Dialogue in open format
President of Belarus gives press conference to Russian media
The interview lasted a record five hours, with journalists keen to learn the President’s opinion on a wide range of topics: from global events and integration processes to changes in Belarus and strictly personal issues. Alexander Lukashenko endeavoured to give complete, detailed and sincere answers.
Relations between Belarus and Russia
Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed many fateful events in the life of our two states. Our countries have covered a rather difficult path over a relatively short period of time. We’ve seen sharp disputes and conflicts, as well as brotherly support in difficult, complex circumstances but, vitally, have assured ourselves that, fundamentally, Belarus and Russia need each other in this vigorous, ever competing world.
We’re pushed in this direction not only by the problems which appear ever more often in the international arena and in our mutual relations but also by our historical past and our present. No one needs our countries to be strong and independent except for ourselves. Competition is sharper than ever before, with the world’s power players openly ignoring all the rules: written and unwritten. Belarusians and Russians are struggling for a worthy place in the Sun, as they undoubtedly deserve.
Life has already proven that we can achieve this together, as shown by the construction of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Undoubtedly, it can be assessed as an absolutely correct and forward-looking step, achieving a depth within the post-Soviet space never before seen in other co-operative projects.
The same is true of the Single Economic Space and our attempt to create the Eurasian Economic Union. At present, our Belarusian-Russian union enjoys greater depth, being a unique structure of integration.
We haven’t yet publically announced our goals and may differ slightly in our understanding of these targets. For example, there was a time when we accepted rather radical proposals on the adoption of the Constitutional Act. At the time, the Russian Federation (its leadership and maybe even its elite) weren’t ready for such a course. Legally, terms had been clearly determined regarding a referendum on a joint Constitution. We approved this process but were suddenly asked instead to introduce a single currency of the Russian Rouble. It wouldn’t have been the worst course of action but we were asked to accept an emission centre exclusively located in the Russian Federation, with all related policy determined by the Russian Central Bank. Even this wasn’t completely unacceptable but we argued that more than currency was at stake.
To create a single union state, all areas must be considered — from the activity of single economic institutes to political authorities. Everything should be guided by the Constitution: monetary system, financial-economic policy, political authorities and so on.
If we had adopted this Constitution — as we agreed via referendums — the issue of a single currency would not have arisen. However, at the time, there was a breakdown in this movement. I mean the correct movement which has already found reflection in a treaty.
We are now taking stock and trying to solve definite questions in the life of our nations. Some ‘polishing’ is necessary but no radical moves. I won’t go into detail, as it’s a multi-faceted problem.
We have no geopolitical tasks, as we clearly understand our place in the world. We aren’t keen on globalisation although some central Russian media reproach me with interfering in world politics. I certainly don’t. If we’re asked to join a process, we do so. If we’re asked to bring tangible benefits, we take part. If we see that we can’t help, we don’t, regardless of appearances. In this way, we’re building our foreign economic and foreign political strategy.
As far as these strategies are concerned, economics are at the heart of everything. All our embassies are oriented towards trade and investment, since exports account for around 80-85 percent of our revenue. We consume very little of what we produce, as in Soviet times. However, we’ve diversified, as is our ultimate goal. As President, I’m guiding the country towards a diversified economy, using local raw materials.
As far as politics is concerned, I don’t spend too much time pondering; you’re aware of our structure. I can only say that we pursue a quite rigorous policy while relying on principles of honesty and justice. We don’t bother to dress up issues to be something they are not.
Our domestic policy is transparent, with everything oriented towards the public good. For the nation! This is absolutely vital — not populism. We constantly discuss how best to do this; in particular, it is my policy, so it’s my concern. The nation has elected me and we should do our best for the people without nudging and indulging the people, without creating excessive preferences for idling. We clearly understand that the rights of the nation and people should be observed; these are sincere rights.
I believe that we have a human right to life and to certain living standards and a degree of safety. This includes the right to work and to receive a reasonable salary which pays the utility bills and so on; we should help people in this. If you want to be rich this isn’t a state concern. Yes, we should ensure opportunities but if someone wants to become rich they’ll need to work themselves to the limit.
Our domestic economic and political policy focuses on ensuring good living conditions for our people. We still have some way to go to achieve definite currency and financial stability; problems need to be solved.
