicely.

TNI: How did the government react to the opposition?

Romanchuk: The regime showed its repressive nature during the campaign, and many people were outraged. It imprisoned about fifteen hundred people, and there were very many cases of torture by the special forces.

Regime thugs would arrest teenage girls during campaign rallies and as they were driving them to prison from the main square in Minsk, they would say, “Now we are going to take you to the forest to rape and kill you.” You can imagine the fear in these innocent girls—kids, really—from these sorts of tactics.

And knowing the record of the regime, these were real fears; individuals in Belarus have gone missing—kidnapped by regime thugs, we suspect— and others have been murdered. But these intimidation tactics backfired. They helped to unite the Belarus opposition.

Impartial outside observers all agreed that the March 19 election was rigged. The Belarus government stated that Lukashenko received over 80 percent of the votes.

TNI: What happened after the election?

Romanchuk: Our party and Kozulin’s had agreed on the date and the time of the post-election activities. Two days before the elections, the KGB boss said that everybody who showed up for post-election demonstrations would be considered a terrorist and would face up to four years in prison, or even capital punishment.

Observers believed that only a thousand or so people might show up and the government thought even less. That’s why the government didn’t block the downtown area of Minsk. But 30,000 people showed up. Really, the authorities were taken aback. They didn’t know how to react. And what Lukashenko fears most is street action.

TNI: Street action?

“I’m optimistic because these ideas –about objective reality, a morality of rational self-interest, and individual freedom –are so powerful.”

Romanchuk: Action from large public gatherings, like we saw in Ukraine. He sees enemies all around him and he sees a danger from people who financed the campaign against him.

At that time, the opposition leaders should have incited the crowd to radical action. They should have more actively sought attention from television and the Western media and loudly demanded truly free, fair elections. They certainly had the moral right to do so. But Milinkevich, who mobilized the people during the campaign, did not act forcefully enough in the postelection period. Fortunately, the people themselves began to self-organize. They put tents on the main square in Minsk and organized a night vigil. But the authorities removed the tents. Milinkevich was not ready to lead the crowd. However, Kozulin did organize a march to the prison to support our people who had been arrested. He led the crowd, and that is why he is much more likely to be the principal opposition leader of post-election period.

TNI: How are these two leaders— Milinkevich and Kozulin—philosophically?

Romanchuk: Both definitely love freedom and are supporters of democracy and of Western values. But neither of them is deeply philosophical. They like my ideas and my economic proposals, which are based on economic liberty and on individualism. And at this stage, it is enough that they want freedom, capitalism, individual rights, and civil liberties.

TNI: Do they see capitalism only from a local, Belarus perspective, or from a wider perspective?

“My colleagues from St. Petersburg translated Atlas, The Fountainhead, and We the Living into Russian.They sold out very quickly.”

Romanchuk: They want to be part of the globalized, economically open world. They don’t want to be protectionists. I wrote a policy paper for them on integration of Belarus into the European community. Note that I make a distinction between “the European community” and the European Union, which has many regulations that are anti-free market. The “European community,” in Belarus, is understood to mean European values, which are Western values. “European” in Belarus means doing private business according to standards based on the rule of law and without massive corruption. These are definitely more American than European standards, given Europe’s welfare state policies. But “European” has a more positive connotation for most people in Belarus, so we use that term.

TNI: How does the regime harass you personally? What threats do you face, and how do you deal with them?

Romanchuk: My telephone has definitely been bugged, no doubt about it. And every time I cross the border to leave the country, government agents check me very thoroughly. During the election campaign, when I was active with my political party, there was a car with government agents outside of my apartment, watching me. They just wanted to know who I met with and when.

I know what kind of control the regime might have against individuals, so I try to minimize the hooks they might have in me. I don’t work for the government, so they can’t threaten me with loss of my job. I’m not in line to get an apartment from the government; I already have a place to live. I don’t have a wife or children that they can threaten. That’s the danger of being married in a heavy-handed dictatorship. It’s too bad: the girls in Belarus are very pretty! I don’t drink, so I’m not at risk of committing some indiscretion or being off my guard when I’m drunk.

That is how I have reduced my vulnerability to the minimum.

The authorities have confiscated my computer and they have confiscated my money, but I can survive without those. I borrowed a computer from my friends and I make money by providing some intellectual work for other people.

TNI: You know Andrei Illarionov, Russian President [Vladimir] Putin’s former top economics adviser, who recently resigned in disgust over Russian corruption and the growing power of government.

Romanchuk: Yes, he’s my friend.

NI: And Illarionov is also an admirer of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Romanchuk: Yes.

TNI: Is he more or less vulnerable than you?

“I don’t have a wife or children that they can threaten.”

