Sanaka Samarasinha, UN Resident Coordinator / UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus. His mandate expires in May 2018, and Mr. Sanaka kindly agreed to discuss tacit rules of influence in Belarusian politics, invisible cooperation with officials and ministries in our country, and to voice his impressions of Belarus as a former journalist (he says “Once a journalist, always a journalist”) for the first time to #RFRM.

By: Serge Kharytonau

— Mr. Sanaka, thank you for your time. First of all, I would like to know how I should address you.

— Sanaka.

— So saying just Sanaka is fine?

— Yes, it's fine.

— Thank you, Sanaka. There is a saying that you mentioned in an interview with Belarus 1 in October 2013 when you were discussing your arrival to Belarus. "Once a journalist, always a journalist". So, my first question is about your experience in Belarus as a journalist rather than a diplomat. I know it's a tricky question but if I had no tricky questions, we wouldn't be here.

— Absolutely. Well, I suppose it's interesting: nobody's actually asked me that question. And I'm trying to understand whether I can actually make a clear distinction between being a journalist, which was the beginning of my career, a lawyer at some point and now as you say a diplomat... and a development practitioner.


I think perhaps the only real difference is that diplomats may use a slightly different language. But I don't really think there is a big difference between how I've seen your country as a journalist or as a lawyer or as a diplomat or as a development worker. Why do I say that? I think because my experience of working in different places as a journalist, as you quoted me, has stayed. It influences the way I function in whatever job I have in whichever country I'm in. So, for me it was really important to know your people and to know the people who live around Belarus, not just in Minsk.

It was important for me to understand not only the commonalities but also the differences of the people living in your country,

and to know them not as a homogeneous group of Belarusians but Belarusians who have different strengths, who face different challenges. And what I tried to do during the time I was here (like a good journalist would, but I think also like a good development worker would do), is to take those stories and process them in my head so that I could in consultation with other colleagues try to translate those human stories into changes needed in the country and elsewhere.

— What do you mean?

The changes that need to happen sometimes within our own organization and in the way we deal with those people who face those challenges. And the changes beyond our organization in the work with the government, private sector partners. We should also consider taking those human stories and spreading them around the world because there are so many of those stories that the individuals in your country can be proud of.



I don't know if that answers your question, but I guess I'm still a journalist. I'm still recording the stories, the narratives that I see around me and then using a slightly different medium to translate them into action.

— What's the most dramatic story for you as a person that probably affected you the most since you came here?

— It's difficult for me to pinpoint one experience. But I would say that would be my recent bicycle ride from Hrodna, perhaps, if I were to think about the most moving eight days experiencing your country. The reason that was so significant in the five years that I've been here was not because we were riding a bicycle, which in itself I thought would be a considerable challenge. Not because it was very beautiful riding through your countryside. I had often experienced these towns, villages and roads in a very different way before. This time I was travelling and experiencing your country not from the highway in the back of a car. And all that is important, of course.

I had the opportunity to spend time with families, with kids who faced so many challenges that you and I would hopefully never have to deal with.

They were willing to share their personal stories, their homes, their food with me and a couple of others from the team. So many of them in so many different towns. It was extremely moving, I was very humbled by the fact that they were willing to let this total stranger from a far-off land into their homes and their hearts. They reminded me of what I have known both anecdotally from my experience in other countries and of many other important moments from my past.



During this particular week we met with kids and young people with mental disabilities. This is something that is particularly difficult for me to talk about. I've lived side by side with mental illness and mental disabilities throughout my life as it touched my family. Thus the fact that people were open to talk to me about it was something that really moved me.

— Just to make it clear for myself: you have a family member with a mental disability?

— I have a family member not with a mental disability but a type of mental illness. Medically it's two different issues, but these are both challenges people find very difficult to talk about and share. This is one of the things I had to grow up with in a society where, I think, there is a sense of embarrassment or fear of such issues which prevents people from getting the help that they deserve; that they really need.

My intention here was to try to not just hear the stories myself but to try to create a space where people would be encouraged and strengthened to talk.

I would like them to stop being afraid of discussing these issues. I think it was important for people I met to hear me say: "Listen, I've dealt with this and I am still dealing with this too, and I can talk about it now." Hopefully, that would give them the courage to do so as well.