Our foreign policy is multi-vector. We don’t want to argue with the EU, preferring to live in friendship — as before. We have an absolutely reliable partner in the Russian Federation to the east; we are more than partners, we’re much closer. We should live as close people and close states. You know what this notion includes; it’s our aim.
All our tasks are conducted countrywide, being interconnected and, simply, universal.
If we can, we should advance the SES and the Eurasian Economic Union to the same level as the Union State — literally removing borders, visas and other obstacles (as we did with Russia), moving forward by 2015.
Before then, we’ll be focusing our attention on solving definite issues of the Union of Belarus and Russia. I’m convinced that no one can outstrip Belarus and Russia for their level of integration in economic, political and historical spheres.
Our path should be guided by fundamental principles of equality. Size is irrelevant; all nations should be equal — especially in building the Union. It won’t last long unless it’s based on mutual respect and equality. No such unions exist anywhere in the world and never have done. The construction of the Union should rely exclusively on this principle.
This doesn’t mean that everything is shared equally — can you imagine! Belarus would sob, as it doesn’t need so much. I’m speaking of something quite different. Russia and Belarus should and will have absolutely equal economic conditions.
I underline again: I don’t demand anything free of charge. At present, we extract natural gas and oil in Venezuela, although we don’t do this in Russia. We had a frank conversation with your leadership, which desires to take part in privatising our country. We aren’t against this. You want to buy our oil processing plants but, if I allowed this, I’d face a lot of domestic criticism. However, we can give you access to our oil refineries, so you can refine your own oil separately from ours. Sadly, you won’t allow us to extract natural gas — as foreigners such as the Americans do. I’ve no idea why not, since we give you access to processing plants. You wouldn’t be giving us oil but the opportunity to extract oil in Russia — following the same terms as those offered to foreigners. I’d love an answer but there is none…
We don’t currently enjoy equal conditions, which is difficult for us to live with.
Finally, we’ve managed to inspire Russia and Kazakhstan to share their opinions. We’ll follow their decisions and, as soon as some problem arises, I’ll immediately offer a suggestion.
Sincerely, we won’t interfere with the process or speak out of turn; it’s my deliberate position. We’ll let the giants [Kazakhstan and Russia] decide whether we’ll have a parliament. Our Union State met obstacles during its development, which we had to overcome. Now, the Eurasian Economic Union needs to follow suit. Belarus and Russia have an Inter-parliamentary Assembly, a Supreme State Council and a Union State Council of Ministers. If we want to advance Eurasian integration, we need to create similar structures. It will be a difficult process but I’d like to note that Belarus won’t create problems.
Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, as well as other countries in the post-Soviet space, have been kicked — you know who by. You’re also aware that the WTO is now a political rather than an economic organisation. Those kicking us would like to see us disunited but we are negotiating, alongside Kazakhstan and Russia. We’re pursuing our policy carefully, analysing the situation in Russia.
When Russia joined the WTO, we didn’t try to hinder it, meeting Russia halfway in all issues — including those requested by our Government. The Belarusian economy has suffered during the world financial crisis. We introduced protective customs duties for imported cars last year and have paid dearly for the Single Economic Space. The current Prime Minister and the President of Russia acknowledge this and give credit to Belarus.
Russia has joined the WTO, so we need to deal with that, making it work for us. We’re determined to hold out, facing each challenge. Talking to the Russian leadership, we always remind them that Russia should not abandon Belarus, as it has promised. We receive positive answers but what will happen in the future? We’ll wait and see.
The electoral system
I’ve been elected more than once and have also been a deputy, so I’m well aware of the party system and the majority system. You know, in the party system, only the top 2-3 people are well-known. Is this good? I think not.
There are 15 parties in Belarus but people only know the Communist Party and the nationalistic party, which has caused a lot of trouble in Belarus, and the BPF [Belarusian Popular Front]. People are aware of the extreme right and left parties. In between, there are fragments of both of these parties, as well as 13 other parties. Probably, people have heard their names but they don’t have a true idea of their policies: either the Communist Party or the BPF. This will be a deceit.
