Conversation held to discuss issues of national concern
Conceptual questions of the development of the country were discussed at the meeting of the President with heads of leading mass media outlets
By Vasily Nikiforov
The conversation of President Alexander Lukashenko with the heads of the largest Belarusian mass-media outlets continued for more than 5 hours. The heads of both state and non-state mass media outlets were invited to the meeting. The questions concerned all aspects of life of Belarusian society — from youth policy, culture and sport to the modernisation of enterprises, the situation in bank industry and foreign policy.
The President charged with learning the necessity to change the order of distribution of printed periodical press in the country. In particular, Mr. Lukashenko’s attention was focused on increasing the competition of print editions with Internet resources which can react to one or another event more effectively. At the same time printed editions, for example, do not have possibilities to be issued on Mondays, and accordingly to inform readers on events which occurred at the week-end.
“I cannot say, whether it is possible to make it quickly, how much it will cost if we really need it in general,” noted the President. In this connection, Mr. Lukashenko charged the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya, Pavel Yakubovich, the head of the leading printed edition in the country, with organising the study of this question with all interested parties. “You should gather and develop an unequivocal opinion and then tell me what to do. After that, I will invite certain people and give them specific tasks,” charged the President.
Referring to his personal attitude to this theme, Mr. Lukashenko said that, in spite of the possibility of using Internet versions of editions, he regularly looks through printed publications.
Local Council elections
“The present election campaign is an indicator of the level of consciousness of our people,” noted Mr. Lukashenko, who then asked Belarusians to display activity on the forthcoming elections to local Councils of Deputies.
“I want to ask, and I wish that people will come to these elections; that they do not think that the deputies of local Councils do nothing, and solve nothing. Yes, they are not so visible; maybe, because they do not solve global issues which are solved here, on a higher level. But it does not mean that they are less important for life of the average person.”
Alexander Lukashenko emphasised that everyone will make their choice independently. “Vote for whom you want. If you want to protest, to vote for members of the opposition, so vote, if you stand for constructivism, for the policy which is pursued in the state, then vote for the state person. It is your right. The only thing that you should do… is come.”
One of the main tasks today was the active development of those manufactures which are focused on local resources and raw materials. It concerns agriculture, woodworking and a number of other directions. “We will more and more orientate our economy towards local materials, let them be even poor,” noted the President.
“If we ambitiously declare that we, Belarusians, want to be sovereign and independent, and we do not engage in modernisation of life and manufacturing, we will never be such people, but will end up wearing bast shoes. It is impossible to live without development today,” noted Mr. Lukashenko.
The peculiarity of modernisation in Belarus also consists of a restricted approach to this process. First of all, priority will be given to highly profitable projects, though to some extent all enterprises should be involved in modernisation. “We will not allow anyone to sleep. Restricted modernisation with active state support did and will always exist. The ones who give more to the state and its people will receive greater support from us,” said the President.
Citing the agricultural sector as an example, the President noted that, as a result of its development, the volumes of export and quality of production grow. “Today, the European Union cannot carp at us. We press them — ‘why you do not allow us to deliver dairy products to your market? After all there is a demand for them. The quality meets your requirements. Our quality is not worse than in Europe. So tell us simply that you protect your own market and do not let others in’. However, several Vitebsk or Grodno enterprises have received permission for European delivery, while quality standards are really mad there. Even in Russia, it is already quite difficult to sell something. That is what modernisation means. If we were not engaged in it, we would not speak about it today,” noted Mr. Lukashenko.
“It has been my presidential dream for a long time. We produce buses and heavy haulers but we cannot make a good car for our people,” noted the President.
He explained in detail about how the idea to create such manufacture appeared, and how the negotiations with the Chinese were carried out. As a result, the joint assembly was opened in the Borisov District. Within several months, it is planned to construct the whole plant with a capacity of 120 thousand cars a year.
These cars are acceptable both in price and quality, as is shown by the number of large world companies that have moved to China. “I have approved this car, and currently we are holding the strongest conversations with Russia and others in order to have possibility of selling this car without difficulties. No one wants to let us into their own territory. It is very difficult to squeeze into this oversaturated market,” noted the President. “We will gradually move towards this 120 thousand production goal. But for me, it is important that we will offer a new car to our people. A thoughtful person, who is able to save, will buy this car.”
