Lively, interesting and sincere dialogue, with no forbidden topics
The President of Belarus recently gathered representatives of national and foreign media
The President called for calm regarding economic and financial issues. The country was facing serious challenges in late 2014, due to external forces: events in Ukraine and the devaluation of our neighbours’ national currencies (early in 2014, the Kazakh Tenge weakened considerably, followed by the Russian Rouble).
These affected Belarus greatly, thanks to its export-oriented economy. Meanwhile, public fear led to a run on foreign currency. Mr. Lukashenko noted that, although this initially did not lead to the devaluation of our Belarusian Rouble, steps needed to be taken to avoid the country’s gold-and-currency reserves being exhausted. He explained, “We tried to act as quickly as we could, taking measures of which you’re well aware; we tried to ensure stability for the country’s financial market and have succeeded for the moment but will need to see what happens next. We’re keeping a close eye on issues relating to inflation and the provision of consumer goods to our domestic market.”
According to the President, prices on the domestic market can be restrained. He commented, “Some proclaim that the Belarusian authorities are restraining prices, preventing them from rising due to the devaluation of the national currency. However, the situation is really quite different. Previously, oil cost $120 a barrel, making our purchases three times as expensive. Now, oil is cheaper, so the cost of production has lowered. What is it that you want? Do you wish to have the opportunity for the situation to get out of hand? Do you wish to fatten your wallets even more than businessmen in Russia and in the West? Prices weren’t falling because of a drop in the cost of production. I asked to preserve prices and the Government received a corresponding instruction. We’re solving this issue with those who want to find a solution.” He added that exceptions exist, such as for imported goods not manufactured in Belarus.
Mr. Lukashenko is keen to study and regulate prices for food products in Belarus since, if our prices are lower than those in Russia, we’ll see exports rise; if our prices are higher, Belarusians will buy Russian goods.
Regarding the economic future of the country, Mr. Lukashenko noted, “We are proceeding calmly, without pressure; regarding finances, psychology plays a great part in a market economy.” He accepts that problems exist, including within state apparatus, and the agro-industrial and construction complexes. The country’s leadership and new Government are engaged in solving these issues. In particular, we seek diversification of exports, including to Venezuela and China. The President is convinced that Belarus can overcome all difficulties.
Regarding structural reform, Mr. Lukashenko announced that he understood the media’s call for cuts, including the sale or closure of inefficient enterprises. He noted that he had called for this himself during the first presidential elections, promising to only keep ‘the best’ running. “We’ve kept and launched enterprises which are working well and will continue to do so,” he declared.
According to the Head of State, at least two strict models of economic development are available to those seeking drastic change but he believes that these are unsuitable for Belarusian society. “If I proposed the most efficient American model to you, tomorrow’s streets would be crowded with various members of the fifth column. Everyone would be arriving, wishing to ‘teach’ us and organise ‘maidans’. However, people would be left hungry and without work. Such shock therapy isn’t acceptable.”
From January 1st, the most important integration was launched: the Eurasian Economic Union. Of course, our country has been moving towards this, with its partners, for several years. “We’ve been creating criteria to govern the distribution of imported duties. We’ve now launched this movement; there is no alternative, since the whole world is currently integrating,” underlined the President. Mr. Lukashenko focused on integration processes between the USA and Canada, and in Latin America, saying, “We need to preserve our integrity.” Moreover, he asserts that we must use the opportunities opening before us.
The President promises that the Republic will promote integration and the creation of an equal union, without exemptions or restrictions. Belarus is presiding over the EEU in its first year of work and is eager to prevent trade wars within our common space. “The economy remains and will continue to be a foundation for further movement, probably, across the political and military-political spheres.” Mr. Lukashenko admits that there’s no need to demand the same coherence as within the European Union. “We’ve created this structure within just a few years, built upon great legislation. No one can demand from us that all economic issues should be solved immediately.”