Thank you for sharing this personal story... And now let me shift to another topic. In October 2013, there was another interview that you gave to the CTV Channel.

— Yes.

And you told about two things that were surprising to you most of all when you came here. The first impression was the striking cold in this country. Another one was the contact and the warm-hearted people.

— Yes, it’s true.

Now, five years later, I want to ask you about the things which are more practically-oriented. How do you evaluate local business climate and working culture in Belarus?


— I see changes. If you're talking about business and about work culture, I would consider fairly significant changes starting with my own office. I think that one of the things I had observed earlier on in my time here was the tendency for people to be more cautious and risk-averse, especially amongst the older generation, who were fairly set in their ways. I think in part that is also because it is the overwhelming desire of many Belarusians to have a stable environment – to have a stable peaceful country. What's wrong with that, right?

But sometimes when it gets translated into the way you work that also means that you could be missing opportunities to discover new things.

Of course, one must manage the risks. The risks ought to be well thought of, well considered. And counter measures if necessary should be in place if the outcome is not quite what is desired. That has changed with more and more young people coming into the workforce. That is certainly the case in my office with more young people now in the office than when I first came here.


One of the things I've tried to inculcate amongst my team and I hope this will be also something that percolates across the labor force in your country, amongst the young people especially, is that the only failure really is the failure to learn from failure. iPhones and laptops, and the wheel itself that we depend so much in life on, would never have been invented if people were afraid to discover new things and take risks. I see it also in the changes in terms of an entrepreneurial spirit. I see positive changes in specific sectors. The IT sector is the one most talked about, and since my wife is working for EPAM, I hear about it every day.

I am also very encouraged by the openness to tourism now, which was much less the case five years ago. If I had to put my finger on it and say: was there one turning point? Of course, there wasn't one. There was a series of things that happened. The most recent of which is the five-day visa free arrangement for people from many different countries.

But if I had to say: "OK, what was the most significant one in those five years," then I think that was the Ice Hockey World Championship.


I think it created a completely different understanding of Belarus for many people, because people came here and people began to understand and see Belarus for what it really is, not what it's reported to be by certain parts of the media.

Secondly, I think it gave Belarusians a great deal of confidence that they could actually present themselves on the world platform, on the global stage and do extremely well, which is what you did. I'm not talking about the ice hockey team performance itself, which didn't work out as well as it could have. Hopefully next time. But in terms of organizing and managing the event it was something very impressive, no matter who you ask. I think the event really helped to create a sense of confidence inside your country.

And then you saw the ripple effect where more young people began to speak English. I saw it already within a few weeks: more menus, for example, in restaurants in both Russian and English. Not just in Minsk, I saw this in the regional capitals as well. So, I think if we can keep up with that trajectory, you have a very positive future. I think you will be a country that will learn from its mistakes and won't be afraid to make mistakes.

— It sounds very promising.  My next question is about learning, the process of learning: I know that you've met hundreds of people in Belarus ever since you came here.

— Thousands, I think.

— I wonder who was the main person you learned from the most in this country?



— Wow! That's a really difficult question. Because when I was fourteen, I locked myself up in the bedroom and told my mother: "I'm going to figure out the meaning of life. I'll come out only once I do that." My mother being a wise lady (she is a teacher by profession), said to me: "Well, son, you know, I think you're going to be in there for a long time, so just make sure you take some food and water." Which I did. I was in that room for four days and three nights, I think.

And in that time I read a lot of different things. I read religious works. For some reason I had a fascination with existentialism. So, I read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and I read some literature. English literature in particular. And I came up with this thing that life is like an onion. We are made up of layers, and from the moment we are conceived, we start acquiring layers, then we are born and we are exposed to the environment and different influences. Now, if you take any two onions and dissect them, they are never the same: the cell structure is always different.

You can take any onion at any point in time, and if you look at the size, and the shape, and the color – they will always be different.

All of that is determined by the combination of layers that you do not see, right? Why am I telling you this long story? Because it is practically impossible for me to say that any layer is more significant than the other, or any person is more significant than the other.


That interaction of experience is what makes me who I am. I can certainly tell you there are certain people who left a particular impression in my mind. But in part, they did so because there are other people who got me to that point where I could actually absorb what that person was saying to me or what was happening around me.

— That's a very diplomatic answer.