Besides, the creation of corresponding manufacture in Belarus will stimulate the development of other enterprises. “This car will contribute to the work of a dozen of highly effective enterprises which will produce car parts,” said the President.
The President paid attention to the fact that last year, having a small growth of GDP of 1 percent, the average salary of the population grew in the country. “Growth of salary is good, but prices also grew in our country. I cannot say that we drove people into a corner, but nevertheless salary grew out of accordance with labour productivity. These are objective and recognised data,” said the Head of State. Last year, the welfare of citizens has improved; income of the population has grown more than by 17 percent, having exceeded the plan almost three times (6.5 percent), the real rate of growth of income of the population by pre-crisis 2010 reached 140 percent.
“Some do not have that average salary of $580. I recognise that. For example, the salary in the budgetary sphere is about $120 less. This is inadmissible. But I cannot raise the salary of state employees to 90 percent of the real sector all at once, as it was usually accepted in our country, even in our best years. Certainly, we will gradually raise them. And we are doing this today. But all of this depends on the economy,” noted the President.
“We should not forget that, according to statistics, every second family in our country has a car, and some more than one. And here we have even overtaken rich Russia,” said Alexander Lukashenko. “In our country, with $100 we can buy more than in Russia, because the standard of living and prices have great value here. These are official data. We have left rich Russia behind.”
The government is also instructed to study the possibility of increasing the incomes of law-paid workers. “We will make it calmly this year,” said the President. “It is a strategy to scale up the salaries of low-paid workers.”
Alexander Lukashenko was also asked about the support of pensioners and the possibility of indemnification of their losses because of the devaluation which occurred in 2011. The President assured everyone that the state will continue to take measures to increase the income of pensioners.
The fulfilment of debt obligations
Sometimes today, a lot of criticism is thrown at the debts of Belarus. But, as it is said, cognition comes through comparison. “Our total debt is about 50 percent of GDP. For example, in the USA it is 101 percent, or $17 trillion, in the Russian Federation, it’s nearly $800bn. Italy, Greece, Ireland and Portugal have debts totalling more than they produce a year — over 100 percent of GDP. As for our state debt, it is only 18-19 percent of GDP, $12bn,” said Alexander Lukashenko.
“Obviously, it is better for us not to have it at all. But that is impossible, especially for an economy such as ours. We do not have those volumes of oil, such natural resources like natural gas, but the prices on them still keep steady. However we are compelled to buy all these, therefore we hardly will do without all these,” noted the Head of State.
At the same time, Belarus fulfils its debt obligations and will continue to fulfil them this year. Alexander Lukashenko thanked the management of Russia, which had supported Belarus during these hard times. “And not only Russia supported us during that time. We were also supported by China, and also international organisations including the Eurasian Bank,” said the President. “There have been offers which are very favourable for us, on crediting of our economy, on the granting of financial means to our country. But we already control that it will not increase by more than 5 percent. There are offers even at 3 percent interest. China, for example offers loans at nearly 3 percent interest.”
Credit interest rates
“45 percent is a crazy rate. It is not normal. And we see that we have all possibilities to reduce this rate. We cannot credit the real sector at such interest rates,” said Mr. Lukashenko.
He reminded that, in due time, there was no other way out other than to raise the interest rate on credit. “As there was such feverish demand, and we did not have big gold reserves, we were compelled to take this unpopular step. However, gradually, as long as there are no problems, we will come to normal state of things,” said the President.
Alexander Lukashenko reminded that he made a decision at the end of the last five-year period to move to international standards of statistics.
“We do not manipulate statistics, and there cannot be any in connection with our obligations,” said the President.
“Importantly, the National Statistics Committee is no longer under the Government. This was changed to exclude excessive pressure, because statistics are a very serious thing, and influence the decisions, which state bodies including me, and the Government, will make. It was changed to meet the international statistical norms,” noted Mr. Lukashenko.
“We work in close contact with the International Monetary Fund. We do not ask them for any credits, but their opinion influences the state rating. You cannot co-operate with the IMF without putting your cards on the table. Professionals of the highest level work there,” said Alexander Lukashenko.
“Therefore, the claims that something is embellished here, is nonsense. Firstly, we do not need this embellishment, and I was never engaged in it. And secondly, if you do it today, you will pay for it tomorrow,” said the President.