Supranational EEU bodies have work to do, for instance, relating to current bans on the supply of some Belarusian goods for sale to the Russian market. We need a common body or laboratory to provide independent conclusions. Taking this into account, the supranational structure is working towards adopting a final and independent decision. “We’ve just begun work and questions do arise. Just imagine: huge Russia is obliged to give powers to the supranational body in equal measure with Belarus and Kazakhstan. We need a transitory period, in order to adapt and elaborate new approaches and areas, and establish new structures,” believes the President.
According to the Head of State, the Eurasian Economic Union should develop co-operation with Ukraine though its membership of the Union. Methods of collaboration with our southern neighbour are being elaborated, since Ukraine will now have obligations to fulfil under its signed agreement with the European Union. It’s not acceptable for cheap European and Ukrainian produce to deluge the EEU.
The President notes that the country may leave the integration structure if agreements are violated, as was the proviso under which the treaty was signed: if agreements aren’t observed, Belarus has the right to leave the Union.
No single EEC currency is yet planned. As the President comments, “I don’t think this will happen tomorrow or, even, during my presidency; there are too many issues to be solved before we attain a single currency. This is linked primarily to our postponement until 2025 of the formation of a single financial market.”
The President refutes the idea of ‘zig zag’ foreign policy between the East and the West, saying, “Russia is sacred. I don’t wish to see us gain any enemies in the West, seeing none at present. The Americans have never pressed us, and aren’t doing so now. On the contrary, we’re conducting mutual dialogue and have agreed to stop throwing mud at each other in the media. The Americans have kept their side and we are no longer seeing the rhetoric common in the past.”
The Head of State pins no hope on seeing major progress in Belarus-West relations until the presidential elections have been held. “If it doesn’t bother the Europeans or Americans, it doesn’t bother us, but I’d like to see us all unite in ending the conflict [in Ukraine]. Europe seems little worried by crises beyond its territory, as does the United States (so far from this crisis). Russia is involved and Belarus cannot step aside from this real threat; events could move into the territory of Belarus and Russia,” Mr. Lukashenko stressed.
The President accentuated that, during this uneasy political international situation, Belarus has kept rigidly to its foremost foreign political principle: its multi-vector policy. He notes that, at present, our geo-political position imposes this policy, saying, “Our older brother is east; these are our native people. We are intermixed so greatly that it’s impossible to break [our union].” He called Ukraine’s policy ‘brainless’ and ‘nationalistic’ and noted that it bears responsibility for the conflict and the loss of part of its territory.
Mr. Lukashenko noted that he counts upon China’s support in export diversification and that Belarus enjoys good relations with this country. “We’d like to sell more to China than it’s buying from other states — including those in the West, since this accounts for hundreds of billions of US Dollars. It would be a great achievement for Belarusian exports to reach around $5bn. We enjoy direct dialogue with China on this issue and have no problems in other areas,” the President underlined.
The prospective Chinese-Belarusian Great Stone Industrial Park is a promising project, capable of generating billions in revenue, with its ultra-modern facilities. “If this project is realised, we’ll have no problem with our gold-and-currency reserves and with sustaining the national currency,” Mr. Lukashenko stressed.
The President reminded journalists that Chinese President Xi Jinping is keen to extend liaisons with our republic, having allocated around $15bn for joint programmes, at affordable interest rates. Mr. Lukashenko recollected Mr. Jinping’s statement that China will never let anyone ‘offend’ Belarus and will ever support it. “I’m thankful to China for the current level of relations,” added the President.
Mr. Lukashenko has several times visited China — including before his presidency — and urged that we learn from Chinese experience. During his time as a parliamentary deputy, when the country’s course of development was being chosen, his views were severely criticised. Now, two decades on, China boasts the globe’s second largest economy and the first regarding exports. “This country has virtually ensured world multi-polarity, which is very important,” the President stressed. “I’ve always said that the People’s Republic of China is a friendly state to us. Belarus is proud of its relations with such countries as Russia, China and India; these friends are always ready to offer support.”
