Alexander Lukashenko: ‘It’s important that Belarus has made significant progress in its recent history’

About a hundred journalists from forty Russian regions have attended a traditional tour through Belarus, finishing with a press conference lasting over four hours with President Alexander Lukashenko. Below are extracts from the Head of State’s answers.

On the economic situation
I’ve never talked about there being a ‘crisis’ — since this is when everything collapses. In our case, we faced certain problems relating to foreign currency. It’s a paradox… since our GDP has risen by about 10 percent against the same period of last year, which is very good. However, we aren’t trading oil or natural gas. Rather, we sell what we produce with our hands and brains. Belarus’ economy is based on processing — primarily, machine building and agriculture. However, finding markets is not always easy. We’ve exceeded the Soviet Union’s level almost 2-fold: no mean feat. Meanwhile, we’re seeing a serious deficiency in the labour force; we currently lack enough workers.

We devalued our national currency, also ‘aided’ by some Russian media and some officials who have since left heir post. They created an unappealing situation. Moreover, as I’ve told your heads before, we paid a high price for the Single Economic Space. Since July 1st this year, prohibitive duties have been introduced on cars — in Russia’s interest. Right up until July 1st, our population did all it could to import this trash in huge volumes, resulting in an outflow of up to $3bn — according to experts. However, this is not the major reason. Over the past five years, the Russian Federation has raised its prices for our purchase of energy and raw materials almost 5-fold. Belarus used to be an assembly workshop for the Soviet Union; now, it’s more like an assembly workshop for the Russian Federation.

Of course, we’ve significantly tightened our belts. We’ve had no other option to ensure a positive balance in foreign trade. In recent months, we’ve seen a positive balance but it hasn’t been easy to live a normal life, preserving levels of production and the pace of growth we’ve become accustomed to.

The paradox is that our economy is developing normally. As never before, we’ve received much foreign currency; however, it has not been enough — for the reasons I’ve mentioned. I think we’ll bring the situation under control in the future, including as regards Russian pricing. Talks are underway and, as I’m told, these are quite successful. Russia is determined to uphold its responsibility for equal conditions — as was promised in forming the Single Economic Space...

It’s important that Belarus has made significant progress in recent times, since gaining independence from the Soviet Union. In advancing our economy, we’ve failed to improve our energy spending. This is very important. We are importing the same products as before, despite production volumes almost doubling.

On privatisation

I did not invent diversification. It’s not affordable to focus exclusively on a single party. We have a realistic view. Let’s take Belaruskali: a powerful and effective enterprise which earns about $3bn of foreign currency for our country annually. We aren’t against privatisation and we’re not afraid of it but we’ve openly said that the company’s worth at least $30bn.
Russia wants to buy this company, which brings in a valuable $3bn annually; it will pay for itself within ten years. I’m being offered proposals I can hardly mention, as they are so ridiculous. We’re not open to such approaches as nobody here is putting money into their personal pockets, especially the President. I’ve lived through my presidential years without taking anything from my people. If you want to buy something — either assets or shares — you’re welcome, but we are adhering to civilised rules.

You often speak about ‘partner relations under market conditions’ and we’re certainly seeing this. At present, shares in Belaruskali are being sought by China and India (our major markets), in addition to two Western companies whose names I won’t yet mention, Qatar and Russia, and others. We’re putting the enterprise up for tender. We’d love to sell shares to whoever offers the best terms and, in the long run, pays more.

It’s not true that we suppress Russian capital. We welcome it. Moreover, why shouldn’t we reincorporate the oil refineries as joint stock companies with Russia? Oil is piped from Russia. These refineries are attuned to process ‘Urals’ Russian oil, although we mastered the processing of ‘Azeri Light’ and Venezuelan ‘Santa-Barbara’ oil when Russia turned off our supply; we had to seek an alternative far from Russia. Thank God, this is now in the past as we’re now receiving and processing Russian oil, so why shouldn’t we set up joint stock companies with the source of this oil — with Russia? It’s only right. However, we’re not ready to accept the conditions currently being offered.

Gazprom is now interested in buying 50 percent of Beltransgas, which is estimated to be worth $5bn. Gazprom agrees this value, so we’re conducting talks with the Russian Federation. Mr. Miller came to Belarus — confirming our interest in prices for gas and transit. Do you really expect me to sell the pipeline if you choose to pump gas to the West via ‘Nord Stream’ — bypassing Belarus? We’ve told Gazprom that we’ll sell the pipeline on the condition that it’s kept open and that it won’t be shut down. It’s our source of profit as well and around 10,000 of our people work there. Beltransgas is a huge organisation so I must guarantee its normal operation! Gazprom was opposing this for a long time, so we said, “We don’t want to sell. We want this company to stay in Belarus and keep working.” Eventually, Mr. Miller came and said, “Yes, we agree.”