— But it's very true. I mean, I could not possibly tell you that, for instance, you may have a very positive or negative influence on me by the end of this interview. But it's not necessarily because it's you. It's also because certain other people got you and me in this room together. So, it was a combination of factors. I can say that even you, during this hour that we will spend together in this interview, can have a positive or negative impact on me.

I will tell you this one thing though. I have learned a lot in Belarus. One of the key issues for me here was about inclusion. And you're a country, which... when you look at the numbers, there's not much inequality. The Gini Coefficient, which assesses the level of inequality in countries, is something that you do very well on in comparison to the countries in the region and beyond.

If you look at the Gender Inequality Index of UNDP, you're almost up there at the top 30 in the world.

But if you start peeling some of those layers and looking beyond the numbers you begin to understand something different. For example, on the Gender Equality Index, one of the three factors in establishing a ranking is life expectancy. Well, your men die much younger than women do. So, that is what it does: it actually closes the gap on gender inequality with women. You may have other challenges: for example income of men and women are quite different. Thus, inclusion beyond the numbers is something that I really thought I could work on and the UN could help Belarus on.


In the process I spent a lot of time with people who seemed to be on the margins of society or excluded in some way. One of my first experiences was with people who are living with HIV. During my first year or two I spent a lot of time trying to understand their challenges, the people who are most at risk: injecting drug uses, female sex workers, and men having sex with men.

The first person to be publicly known to have AIDS and to die of AIDS in Sri Lanka in 1985 was a relative of mine. 

This was similar to the mental illness and mental disability issue. Stigma was one of the reasons why it was continuing to happen here – it was because people were afraid to talk to people, afraid to be tested.

— And they still are.

— And they still are, indeed. I think we're making some progress, not nearly as much as we should. You're doing considerably well if you compare yourself to the countries in the region like Ukraine and Russia. But still some work needs to be done here. So, the individuals living with HIV/AIDS I met during those first couple of years and then a lot of individuals with different types of disabilities in the last three years – I think collectively – these groups of people left an indelible impression I will carry with me and hopefully will be able to translate into positive action for similar groups who are excluded from societies for different reasons around the world.



You spoke about various indexes and biases global community has about Belarus. I wonder what you think about the influence the ratings have on state officials or diplomats worldwide and whether there is this rating-based wishful thinking.

— Remember the old saying: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics." First of all, it's human nature to want to be able to quantify, to be able to find a way to understand: are we doing better or worse than before? Are we doing better or worse than our neighbors? It's always human nature: do they have a bigger house, do they have a smaller car?

How often does our chimney smoke: thrice or once a week?

I remember the case in one of the countries I lived in. Neighbours would compare themselves to each other based on who was actually cooking or not. I remember a story where they were saying: "Oh, those people don't have money to cook but they want people to think that they cook." So, they lit the fire every day and let the chimney smoke. This is how, I suppose, human nature is. You have to have these numbers. And to some extent, the numbers are important as well because it provides you with some evidence, but it's not always complete. And that's why, I think, the narratives of people, the qualitative data is really important.



If you consider how we all looked at the Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015, we said: "Oh, that's so great," because so many countries did really well; we reached the targets, the numbers, and we ticked off the boxes. But one of the things we discovered then was that as a country you reached the targets. The numbers are fine, but then if you dig below, you find that there may be certain groups of people (maybe small groups) who were left behind. It doesn't really affect the macro level numbers but there are those who are not anywhere close to the national aggregate. It may be certain regions, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, women.

— Do you talk about Belarus or countries in general?

— This is around the world. And that's why we said: "OK, we're going to do this differently when we do the SDGs – the Sustainable Development Goals. We need to disaggregate the data. This famous slogan "Leave no one behind" is because we said we're not going to be looking at the macro numbers only. The second thing we found out through the Millennium Development Goals experience was: you can say so many people, and talk about numbers and targets but it didn't always tell the real story. For example, a hundred percent of kids are enrolled in school or X number of people have access to primary healthcare. But the quality was not always measured.

Kids are enrolled but there are no teachers in the classroom or the teachers who are there are not really teachers.