Belarus has never had pretensions towards other territories, as highlighted by Mr. Lukashenko’s declaration on Belarus-Russia relations. He stated, “I cannot imagine how Russians can war with Russians. Following events in Crimea, some warn me that Mr. Putin may come to Belarus but I cannot imagine such a thing. How could Russians war with Belarus when they share our territory as their own native land. We need to calm down and remove such thoughts from our heads. We have many other problems which need to be settled.” Some people already view Belarus as part of Russian territory but Mr. Lukashenko underlined that everyone must respect our sovereignty and independence.
The President wishes to develop production of modern weaponry in Belarus, noting, “We’re working on developing Belarus’ own weapons. At the moment, most of the weaponry used by our army comes from Russia, while we simply manufacture components: such as electronics and optics. We need good weaponry, so that any potential aggressor thinks twice! We’ll have systems in just a few months. We have no desire to fight and are not preparing for war but we need to keep our gunpowder dry!”
Last year will be remembered as a time when international tension escalated not only in neighbouring Ukraine but in many other places around the globe. The President admitted, “The tragedy of our fraternal nation pushed us to think once more of the importance of peace, calm and order.” He noted that Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are united by close historical, cultural and economic ties which cannot be broken.
“I’d love to see this year, when we mark the 70th anniversary of the Great Victory, become a reminder that we can survive through hard times, counteracting drastic threats only by uniting our efforts and standing shoulder to shoulder,” Mr. Lukashenko announced. He is convinced that a wide range of opinions should be taken into account in ensuring the country’s security and that those sparkling conflict domestically should be stopped. “If military action continues in Eastern Ukraine, it will gather rotten mercenaries; they will flock to Russia and our country, which worries me most of all. No matter who attempts to fight Belarus, with whatever weaponry, we’ll respond in kind,” the Head of State warned.
Regarding negotiations for peace in Ukraine, the President sees no better alternative to the ‘Minsk format’. “Somehow we’ve achieved positivity in this issue,” he noted, adding that points on the Minsk memorandum remained a priority for the opposing parties until recently. He notes with regret that there has been a departure from the Minsk agreements of late and new formats of negotiation, such as in Normandy. He comments, “If we want to begin again from scratch, then we can invent new formats. We could go to Astana; nobody is against Astana’s offer to host negotiations, but why is Minsk inappropriate? The Minsk format will be cancelled and agreements will be thrown into the dustbin.”
According to the Head of State, in reformatting negotiations on Ukraine, we’ll be starting from the ground up, which can only have a negative influence on the situation. Mr. Lukashenko underlined, “Importantly, the offered format, as far as I know, is to be held at the level of heads of state. However, so many meetings have been held already, with so many statements declared. Points of coincidence and dividing lines between forces are not determined at the level of heads of state. We’ll just see more general political statements: gathering, talking then departing. What is next? A new contact group?”
Mr. Lukashenko noted that the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, is insistent on keeping Minsk as the hosting venue for negotiations. The Belarusian President emphasised, “If the line defined during the Minsk memorandum has changed, it must be defined anew. We must agree on a front line. When agreed, parties should then begin withdrawing the weaponry which has killed so many people.”
The President considers that prolonging conflict serves no one’s interests. “I’m convinced that the Minsk format will be chosen again soon, since none other is better, and it’s harmful to begin reformatting. We’ll waste time for no reason,” he asserted.
The President has urged all parties to set aside ambitions and agree on peace. He declared, “It’s necessary to overcome all disagreements and to remember that children are dying. Peaceful, innocent people have no idea where to go, so that they are dying there. Of an original 8 million people living around Donetsk and Lugansk, just 3.5 million to 4 million remain.”