We place very strong social demands on those wishing to privatise. We’re being criticised for privatisation is not heading for the state sector but we’ve never restrained it. However, strict conditions exist: whoever takes over should work in the same manner as a state company. We don’t need investors who simply wish to pay small salaries and reap larger profits. Even high-tech enterprises should operate to our benefit and nobody should be made unemployed — as where else would they find work?

This is why we’re steadily modernising companies ourselves. If anyone agrees to our terms, they’re welcome to make a proposal.

On the geopolitical role of the country

I often hear that Belarus is of no importance to Russians. I’m speaking figuratively but it’s surely less painful for Russia to lose some of its own territory than to lose Belarus. This is not only from a strategic and military-political point of view but in every sense — including moral. I perceive this as if Russians are losing their own people. The same could be said about us when those in the West or someone in Russia starts telling me that I’m ‘flirting with the West, betraying the interests of Russia’. But, as I’ve many times stressed, I’ve never flirted with anyone. I see that course as a dangerous one, with unpredictable results. The truth must always be told, to avoid mess. It’s an approach I adhere to strictly; silence is the only other option.

Whenever I meet anyone, I say, “Don’t expect that I’ll co-operate with the West to the prejudice of Russia.” No one needs this — neither the West nor Russia. We want to be a reliable link between Russia and the European Union. We’ve always been squeezed between them — for our whole history. This is our fate. We must then follow a corresponding policy for the good of all parties. If we don’t, we’ll be reduced to shreds.

On responsibility

Do you know how Belarusians differ from others? In being educated. If a problem arises, they won’t declare: ‘Lukashenko is bad’. This is nonsense. Please forgive me for my immodesty, forgive me for God’s sake, but Belarusians should stick with Lukashenko even in the most critical situation — as a drowning man will clutch at a straw. I’ve never betrayed them and never will. Never! This refers not only to Belarusians but also to you, Russians. Such behaviour is not in my nature. If any problems arise, I always openly explain them to people, as I know they’ll understand me. Do you know why? This is because nobody would throw a stone at me, saying: ‘he is a thief who has come to power to make money; he has everything while we have nothing’. This will never happen. I won’t cross this line, giving my enemies such an opportunity. I perfectly understand this.

If I knew that 80 percent or more Belarusians hated me, I’d collect my belongings, place them on a table and say: ‘Thank you, brother-Belarusians’. I’ll earn money for a living. I’m not keeping this post as you sometimes write in Russia — for the sake of power or money. No! I’m the first President of the country and I must leave the country in a state that will inspire those who come after me to work just as hard. I want to leave such a country for our Belarusians! Our people understand this.

On social accents

We know the focus of a socially oriented economy: pensions, allowances, kindergartens and so on… What do I wish? I’d love to do more! Do you understand me? More! However, this depends on the wealth of the country itself. If I had the resources, I’d primarily spend them on raising people’s wellbeing.

If I could do more, it would be appreciated. However, it’s a true challenge to strike a balance. If we support people too much, we could encourage them to live off of the state rather than being independent. In such cases, people start believing that I should do more for them. I repeat: rely on yourself. Anything Lukashenko must and can give would be a bonus. Let yourself be motivated accordingly.

On billions from the West and Eastern Partnership

Nobody has offered me $9bn — although this money would have come in time. It was a hoax aiming to indicate that Belarusians are keeping Lukashenko at the moment but, if they threw him away, they’d receive $9bn immediately... Nobody gives anything to anyone for no reason! Would the Americans print $9bn especially for us? No! If they really give someone this money for a certain purpose, they’d ask for it back with interest — wanting $12bn or more! I’ve met such charlatans in the past; they promise billions but provide nothing when the time comes.

When the Eastern Partnership was being set up, the EU’s neighbours were invited to join, as was Belarus. Considering the offer, we stated that we wouldn’t join it if the organisation was ‘against’ Russia. It was then announced that money would be injected into roads and economic projects, which appealed to us — being a transit country. In fact, we sell 34 percent of our exports to Russia, with the EU taking 3-4 percent more — so we’d be silly to turn away from $30bn of trade. Regardless of whether they are good or bad, we are to maintain dialogue as we are the neighbours. What did happen later? It was announced that our presidential and parliamentary elections were wrongly conducted and that Lukashenko is bad. Politics are at the heart of everything. Is this proper?