This is why with the Sustainable Development Goals, the 2030 Agenda, we said we're not going to look at these big numbers and stop there. We've got to drill down deeper by disaggregated data by these kinds of pools of people who may not be reflected in the big picture and by the quality. And the quality part, in particular, I think, requires us to listen to people, to hear the narratives. So, I guess I'm giving you what you might call a diplomatic answer but it's the answer that I believe in.



We have to find a way to balance our understanding of what is happening in the country or in the world on the basis of a combination of the numbers and the stories. If you find that there are enough stories coming from a particular place or a particular group of people, then you've got to drill down further and say: "But why is that?" And then you find out, maybe, there is a root cause and underlying reason why there is one group here, which may be a small group and will not make a difference in terms of how you report to the world, but desperately needs the assistance that we say we're giving everyone.

— I want to talk about the group of specific interest for our readers. Two years ago you spoke at the Belarusian State University and said that Belarus has one of the best state bureaucracies in the former Soviet Union. Was this line just a pleasant diplomatic complement or is this your actual vision of the situation?

— If you wanted to make the question more difficult you could also ask me: "On what basis did you make that assessment? Did you actually go and collect the data, did you actually work in every former Soviet Union Republic?" Obviously, no, I don't have that kind of evidence. What I can say to you is that I have a degree of experience and I have a lot of conversations with people like me who work in all of the countries in the region. The reason why I said it is based on the inputs that I have received from my colleagues and others who work in other parts of the region.



— You mean informal communication?

— Yes, absolutely, informal communication. My understanding is that when it comes to being structured and organized, and to some extent predictable bureaucracy in Belarus works quite well.

— Has it changed much since you came here?

— I'll tell you what has changed, a little bit, in terms of bureaucracy in just a moment. The second thing is corruption. It's a challenge that many countries deal with, and bureaucracies deal with. This region has its own challenges. In relative terms, corruption within the bureaucracy is low in this country. So, those are the positives.

Now, where I think, some improvement is required without a doubt is the speed with which the bureaucracy moves. This may come, in part, like I've mentioned to you before, with the desire to ensure that no risks are taken, that all the t's are crossed and the i's are doted.



This may also come in part by a projection of what might or might not happen if a decision is taken, which is not always based on proper foresighting. There are methodologies through gaming and modeling, for example, and setting up scenarios that project: if I do this, then that would be the consequence. You don't just have to guess.

But there are instances when we have situations where people are saying: "Well, if I do this, those twenty things could happen." And that freezes people from actually taking action.

I've heard your President, for example, speak about this and say: "We are over regulating; we need to let people be free enough to try things." Let's say, for example, entrepreneurs. I think that's a very good policy that he has been trying to propagate at least during the time that I've been here.


That approach will help the bureaucracy. I think, creating a culture that does not punish managed risk-taking but punishes inertia, paralysis and delays is important. In particular, bureaucratic red tape could result in a loss of opportunities in financial terms in the field that I'm working in, for instance: international technical assistance.

This is an issue that we have discussed at length with many colleagues and with the senior government officials, with the President himself.

Delays in ensuring that technical assistance (basically, grants that come to your country), projects being registered shouldn't take forever, right? There are many-many different reasons why that is so. In part it's because international organizations or donors are also not very well versed in how your system works. But I think the flipside is also true: that your bureaucracy is not always very responsive and receptive. And so in the process when you have those long delays in approval of projects while the donors come with deadlines and financial years and budgets, you loose the money.

I've seen it happen during the time I've been here. I thought: "It's such an unfortunate thing!" Because every time you loose money it's money lost for Belarusians. So, the matter has been taken up to your President. I was also instrumental in getting that message to the President and on his instructions a Decree was issued, regulating international technical assistance. The Government established the International Technical Assistance Coordination Council, which I co-chair with the First Deputy Prime Minister and a number of Deputy Ministers and ambassadors, and so on. These are all positive steps, but it's not enough.



— How many times have you met the President of Belarus?

— In the last five years, we have met in official events and meetings, maybe, about ten times.

— And unofficially?

— Well, when I say unofficially, it's also when I'm with a group of diplomats and at an event somewhere we will talk. We've also had four-five meetings specifically related to the UN's work on different occasions,

like, for example, when we launched the UN train in 2015, and the President was there to plant the Sustainable Development Tree with us,

and when I signed with the Minister of Economy the Program of the UN's work in Belarus for 2016 to 2020. The President was there and very graciously raised the toast after the signing. Of course, we've had meetings with visiting delegations from New York with the President to discuss specific issues related to health and education, economy, environment, etc. So, yes, it's been an interactive five years in many ways. I also take the opportunity whenever I see the President in those other gatherings to hold his hand and tell him what I want to tell him about different things.