I think that the party system has yet to evolve. Parties should not be created when suggested by the authorities. It’s clear what attitude a pro-government party will face, so I don’t support this process in Belarus.
We aren’t yet mature enough to have formed this party system, so let people elect their deputies in the districts following recommendations. Any party has the right to stand (even if it has no representatives in the district); the elections determine everything.
Maybe, we need to move further towards this party system. We certainly don’t restrain the process. I’ve promised not to push the process of forming political parties artificially but I won’t hamper it either; I’ll support it.
Elections in Belarus and Russia
It’s all big money and show there, but here, we had a holiday.
We were criticised for this, with people scoffing at the snack-bars we offered at voting stations. We had music and children, who seemed happy to be among adults. The Russians observing admired our choice of creating a festive atmosphere; Mr. Lukashenko had created a holiday for people, to our advantage. Of course, we endeavoured to make use of all that is beneficial.
Meanwhile, you [Russians] have borrowed a little from the West, with your party principles and spending money; the more important the election, the more money is spent. We don’t waste money, as we wouldn’t want to do that.
We’ve been accused of fraud but conducted this election extremely openly. There were 30,000 our observers, 1,000 from abroad. There were also 800 journalists, including about 500 from abroad. They were free in their actions, able to watch and check whatever they liked.
I know that a report about Belarus was prepared in advance, even before the elections had concluded. It remained almost without change and, recently, a decision was taken to extend sanctions against Belarus until October 30th 2013. For what reason? We understand why. They don’t like Mr. Lukashenko and his politics.
We’ve caught Afghan people that go through Russia: dozens of thousands of people annually. Additionally, there have been explosives, radioactive materials and drugs. We discover all these things, passing through Russia, via Belarus, on the way to the EU. We just don’t need this situation!
We’re constantly criticised, but we defend the EU at our own expense. I say: pay us some money and we’ll continue to defend you. Without money, we lack the opportunities to prevent such smuggling.
Belarusian-Russian co-operation in foreign policy
I always bring an example of our foreign policy co-operative agencies of Mackey and Lavrov (before, Martynov and Lavrov). We’ve rarely had problems with mutual support and I hope that continues always. Co-operation is at a high level in comparison with the past. We realised (as I mentioned in my speech) that we didn’t have a lot of friends. Unfortunately, competition is very strong, and we realised that no one needed us. If we stand side by side in this tough fight, battling together, we’ll surely succeed. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Ministry are a model for co-operation between other ministries.
Interstate labour migration
We don’t prevent this but I’d be fibbing if I said that I wasn’t anxious, as we don’t want to lose our experts. If the process is controlled and natural, we can consider it. There’s nothing wrong with a thousand or two going to work abroad but we should consider carefully what to offer people to tempt them to stay.
If someone wants to go to Khabarovsk, there’s nothing wrong in this. When it comes to economics and trade, we can rely on these people I think.
Dual citizenship in the Union State
As regards dual citizenship, why should we make an exception for Ukrainians, Poles or anyone else? It could be done but would be, from a legal point of view, contrary to humanitarian principles. I’m afraid to allow it, as I think that huge numbers may claim second citizenship. We feel this is likely, so we’ve been cautious in opening the door, only allowing it for particular examples — such as outstanding skiers. For example, there are 22 great athletes in Russia while the team can consist of just 6-8 people. There are some who’d love to perform at world championships, so we allow them to train here, representing Belarus. We often do this. Darya Domracheva, who is among the best in the world, was born to a Belarusian family, but is from Siberia. She was from Russia but we gave her dual citizenship. If a man or a woman marries a Belarusian and comes to live here, there is no problem.
We have an established procedure: you apply and the Commission considers before making an offer. Sometimes, people gain their citizenship within a month or less, according to the principles of the law. We are not an empire, like Russia, so we are a little afraid, although the Russians have, in principle, almost the same rights as in Belarus, so there is less need for caution.
The Belarusian nuclear power plant
The vast majority of people now support this decision, although there have been many arguments. The main one was our experience of Chernobyl. However, a couple of nuclear power plants are found almost on the border of Belarus, along its perimeter.