Let’s remind ourselves of a recent event; a thousand diplomatic tricks took place there, including: ‘You should understand that we might invite not Lukashenko but someone else’. This is a Poland, where ‘great minds’ are at work. They sleep and imagine the Belarusian-Polish border passes near Minsk. They cannot agree that the border is near Grodno. They repudiate Stalin for taking Western Belorussiya lands from the Poles. How then can they invite Lukashenko to the Eastern Partnership in Poland? Parliamentary elections are currently underway there and nobody knows how the Polish people would perceive my arrival or what I’d say there.

They began dropping hints — using various channels — saying that they’d invite a minister if we’d agree. I then agreed, thinking that a minister would go. However, he said to me: ‘How is this possible? It’s discrimination. If presidents are invited, then Belarus should be represented by the President’. Whether I go or not is another matter entirely. They didn’t invite me so we sent an ambassador to Poland. It’s normal practice. We lowered the level of the delegation’s leadership and Poland then began to selectively invite our ambassador to events. He eventually refused to debase himself. Poland then tried to adopt a resolution against Belarus. I was later given an extract from it to read… learning so much new — both about myself and about Belarus! Moldova, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia refused to support it and the Georgians and Azerbaijanis were especially strongly against the resolution. Why are you humiliating Belarus? None of our Eastern Partnership partners who were invited signed that declaration. Of course, this was a coup, as the EU clearly never imagined that the former Soviet republics would band together to protect Belarus. This is the Eastern Partnership headed by Poland. This is the policy which Poland conducts regarding us.

However, we won’t let ourselves be provoked by their policy. We know the real attitude of Poles to Belarusians. These are our neighbours, with whom we long shared a single state. We remember this, as they are a Slavonic nation. We don’t wish to battle the Poles. Politicians come and go; one day, their time ends. Then, God will judge them…

On profits

Salaries should be such that people can live comfortably and support their children and family. However, salaries alone are not the key indicator. Your [Russian] salaries are higher than in Belarus. Let’s compare; when our salaries were $500 or higher in equivalent, some said that those in the West received $2,000. I told them that salaries could be raised but people would then have to pay the prices charged in the West — and nobody agreed. How much does education cost there and how much should parents pay for a kindergarten? We see this in Baltic prices. There, no kindergartens remain, as parents cannot afford to send their children at such prices. We provide free meals for schoolchildren; think of how much that costs. We should also take into account the cost of utilities. On average, Russians pay 85 percent of the cost communal services while Belarusians pay just 20.7 percent. Add everything up and you’ll then see that we give real help to the population. Do you know how much we pay for the first, second or third child to a family and how many mortgages have been allocated at privileged terms?

If our people want to move from a district centre, selling a two- or three-room flat, it can be hard for them to find a buyer. We’ve lifted this problem. Only Minsk faces a housing problem, as everyone wants to live here. We haven’t built thoughtlessly in Minsk though. Life should be convenient for people but we mustn’t let the capital become overpopulated. With this in mind, we’ve reduced construction in Minsk, while building satellite towns 30-40km away. It’s not a huge distance, especially if we launch an electric train to connect them with the city.

Recently, one such train began operations; I travelled on it myself. People are using it with pleasure, as it takes them just twenty minutes to travel. We’re trying to spread our production forces countrywide, so that not everything is concentrated in Minsk. It will create a huge problem for Minskers and the state otherwise. Everyone will gather here, while the districts will be empty.

On whether there is a second crisis wave

The major problem will come when no sales markets remain for our produce. Other things do not really concern us. If a second wave of crisis arrives, we’ll handle it somehow… jointly with Russia. It will be easier for both of us. We have things which we can offer you, while you have something that Belarus needs. Together, we’ll be able to overcome a crisis. It will not be so painful. We can count on Russia, as it can count on us.

You know that we should not be afraid to employ government leverages in such situations. Some believe market conditions set everything right but this is just empty talk. Yes, the market will regulate itself, but profits will flow out of the country. You know what kind of businessmen we both have: they grab what they want and then do nothing. They will be the ones regulating the market.

Those in the European Union and the United States are clever enough: when the crisis struck, they began talking about state regulation and pointing to Belarus. I maintained state regulation, as needed. Where it is not necessary, we’ve stepped away, not interfering. However, leverage should be at hand. You should never forget this.

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