— How do you feel him on a personal level?

— I have to say, your President clearly has a good sense of humor. And I like to think that I do, too.

— He told you so?


— Well, I know this because we've cracked jokes on practically every occasion that I have had an opportunity to interact with him. For example, once he was saying to me: "Why do you have to go back to Sri Lanka? I know you feel very much at home here." And I said to him: "Yes, this is all very true; so, maybe, you could give us a UN house and then I will stay." (The designation of an official "UN House" or common office premises for all UN entities in Minsk has been under negotiation for several years). He said: "Yes, we can consider that!" And I said: "Oh, even if you do that, I think, you wouldn't mind too much if I go to the beach for winter and then come back for the summer." You know, this kind of informal conversations.

— From your personal experience, which ministries in Belarus seem to be the most effective and the fastest in learning in the last five years?

— I think your Foreign Ministry has been excellent under the leadership of Minister Makei. It has done a lot to change the nature of relationships between your country and many countries, not just the West but also countries like India and China.


— And what about Sri Lanka?

— Sri Lanka, as well, indeed. The President of Sri Lanka visited Belarus the very first time some three years ago.

Some people may say: "But you are biased because you deal with the Foreign Ministry (and, indeed, I count Minister Makei as a friend) more than you do with other ministries."  But that's not entirely true.

One of the things about the United Nations is that we (UNDP, in particular) work with many ministries. I have interacted quite closely with all of them but quite closely with 60-70% of the ministers and their staff over these five years.


Over the years, I have worked with three Ministers in the Ministry of Environment. What I can say is that the Ministry of Environment is another one where I have seen a positive relationship with the international community because they have the experience. They have been working with the EU, with the UN, the Global Environment Facility and others for several years.

So, like with the Foreign Ministry, by dealing with external partners over time there is less mistrust, then there is more leeway that parties have on both sides to negotiate when they deal with each other

because they understand each other, they speak each other's language. I'm not saying a specific language, but  in this case they have the standard language of saving the environment.

— Do you talk to the Minister of agriculture through your window viewing you work in the neighbouring buildings?

— You know, this is my embarrassment. That Ministry is the one that I have actually worked least with.


— Which is very funny, indeed!.. It’s just a few meters to their building!

— Which is unfortunate because we have a colleague from the Food and Agriculture Organization who is sitting there. And I hear that their canteen is better than our canteen, which is run by the same management. But they have better food and it's cheaper. So, before I leave I most definitely must pop over there and have some lunch with the Minister in the canteen.

I want to also mention that apart from the ministries, we have an excellent relationship with the Presidential Administration.

Historically, international organizations, the UN and even donors and ambassadors did not establish a relationship with the Presidential Administration.

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with people like Kiryl Rudy, and Valerie Mitskevich. Now, Maxim Ryzhenkov is there, and I know Natalia Kochanova, and Nikolai Snopkov. I think, it's really important because the Administration, as you know, has a very specific role in your country.


While it's important to work with the Council of Ministers and Ministries, some in the international community don't understand how your government works and what the role of the Administration is.

So they're pulling their hair off when they think that actually they've managed to figure out something with a Ministry but then the initiative doesn't move forward.

Thus, it's a really positive thing that your Administration — the Presidential Administration — is open not only to me now, but is also receiving foreign delegations. And there is a continuing dialogue. I should also mention the Parliament. One of the things that I tried very hard from the time that I was here was to try to get the international community to work more with your courts and with your Parliament.

There were challenges in the initial years because, as you know, there were several judges, for instance, who were under a travel ban by the EU at that time, and foreign parliamentarians were very cautious to recognize Belarusian lawmakers as counterparts. So, I'm very happy to see that we have made considerable progress in terms of dialogue with both those institutions.


And the last entity are the regional authorities. I have had a particularly strong relationship with all of the Governors in all of your regions starting back in 2015 during the time of the UN Train when we went around the country. And then the next year during the Inclusive Belarus campaign when every Governor signed onto the SDGs.