Belarus is due to pay about $4 billion this year and $1.5-1.7 billion next. “If this proves difficult, we’ll continue dialogue about debt restructuring for this year,” Mr. Lukashenko explained. Belarus has no desire to increase its debts, although we may receive the next tranche of the EurAsEC Anti-crisis Fund loan and one more from Russia. He underlined, “We’d like to avoid taking out more loans but I have a loan arrangement with the Russian President and the Prime Minister. If there is ever a hard time for us, Russia will lend its shoulder.”
Belarus is capable of paying off its external debt without refinancing, having the necessary financial means. The President added, “There’s no need to rush and sell our bonds cheaply. We aren’t in pre-default condition, as we can repay our debt. In contemporary history, there’s never been a case of us failing to repay debt — and there never will be. We’ll give the last that we have to repay our debt.”
Speaking to journalists, the President paid special attention to the socially-focused model of state development favoured by the Government. He said, “The socially-focused model we’ve had so far will continue, placing people at the centre of attention. I’ll stand by this until the end of my presidency. We created this model and defined it, and we must now follow it, without deviation — especially in crisis.”
Mr. Lukashenko recalled the state of the economy in Belarus after the collapse of the USSR, when it was difficult to find food in the shops, even when citizens had food ration coupons. “We did our best with what remained from the Soviet Union, and from that economy, as we had nothing else. Many reformers wished to embrace privatisation — as in Russia and Ukraine. However, we were wise, as most people realise now. We might have generated a system of oligarchical capitalism and have been obliged to live with the consequences of that capitalism,” the President emphasised. “We have problems today but they are due to external factors; the world is still in crisis. America has finally ‘begun to breathe’, and China is in fair condition, but the rest are still suffering. Meanwhile, another trouble has appeared: the crisis of our neighbours, with whom we are historically, economically and financially connected.”
Concerning punishment for those guilty of murder committed with especial cruelty, the President recommended toughening punishments. He gave several examples of famous crimes in which murderers had deserved the death penalty, asserting, “Nobody will make me change my mind. It does not matter if European democrats shout that the death penalty should be revoked. This issue was solved at our referendum. I did not decide; the public expressed their opinion. Probably, this is why we suffer few such crimes in our country.”
Power and personnel
Mr. Lukashenko asserts that lobbying for position within the state mechanism is impossible. He is adamant that state personnel have responsibility for the welfare of millions of people, and the country as a whole, as well as its neighbours. Recent changes to personnel were discussed, with the President noting why he had appointed new heads of departments and why he is eager to see more women attain high position.
Regarding the creation of advisory councils under the President, Mr. Lukashenko sees no benefit to this. He commented, “I’m categorically against the formation of any bodies under the President. Today, we have only one council under the President: the Council for Entrepreneurship. If we need to discuss a certain problem or brainstorm ideas, special working groups are created.” He noted that, in the fight against dependency on the social welfare system, one minister is working on the issue, deciding whom to invite into the group overseeing the creation of the relevant legislation.
Talking about managerial personnel, the President noted that the top positions are of prime minister, ministers and governors, through which people move according to their merit. Personal ambition is nothing without talent and dedication. The President is also keen to appoint energetic young people, able to work efficiently. Civil servants, the military, police and others working to the benefit of society should be promoted through merit.
Regarding artificial increases in salaries, the President warned that he won’t respond to populism. He noted, “The state has brought prices under control reasonably. Salaries have fallen in Dollar equivalent, but why does this matter? If prices had increased by 30-40 percent, then it would be another issue, since it would then truly impact on spending power.”
Last year was the first in recent times that the country has achieved greater growth in labour productivity than in salaries. The trend needs to continue, notes Mr. Lukashenko, saying, “If an enterprise has enough income, it can pay more to its workers; nobody will deter it. In the budgetary sphere, where there is money, we pay; where it is lacking, we wait. There will be no populist policies during the election campaign. We can’t just print money.”