Of what are we afraid? There is nothing to be afraid of. Of course, when the main impact has been felt personally, it infects people with a phobia. It’s difficult to convince them but I’ve tried hard to do so and gain their understanding. I took a decision and have no regrets. Now, the most modern plant is being built. It’s greatly needed as it will provide not only cheap energy but less dependence on natural gas.
This is the latest technology, rivalling that of the space industry in its construction and operation; it’s an area of the highest technology. We should be focused on this, as we can’t escape it. If the nation wants to develop, being among the highest educated, we should train specialists.
Housing and public services
We subsidise housing and public services by 70 percent. The public only covers 30 percent. This is not so much in comparison with the full house reconstruction cost, for example. People don’t want to understand this, which creates problems. We don’t leave people at the mercy of management companies or private entities and, until we find a worthy substitution for these structures, we won’t change our policy. I speak as President, saying we won’t do that. Why change if nothing better is being offered?
Style of management
We operate a tough policy, because we need to survive. Once or twice a year, or once every two years, we face a challenge. We need to unite, in order to overcome and survive. We’ll lose if we are divided — as happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We provide an independent policy but, at the same time, don’t create problems for our neighbours to the east or to the west.
We have a reserve for each position. The Presidential Administration is responsible for this. It relies on good management to see things run smoothly. Without strong leadership, there is no enterprise, so we pay a lot of attention to this.
There is the President’s personnel register, which includes over 900 people. The President controls key positions in the Government and in the economy. Each receives specific ‘immunity’ from the head of state, ensuring their safety. We have our own system of appointments from above: the same as for governors. Some dislike it, but it exists. We can explain more if you need to know.
As for the elderly, everyone has their place in society. If you have experience and professional skills, it doesn’t matter how old you are; we need you. As long as you are healthy, you can work if you choose to. I’d encourage this. There’s no question of putting aside older people to make way for the young. Age is not everything; fitness and a desire to work are most important. If you are a professional, then work. If you are ambitious, in a good sense, then work hard to do well and better yourself.
The number of Government agencies
We have halved the number of officials since Soviet times and have further plans to reduce by a quarter, so that civil servants’ salaries can be raised. The public would disapprove of this increase in wages otherwise.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is being reformed, leading to significant reductions, making the system more streamlined. We’ve almost finished modernising and reforming the army. Of course, we lack enough money to maintain and upgrade equipment but hope for help from Russia since, in principle, it is the Russian army.
We also need to cut the number of officials by about a quarter, while reducing bureaucracy.
I am an opponent of the form of privatisation seen across our post-Soviet space — although some view it as ‘normal’. I’ve seen only barbarian privatisation: ‘grabbing’ — as it always becomes.
Only that which has been created through your own hard work and brain power (or that of your family) is truly appreciated. Why should we sell an enterprise which has been created by the people and which functions properly, bringing in normal dividends to the state? This is especially the case when no one is even offering the market price. Everyone wants to buy at a lower price; the vast majority offer half-price or want something almost for free. Why should a properly functioning enterprise be privatised so? This is why I’m against privatisation.
Private property is something quite different, being the greatest asset of society. It should be purchased or acquired through effort. You might want to start up a new enterprise; just come to us for a piece of land, using your own money or a bank loan.
We are not against private property. There is nothing higher than private enterprise and initiative.
This has become a habit, as I often emphasise. I’m ashamed to discuss the amount of money spent on unemployment benefits. The last time the Government suggested raising these, I replied that I’d rather see a proposal balancing the needs of those employed with those unemployed. There are three times as many vacancies as those unemployed — so why should we support them? If we lacked jobs, it would be another matter. Go and work. We should ask, as we did in Soviet times, why someone isn’t working. Our people are very unhappy with people remaining unemployed, asking me to act. I have to respond that I don’t know how to approach this in a market economy. We are studying the situation and I think that we’ll use leverage to ensure everyone is working. In today’s Belarus, those who are lazy can’t expect to have the same income as those who work.
Preparations for the 2014 IIHF World Championship
We still need to complete some hotels but, overall, we’ll be ready for the World Cup in 2014. The second arena will be completed in Chizhovka next year and the basic infrastructure for the hockey championship will be ready.
On November 30th, there’s another inspection — one of the final ones. I’m sure that they’ll assess our preparations positively, as Minsk is ready and Belarus is ready. It will be a memorable event.