I felt, that if you are really going to make a difference in Belarus as the UN, we have to get out of Minsk.

And so I'm very happy to say that UNDP has offices in every region.

— Have you ever felt manipulated by the Belarusian state officials?

— We are all manipulating each other all the time, I believe. You should ask my colleagues: "Have you ever felt manipulated by Sanaka?" They won't answer till I leave the room. I was having this discussion about the distinction a couple of years ago with one of my colleagues. How I understand the difference between manipulation and influence.


If you look at the dictionary definition of manipulation, it generally means that somebody is trying to get you to do something in their own interest for themselves. But when you're influencing someone, it may not necessarily be for your own interest. It could even be against your interest.

I would like to believe that what we've tried to doboth Iand the UN as a whole, as well as the state is to influence each other. And I think that is a very normal, very healthy engagement because nobody's perfect.

Indeed, the UN is made up of member states, and if the member state doesn't influence the UN, who is going to, right? On the flipside, if the UN which is invited here to bring about some positive changes to Belarus, doesn't try to influence through positive support, then what's the point in being here? We don't need to be here. This is life. It is not more different in Belarus than in any other country where individuals asked for specific things, which I clearly understood to be not something that was necessarily in the interest of your country or your people. And I had to be firm.


— What do you mean? Which situation?

— Well, when people may say: "Look, could you please do this particular project or would you please support this particular interest."

— Which ones?

— I can just say that it happened and my point is it's nothing unusual. I've been twenty years in this business. Look, as a journalist you know that you're also asked sometimes: "Hey, can you do this, can you write it like this?"

— No.

— For instance. And you'd say "no," right? Or you've never been asked?

— I was, but...

— But you said: "No."

— Well, regarding this particular project, I would say: "No."


— I'm not talking about this particular project, but I'm sure that you have been repeatedly approached with such requests. I was also approached with such requests when I worked as a journalist: “Sanaka, could you write such an article about me?” Like you, I would say “no”.

 I've been asked, for example, as a UN representative both in Belarus and other places: "Can you say this?"in a speech, for example.

And I would consider: is it something that I agree with or not? And if it's not, then I would say: "No."

Now, there may be times when I've been asked: "Can you please not say this in public? Because if you do, then it would become more difficult for us to actually deal with the issue."


And in those cases, I may say: "Yes." Actually, it's better not to say something in a particular place at that particular moment in time, but to deal with it as a diplomat would – behind closed doors to find a way to move forward. The bottom line is, 

Belarus is no different to any other country I've worked in with respect to that.

But, by and large, I think what we've done is to try to positively influence each other: the UN influencing the country and people within the country to change their behavior, to do things differently. When it comes to saving the environment, to recycle, for example, a very simple thing; to try to start a small or medium enterprise, which is different to what it was ten years ago here; to get tested for HIV, to use condoms; to not be afraid of people with disabilities. It's all influencing a positive change.


— Have you, in the last twenty years as a UN official, ever done anything that went against your beliefs?

— Oh... I don't know. Honestly, I don't know. Because twenty years is a long time. Let me put it this way: I am not conscious of anything that I said or did, which was against my principles and values at the time.

But I would imagine it's quite normal that I would have, let's say, made a statement or thought a certain thing or done a certain thing based on the information and knowledge I had at a particular moment in time.

And then, down the road, I discovered that the information was either wrong or was not complete. Then I have to take a different position because of that. I'm sure that has happened. I mean, I've worked in many crisis countries, for example, where information is lacking and things are moving very fast. You make certain decisions or make certain statements, and then you have to correct yourself afterwards bacause you have more complete information later.


But with respect to my fundamental beliefs and values, I think, I'm extremely fortunate. We in the UN all are. We work for an organization that actually stands for principles and values. You can't really disagree with it, right? If I was representing my own country, for example, as an ambassador of Sri Lanka, I think, I'd find it much more difficult because I would have to protect the national interests of Sri Lanka. And you as a Belarusian might disagree with the particular interest of Sri Lanka. But how can a Belarusian or Sri Lankan, or anybody for that matter disagree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or disagree with the Charter of the United Nations?