The devaluation of the Rouble
The state of affairs in the foreign exchange market is perhaps one of the most discussed topics of recent times. Alexander Lukashenko noted that ‘all people in the country, except the President, waited for the devaluation of the national currency’.
“I said that we will not artificially devaluate our rouble in order to give a breath of fresh air to BelAZ, MAZ and so on, because the devaluation of a national currency results in an increase in prices. We have already experienced it. Therefore we will not do this, not at 25 percent, nor at 30 percent or 15 percent. If we have the possibility, we will support the stability of the national currency, but not excessively. All states do it.”
Market laws are simple — if there is a great demand for Dollars, and people run to currency exchange offices, it is impossible to sustain the rate of the national currency, having caught at it, it is necessary to slacken it gradually. And we made it in Belarus. “Against the Dollar we devaluated by more than 10 percent a year gradually, as for a basket of currencies — Dollar, Euro and Russian Rouble — hardly more than by 9 percent. It means that under such an economy as we had, under a negative balance, we did not cling on to the national currency, instead we gradually devaluated it,” noted the President.
Certainly, there were those who wanted to exploit it for their own political gain, in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections. Alexander Lukashenko told that he had applied to independent experts, requesting that they estimated the consequences of single-step devaluation of the national currency. “They have unanimously told me that there will not be any advantage. The state, the people and the enterprises will appear at a disadvantage. It confirmed my thoughts. I did everything so that there would be no devaluation of the national currency,” noted the President, adding that he intends to act in a similar way in future.
Alexander Lukashenko assured everyone that there will not be any devaluation of national currency, and if there is a need, so financial means from gold exchange reserve will be allocated to maintain the value of the Belarusian Rouble.
“We have enough gold exchange reserves; moreover soon we will receive nearly $1.5bn from the Russian Federation to underpin the gold exchange reserve. In case of emergency, if we have excessive gold exchange reserves, we will support the economy. It is not a problem, people will get an additional salary,” said Mr. Lukashenko.
Alexander Lukashenko reminded that Belarus has already experienced denomination before, and that there is no sense to be afraid of this process. But we also should not hasten.
“We will think together with experts when this period comes. Here it is necessary to be very careful,” the President stated. “We are ready to carry out changes at any time, but there should be certain conditions for this technical step. There should not be any change in the interest rate. There should not be any alarms in the market, so that the population is not worried. Moreover, the economy should not have crisis phenomena. Even if this year we feel that the economy becomes firm and stable, we would declare six months ahead of any denomination that it is to be carried out.” Moreover, both old and new roubles would be used together for a year.
By the way, the new money is already approved, and outwardly it is similar to the Euro. “We were ready to implement this process long ago,” noted the President. “But it is necessary to choose the correct time, so that people will not reproach us that we carried out re-denomination and that some people made a profit out of it. I will have a rigid requirement — if we round off the prices, we will round them down. People will not lose anything here.”
According to the President, the duties on the granting of permission for a vehicle to be used in road traffic are small in Belarus in comparison with the cost of even an inexpensive car. This enables the state to annually spend considerable means on the maintenance of road infrastructure. “Therefore, there is no need to worry about this problem and shout that the state robbed you and so on. I guarantee that this money will not be spent on education, or even on public health services, but will be spent on roads, and I have warned the government about it,” noted the President.
Concerning arguments that the means for road building are already built in to fuel costs, Alexander Lukashenko gave the argument that even some highways from capital into the regional centres are now being reconstructed at the expense of foreign credit, and that we have invested almost nothing on second category roads lately.
Judicial and legal reform
Alexander Lukashenko emphasised that decisions on carrying out the reform of the judicial system, with the creation of the Committee of Inquiry, were made after long examination, analysis and were weighed. In particular, the experience of Kazakhstan and Russia was examined. “I was worried, and was afraid not to destroy the stability and safety which we are proud of. But when I understood that the country is strong and that we are ready to do it, I made a decision at that same moment,” the President told about the creation of the Committee of Inquiry in Belarus.
Alexander Lukashenko recognised that, at the initial stage, there were conflicts between the Committee of Inquiry and other departments. However, this structure works stably now. One negative example was when someone in an official position attempted to hide a crime. The President cited the criminal case concerning the former First Deputy Prosecutor General. “There was an accident in which a girl died. She was seated on a motorcycle by one of the sons of a prominent businessman who had large patrons. So he killed a girl on a motorcycle. He was drunk, he had no driver’s license and he was helped to escape punishment. All those involved in this crime, and those who tried to hide it, were sent to prison, now the case is being submitted to the court,” said Mr. Lukashenko.