Romanchuk: Well, I heard that recently he has gotten some threats. So it is certainly not safe to be an independent thinker in Russia. But he is less vulnerable, and I’ll tell you why. First, of course, remember that the Russian government is not as repressive as the government in Belarus. Second, Andrei is a single, lone individual—an intellectual, very bright, and very capable and well-known in Russia. But he has not been associated with political parties, nor does he have any connections with non-governmental organizations. And he has a good reputation abroad.

By contrast, I deliberately chose politics and I am vice chairman of the opposition party, which is already an intellectual force in Belarus. So I’m more vulnerable than Andrei, but I’m less vulnerable than more activist politicians in my county. Because I deal principally with ideas, I am not perceived as being a danger to the regime as great as other political activists.

TNI: Really? That’s surprising. It seems that those brutes’ blindness to ideas could work in your favor.

Romanchuk: Yes. It reminds me of the situation with Lenin at the beginning of the twentieth century. Czarist Russia let him conduct seminars with all their heresies because it underestimated in the power of ideas—in that case, bad ideas.

Of course, in Belarus, the authorities do engage in censorship. They keep a close watch on the media, television, the internet, and the education system. And they try to keep what they think are subversive publications out of the country.

For example, some friends of mine arranged to have 150 copies of Atlas Shrugged in English sent to Belarus. When they arrived, the Customs officials classified them as religious literature. They called me to the office and said that I must pay a high duty on each book in order to get them in the country. I said, “I cannot afford that,” so they sent them back. The best way to send books to us is to put some second- hand books on the top of the pile of books in the box. Customs officials will often think it is a donation of old, used books that are not subversive, and will let them into our country.

TNI: Is it easier to get literature into the country if it does not specifically refer to the situation in Belarus?

"Regime thugs would arrest teenage girls and say, 'Now we are going to take you to the forest to rape and kill you.'"

Romanchuk: Yes. During the election campaign, we printed up special supplements of different papers that specifically targeted the Belarusian regime. The Belarus authorities confiscated about half a million copies. We published these papers in Russia and other neighboring countries, but they had their own spies in those publishing houses, and they reported who did what, so that the Belarus government was ready to confiscate them.

I also spread ideas, but avoid the eyes of the authorities in other ways. I work with young people within various youth organizations, in small groups. I could not get a position at the university, but I know friends at universities who teach certain classes at certain times. I cannot be officially on the schedule or the timetable, but they will let me come to their classes to teach and distribute literature. Students and young people also have access to my website, where my articles are posted.

Besides, I have indications that by letting me publish articles online, certain regime officials gain a critical evaluation of their own policies. This is very interesting. The heads of the government have advisers around who say that everything is wonderful, and are either too afraid or too self-deluded to understand and explain the real situation. They do not value truth and reason. So the regime officials need someone to tell them what is really going on!

TNI: Let’s turn back to ideas, and specifically those of Ayn Rand, which have inspired you. What struck you most about Ayn Rand ? What aspects of Objectivism made you think that it was interesting or different?

Romanchuk: In ethics: the question of what is good and what is evil.

Communism, of course, defines “the good” as benefits to others at the expense of the individual. But many people believe that dictators like Lukashenko are acting out of self-interest— that is, they are destroying the good of others for their own personal, selfish good. This view means that whether a political system is based on the principle of the common good or self-interest, both will lead to dictatorship and to violence by some individuals against others.

Rand showed that true self-interest means being responsible for your own life and actions, and taking pride in your personal achievements. That’s true self-interest. This understanding of good and evil is necessary to oppose both the dictatorships of communism and of morally corrupt individuals.

TNI: What else?

Romanchuk: I like Rand’s discussion of compromise. Her elaboration on this matter and her discussion of how life does not require fundamental compromise is very good.

“Rand showed that true self-interest means being responsible for your own life and actions and taking pride in your personal achievements.”

Also, her definition of egoism and the importance of happiness as a goal in life is really striking. Often, when I meet people who are not associated with Objectivism and have not read Ayn Rand , I’ll ask them what they want to achieve in life. When I suggest that they should want to be happy, they sometimes call this goal too simplistic. But when I start elaborating on areas in which one receives the greatest joy— personal achievements, excelling in life—this is what strikes them. They see my point.

Rand’s symbols also are useful.

TNI: How so?

Romanchuk: Rand uses three important symbols: Attila, the witch doctor, and the trader. This is a good framework for the value battle in my country. Attila stands for brute force that destroys values. That is the essence of the dictatorship in Belarus and of communism. The witch doctor—the manifestation of superstition today— is the post-modernism type of a guy who really thinks that everything is relative, that there is no objective reality or values.

Then there is the creator or trader, who creates things of value to trade with others. And, of course, a trade is based on mutual consent, not the initiation of brute force.

These are very powerful archetypes.

TNI: How do you use ideas in your political activities? Which ideas have had an appeal?

"I believe that the dictatorship in Belarus will fall."