— But the UN is quite often criticized by media and various social groups for not being able to tackle or fix certain crises, say, situations like something  happening in the Middle East right now. As a UN official or as a person who spent about twenty years working within this organization, are you happy with the results of the organization in general and with the results that the organization has reached in Belarus under your management?

— Let's start with the global picture. I don't think I would still be in the organization if I did not believe this organization was not only important but indispensable. Certainly, it's not perfect. This was all created seventy two years ago. And like anybody who's seventy two years old if they still work on the basis of what they knew when they were ten, you know, they're going to become dinosaurs. So, the Secretary General's Reform Program, for example, is really saying: "We need to change the UN to be fit for purpose; as you called it, to be able to deal with the global challenges of today, not yesterday."


Indeed, we were created as an organization to prevent World War III. And that's still important given what's happening, for example, in the Korean Peninsula. But now there are problems that were not envisaged back then in the 1940s. Problems like terrorism. Problems like viruses that didn't exist, including computer viruses and cyber attacks. Problems like the crashing of a stock market, which impacts countries around the world, not just a few people in a particular country. Problems like climate change, which threaten to destroy the entire planet.

The UN is a members' club.

We as members should obviously not just issue disgruntled statements and convene the signing of conventions and so on. But we, as an organization, need to change the way we work in order to be able to deal with the problems of today and anticipate the problems of tomorrow. I really think these drastic reforms that the Secretary General's calling for is a key, part of it. But it cannot be done unless the member states – because this is a members' club – unless the countries themselves believe that this organization needs to be reformed to address those needs. It's not going to succeed.

— One of our columnists, Yuri Tsarik, just recently used the term which is specific for our country. He called it "silent reforms." So, this is the term that he used in relation to reformation process in Belarus. He's saying that reforms are not announced by the Government or the President. However, they're happening, and they're happening on a very fast pace. Do you think this is an adequate evaluation of a current position of Belarus?


— When I was in law school, my professors used to always say: "If somebody asks a lawyer a question the responce is never "yes" or “no". There's only one answer, and that is "it depends". Jokes apart, the pace of reform is relative. I mean, it's debatable. For example, pension reform which many people thought was quite unlikely even five years ago is happening. I think, in specific areas like pension reform it could be considered drastic, because the view was rather the opposite before.

For example, you could ask the international financial institutions: "Is the pace of reform in Belarus fast enough?” and probably they would say: "Well, it could be a bit faster."

If you ask others in Belarus: "Is the pace of reform fast enough?”, they will probably say: "It's a little bit too fast!" I don't know if there is a magic formula to this. I think that every country must determine for themselves the pace of reform. But both the pace and the direction of reform should not be based on ideology. It should be based on evidence.


— Like what?

— You learn from other countries and experience. You don't have to stick your finger into an electric socket to figure out that you're going to get electrocuted. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, there are methodologies. You should do modeling of different scenarios and work out various planning techniques to assess the results of taking decisions in advance. Singapore, for example, where I used to work before, does it very well. They do excellent foresighting.

But overall, is it drastic? I don't think so. Should it be drastic? I don't think so.

I think what you need is measured reform that is based on evidence and calculated risk.

— I’d like to bring us back to the beginning of this conversation. You spoke about your experience as a journalist. Belarus is often rated as country that is pretty severe to journalistic freedoms as well as human rights standards. Is the world biased about Belarus or the state has to really provide more freedoms for citizens in these terms?


— Hm, it depends.

— Very convenient to say. I also studied at law school. So, I understand your answer perfectly, Sanaka.

— Right, sure. One of the things I have often said during my time in Belarus is that it is really important not to politicize human rights. And sometimes people get upset with me and say: "What does that mean? How can you depoliticize human rights?" I'm not saying that politics and human rights are completely separate issues.

What I mean is that we should not focus on specific rights only because it is in our political interest. This is not only an issue for Belarus.

It is an issue for practically all the countries in the world where governments tend to focus on those things that they've done. Those kinds of rights that they have fulfilled or respected, or protected. And they ignore the others. Then certain opposition parties or NGOs, or foreign countries are focused on those rights which they feel the governments are not protecting or respecting. And then there is no recognition of the others' position and it becomes a "He said, she said" shouting match with little result for people.


That's what I've been trying to advocate against. Let us take a balanced view of how Belarus does across-the-board because when it comes to human rights – that's what the Universal Declaration is about.