The President also expressed his opinion about the reform of the judicial system, “We have been moving towards this for a long time. I made a decision to unite the general and economic courts, and I am sure that we will not lose anything here.”
Answering the question on the presence of so-called political prisoners in Belarus, the President once again noted that the Belarusian Criminal Code does not contain political articles. And concerning those who consider themselves as political prisoners, the Head of State noted that the condition for their release was the writing of a plea for mercy, as required by the Belarus legislation. Nevertheless, despite this possibility, some of them prefer to stay in prison ‘till the following electoral cycle’.
The President noted that all possibilities for those wanting to learn the Belarusian language are available in Belarus. At the same time, there were some remarks from the heads of some of the non-state mass media outlets about insufficient attention to the development of the Belarusian language, and Alexander Lukashenko suggested the opening of special courses at state institutes and universities for those who want to learn it.
“I am not against the Belarus language. I, even more than you, want our people to speak the Belarusian language. The only thing that I do not accept is pressure. As soon as you start to press people, there is a back reaction,” noted the President.
Alexander Lukashenko considers that the earlier imposition of the Belarusian language was an error by the opposition. “It is a politicised problem, and we will calmly regulate this matter in the country, and I guarantee a time when there will be no discussions that we oppress the Belarusian language, and develop English or Russian. Nobody should interfere with this matter. We will make it calmly,” said the President.
As for the remark that few books are published in the Belarusian language in the country, Alexander Lukashenko reminded that he had suggested to Belarusian authors to write at least one worthy work, however they have not done this till now.
Relations with the West
Last year, we had a lot of meetings and activities between Belarus and the EU. “Many Europeans come to us and often ask that such meetings were not made public.” noted the President. “I speak with them frankly. If they ask for a reception, I never refuse. I speak with everyone, from congressmen of the USA to European politicians.” Such discussions help to inform the heads of the European states about the Belarusian position. “Yes, we do not sit at the common table, and we do not discuss problems (we will come to that in the future), but there is a certain dialogue, and it is already a good thing,” emphasised the President.
“Recently we have started a period when we do not lash out at each other, and we are no longer on the offensive against each other. We have started to speak. Lithuania has understood that a third of its budget is from Belarus. Latvia has also understood the same,” noted Mr. Lukashenko.
At the same time, the President noted that the independence of Belarus cannot be interpreted as withdrawal from co-operation with Russia. “We want to live on own piece of land, to have sovereignty. I do not want my people to be under pressure from someone else. It is my main task as the first President,” said Alexander Lukashenko, adding that will never be on friendly terms with the West, in a way that sours relations with Russia and, in much the same way, the development of Belarusian-Russian relations will not be carried out to the detriment of co-operation with the West.
‘We are very good friends with Putin’
“We are very good friends with Putin, in spite of the fact that, at times, there are ‘sparks’ between us. I can tell him everything straight out, and in the same way, he tells me everything straight out,” noted Mr. Lukashenko.
Speaking about Belarusian-Russian co-operation, the President noted that, Belarus does not have such close relations with other countries, as it does with Russia. “We are friends, brothers, and generally speaking, we are one people. When we had hard times, who gave us a hand? The IMF? No! But they could. They have a lot of money, they are dripping with money. But for reasons of policy, they openly said that they cannot. While Russia gave us their shoulder,” noted the Belarusian leader. “And they will always give us their shoulder, in any situation. For various reasons, and because of the fact that losing Belarus is a big political loss and problem for Russia as a whole.”
The Head of State noted that Russia gives real support, including the realisation of the project of construction of an atomic power station. “It is real money, not just words. We should appreciate it, and should not treat Russia badly,” Alexander Lukashenko considers. As for the attitude towards Belarus in the Russian environment, the Head of State noted that Russia is different; we should understand this and show endurance.
“But everything that happens, is objective and sincere, and there are no hidden moments in our relations with Russia,” said the Belarusian leader.
Coming back to the theme of the allocation of two-billion credit for Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko emphasised that by doing this, Russia is also supporting its own enterprises which produce parts and raw materials for Belarusian machinery.