The much debated draft decree on social welfare is underway. Twice considered at top-level, the final variant is yet to be agreed, as all nuances must be considered. “We’ll have no superfluous benefits, supporting those who need it, and forcing those who should work to do so,” warned Mr. Lukashenko. He addressed the Minister for Labour and Social Protection, Marianna Shchetkina, asking for a report on the draft decree. The Minister explained that several factors have guided the decree. About 50,000 people are currently without work and are not seeking employment. Meanwhile, about 200,000 have been seeking a job for 6 months or more unsuccessfully. According to the Minister, online forums have been studied in preparing the decree and public opinion is that certain categories of citizens should be exempt from payment of lump-sum fees: mothers of children under the age of 7 (or 14); and large families with young children.
The decree aims to oblige those who are capable of working yet who have failed to pay any tax contribution for at least 6 months to pay a lump-sum of 20 basic salaries (20 x Br180,000). About 123,000 women fall into this category, choosing to stay at home rather than work.
The state’s desire to increase the retirement age has also inspired much debate. Mr. Lukashenko noted, “Belarus has 1.5 people employed for each retired citizen, while there should be at least two or three. As to whether the age of retirement should be increased, the answer is: of course. However, it’s not a popular move so we are putting it aside for the moment.” Meanwhile, cash in hand salaries, avoiding tax payment, are receiving great scrutiny, so that action can be taken.
Regarding this painful battle, Mr. Lukashenko noted, “Having been engaged in this issue, I believe that it isn’t impossible to eradicate it but it certainly won’t be easy!” He recognises that it may be possible only to minimise corruption rather than remove it altogether. He charged the Procurator-General with informing the media on corruption facts quarterly, so that the public know the situation.
Journalists sometimes express discontent that those in authority fail to disseminate information adequately, to which the President noted that any departmental instructions preventing the media from receiving information should be ‘removed’ — through decree or Presidential order. He commented, “If a minister or an official is asked for information and refuses without grounds to answer journalists’ questions, they are failing to do their job. Whenever a journalist addresses you, you should answer. We have a decree you must follow but it’s not the first time that I’ve heard about such unwillingness to communicate with the media.”
The Head of State noted that, in 1990, when there was clear decline in the construction sphere, much has been done to restore it — including the successful development of the manufacture of machinery. Constructors are returning from Russia but the Head of State urges that no one should be dismissed to make room for them. He warned, “They left the country in search of wealth and now they have returned. The labour market has shrunk so there is less work today. I say ‘let them search’.”
Accommodation is a priority for construction, with about 5 million square metres of housing planned this year. The President admitted that it would be desirable to build more, but neither the banks nor the state can afford this. It’s necessary for citizens to be also involved. Negligent participants seem to have left the market, leaving powerful organisations and state enterprises, which won’t dodge responsibility. Rented apartments currently total about 30,500 and will remain a priority.
The President believes this sphere needs to be brought to order or reformed, with lecturers and teachers freed from unnecessary duties, so that they can focus fully on teaching. He asked, “Why do teachers need to prepare political, economic or financial reports?”
Regarding the use of Belarusian language in education, he stressed that teachers should be allowed some freedom of choice. “There are enough Belarusian language classes in schools at present. I once noticed that five classes of English were taught to fourth grade pupils in a single week, against three or four Belarusian lessons; afterwards, more classes were added to the curriculum,” Mr. Lukashenko commented.
The issue of language went to a referendum, deciding that, until the end of the current presidency, the country will have two state languages: Belarusian and Russian. Mr. Lukashenko emphasised, “Our nation has contributed greatly to the development of Russian language and has suffered no less to gain it as a native language. Like most Belarusians, I view Russian as a native language; it’s part of our heritage and wealth, which we mustn’t ignore.” He added that he supports Belarusian, noting that ‘it distinguishes us from Russians’. He asserted, “A language indicates that a nation exists. We shouldn’t ruin the Belarusian language and should know it as well as we know Russian. It’s the greatest asset any Belarusian can have and I don’t wish it to be lost. It’s worth more than any money.” However, the President wishes to see no pressure exerted to ‘make’ people speak Belarusian.