Romanchuk: We have spent twelve years under the authoritarian regime, and now many more people understand the real meaning and value of liberty. Freedom, for many, at first, meant refrigerators, cars, and the prosperity found in the West. Those are good things, of course. But now when I advocate liberty, people have a better understanding of what it is. They know that liberty doesn’t mean freedom to do just anything. It means taking responsibility for our actions. That’s why they took to the streets in opposition to the regime. They were not there demanding high wages, economic benefits, and the like. They were there because they were motivated by freedom.

TNI: Motivated by freedom?

Romanchuk: Yes. We also appeal to two other principles that work well: truth and justice. With liberty, those three words really fit together nicely. When we talk about truth, we mean that there is an objective reality. The regime is based on such outrageous lies that the people are much more aware of the difference between someone’s just saying something, and someone’s saying a thing that is true. Thus the appeal for truth appeals to the people.

And finally we talk about justice and fairness, which more people now understand does not mean redistribution of wealth. If you achieve something, you should be rewarded for it or paid for it.

We have done a lot of focus group research about what people would like to see as the message of the reform campaign. That’s why I make use of these ideas: these are the three words that people mention. Thus, we use these words and try to provide a better understanding of these concepts—what I call intellectual ammunition for the people.

TNI: In essence, you focus on the values—the good values—that people already have.

Romanchuk: Yes, that’s part of my approach. People sometimes cannot verbalize their values. What surprises many people is that my opponents think ordinary people do not understand me, because I’m so libertarian, radical, and capitalistic. But when I talk to the audience, I don’t talk about macro-economic models and indexes. I talk about values. I talk about the importance of liberty. I talk about how freedom impacts their lives, their mortgages, prices.

I had wonderful experiences talking to groups of people who wanted to set up the pensioner’s party for retired privatized pension plans, like the one in Chile. And as a result, I got a round of applause and full support for the idea. The ideas are very powerful, even with audiences that are not supposed to know what capitalism is all about.

TNI: One of the dangers we have seen in the transition from communism to freedom is that too many reformers, and the public at large, pay too little attention to the philosophical basis of freedom, and especially the need for a morality based on rational self-interest.

Romanchuk: Yes. We now see the problems with too narrow an understanding of freedom, not only in Russia and Ukraine but throughout Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve talked recently to Polish reformers, and they are beginning to realize the importance of such ideas. They have bumped into very serious economic and social security problems—huge, corrupt bureaucracies, and omnipotent government. They face a problem that I call “the super-knowledge of the anointed”— the notion that one oligarchy, the communist one, must be replaced by a new kind of feudal oligarchy, this one of government bureaucrats and experts. The Poles haven’t translated Ayn Rand into Polish yet, but they need to because they really need those ideas.

TNI: What can you tell us about the role of ideas from Western Europe inside Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries?

Romanchuk: Poland is more civilized because of its traditions and connections with Western Europe. Politics in Russia and Ukraine are more ruthless because they do not have that close connection to the principles of the West.

But the welfare states of Western Europe provide a terrible model and terrible ideas for countries trying to establish free markets and free societies. The totalitarian form of socialism has collapsed, but the democratic form of socialism still rules much of the West. After the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, the socialist parties in Western Europe changed their names and labels, but still promoted the same failed policies. And when you impose a welfare state model onto morally immature societies like the ones in the former Soviet bloc, the whole system can easily break down.

TNI: When the dictatorship in Belarus falls, what will you do to spread the right ideas?

Romanchuk: One of the first decisions of a reform government should be to change the curriculum in schools, at the elementary, high school, and university levels. And to get rid of Marxism and Keynesianism! The ideas promoted by the current regime in the schools will necessarily lead to conflict. They are ideas that pit individuals against one another—that are based on the notion that the interests of individuals conflict, that one individual’s gain is at another individual’s loss. Those ideas are worse than dangerous drugs, because they don’t simply sicken or kill one person at a time; they kill thousands with their effects.

TNI: How do you see the future in your country?

Romanchuk: I believe that the dictatorship in Belarus will fall, as dictatorships have fallen in the other countries of the Soviet bloc. But that is only the beginning. We have learned from the other former communist countries how difficult it is not only to reform an economy, but also to change the way that people think: to educate people in the moral and philosophical principles on which a truly free society must be based.

I’m optimistic. And just being optimistic helps the process. I have discovered that when people don’t immediately understand your new ideas and proposals, they react to you. If you are smiling and optimistic, they will assume you mean well and try to understand you.

But I’m also optimistic because these ideas—about objective reality, a morality of rational self-interest, and individual freedom—are so powerful. After all, they represent the truth. We see what they’ve done in America, a country founded on these ideas. Thus, I expect to see a bright future for my country as we implement reforms based on these principles.

It is a big challenge. It takes time and guts. But enjoying freedom in action is something worth living for.

Robert James Bidinotto
About the author:
Robert James Bidinotto
Law / Rights / Governance