You cannot separate rights because it's embedded in the human being just as much as you can't look at my left hand separately and say: "That's not Sanaka!"

It's still my left hand, right?  We need to look at the whole body of human rights in its entirety, and then say: "Alright, no country is perfect with respect to, perhaps, any of these rights (social, economic, cultural, civil and political). Where are we honestly with respect to human rights? Where are we closer to the international standards based on the agreements that we signed, and where do we need more work?"


— But do you think that if the government gives more freedom to the independent Press, they will be able to have a better understanding of what the situation in the country is?

— I'm not sure I understood the question.

— Well, do you think that if the Government allows more freedom to the press in Belarus, they will have a better understanding of what really happens in the country?

— I don't think that that is limited to the media. Perhaps, five-ten years ago that was really important because that was the only way that people could communicate with decision-makers. Look at the way President Donald Trump communicates with his peers: not through the media, through Twitter.


Thus, with respect to that particular argument I think you are living in a country where you have 114 per cent penetration of smart phones. People are literate and they have access to technology. They can communicate. But for the communication to mean something it's important that there are systems in place where these people can provide their input: everybody. And guarantees that it'll be processed, not in a defensive way... and then action taken to either send it up to decision-makers or respond to whatever it is that has been raised. One of the projects being worked on in the Presidential Administration is to have this portal. It's called a "one stop shop" for citizen feedback.

But I think the freedom of expression and media are important. Well, first of all, even in America with the First Amendment, there is not complete freedom to say anything. You know this famous thing: "You don't have the freedom to scream "Fire!" in a cinema just because you feel like saying it, because it has consequences to the people around you." Hate speech, for example. Just because you hate somebody you can't be writing based on their ethnicity or their religious believes, etc., because it'll have consequences.

We need a balance: the interests of the community, the society on the one hand, but also the desire and the right of individuals to express themselves, on the other. This is not something that only Belarus struggles with.

And again, we can learn. Just like we can learn about economic reforms from other countries. We can take the best practices in media freedom from other parts of the world. And like any country Belarus can also learn. And we should. I think if you do that, we can depoliticize this whole business of saying "Belarus is in the dark ages" when it comes to human rights.



— When you say it, you mean the Government, not yourself or you mean yourself?

— We as society. I call myself a Belarusian now. See, I've become native after five years.

— My last question is very personal. After so many years with the United Nations, you are a well established person.

— I would argue that I'm not established. I'm more nomadic now. I'm a complete gypsy. I don't know where my home is. But, OK, that's a joke.

— How happy are you with where you are in your life now?

— Hm, well. It's a tough question. First of all, I love my job because, like I said, it gives me the freedom to do what I truly believe in. I don't see it as a job. I really think of it as a fabulous opportunity to really do what I want to do, what I believe in doing and then get paid for it.

— Well paid, right?


— I was being paid a lot more twenty years ago working in law firm in America than I'm making now. If I'd stayed in that law firm, twenty years later, probably I'd be making ten times more than I'm making now. But... No, I'm not complaining. Certainly, I'm not. My kids are not starving.

But you do pay a price in other ways. Most of my life I've lived outside my country. And I love my country, it's beautiful.


Most people pay lots of money to just go on holiday there. And there I have a home. It's where my childhood friends are. And it's where my parents live. They used to come to Belarus during my first couple of years here. But now they're too old to travel so far. That means we get to see them once a year. It means that my children are pulled away from their friends every few years when we move to a new place.

My daughter, for example, is very upset that we are leaving Belarus. She was six when she came here. It took her two years to begin to like your country. And now she doesn't want to leave it. She's fighting with me.

It's going to be a challenge when we get on that plane. There is a price to pay.

But I'll tell you this: if there's any job that I would do outside my own country, then this is the work that I'm doing now. I've had opportunities to do other jobs before (even during these two decades while I was in the UN), so it would be either this or teaching. I say "teaching" because I have had such a great opportunity to learn that the best thing I can do is to pass it on.

If I cannot work any more, maybe, then I can at least teach. It's up to the UN Secretary-General. Unless the Secretary-General requires me to go somewhere immediately, I've actually agreed to go and teach for a little bit, and then go back into the field somewhere.


— I sincerely wish you good luck wherever your fate takes you to. Thank you very much.

— Thank you.


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