[b]History lover Andrey Kuvaev knows more about the Radziwills than any encyclopaedia [/b]As a boy, Andrey’s parents often took him to see his grandmother — travelling from Baranovichi to Gomel. The road was long, with several stops. Once, his father stopped halfway, at Nesvizh, the former residence of the Radziwills (the richest family of Belarus). His parents wanted to visit the palace, which hosted a sanatorium at that time. Andrey had thought that castles only existed in fairy-tales. However, this was a true castle — situated in native Belarus, rather than in Andersen’s fairytale kingdom.Acquaintance with Hercules. These days, the names of the Radziwills and Nesvizh are known to almost everyone; these monuments of culture — created under the aegis of this famous magnate family — are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, about 15-20 years, there were no books, films or Internet information on the noble family. Everything connected with their name was viewed as a legend or a fairytale.
The President has continued his practice of lecturing in front of students; however, he asked them not to view him as a lecturer. “Some might think that lecturing at a university has nothing in common with delivering a speech to the United Nations,” noted Mr. Lukashenko. “But I’ve arrived in my native town. This was my first university. In preparing my talk, I’ve focused on sociological aspects — wanting to answer questions topical to young people today. I want to see how young Belarusians perceive state policy.”
Mr. Lukashenko recalled his first speciality as a historian and noted that most of those present (and listening via the Internet — organised for two other universities in Mogilev) are approximately the same age as the Belarusian state. Obviously, they cannot remember the first years of Belarus’ independence. “I didn’t know much,” admits fifth year student Vadim. “Truly, I didn’t expect that the President would be so sincere with us. He spoke about everything frankly. Sometimes, he asked journalists not to quote him and admitted when he was unable to discuss a particular matter, which I admired.”
Business from the outset
According to the President, the present recession has primarily demonstrated that the state should not fully leave the economy to run itself. “No universal or ideal model exists,” admitted Mr. Lukashenko. “The worst mistake we could make is to blindly copy another’s experience. On becoming president, I faced the challenge of choosing a path.” At that time, all his advisors suggested that he follow Russia’s path — that of shock therapy — since many people were convinced that privately owned cafйs, shops and factories worked better than those which were state run. “However, what is admissible for small business isn’t necessarily so for large enterprises,” Mr. Lukashenko asserts. “Belarus tractors and Atlant refrigerators would have disappeared — as previously popular Baltic VEF radio receivers and RAF cars did. If Minsk’s Automobile Works had been sold, we’d now be painting the chassis while main production would be situated somewhere in Detroit, or at a Mercedes or Volvo factory. We’d be an ‘appendage’, which would make us an ‘appendage’ to some other state.”
Even George Soros — a specialist in the post-Soviet space — wrote in his Open Society: ‘I have to admit that an open society is not necessarily the outcome of a closed society collapsing. On the contrary, collapse can lead to the destruction of power and disintegration of society’. In line with generally acknowledged law of the ‘Gini coefficient’, a relatively egalitarian country, without an elite handful claiming property ownership, can be the result, as seen by those visiting Minsk (especially when coming from Moscow or Kiev). It is upon this solid foundation that our state is built...
The President did not shy away from acute questions and even provoked them — pushing those present to ask. “Ask me why we don’t boast the same standards of living as they do in Western Europe but remember that the UK, France and Germany took time to reach their heights.”
Here and now
“Those thinking that liberalisation equates to the parcelling up of property — as was once done in Russia — are mistaken,” said Mr. Lukashenko, adding, “Liberalisation means giving freedom to private initiative.” At present, the state is strong enough to limit its direct presence in some spheres. The Presidents calls this the ‘evolution of the Belarusian economic model’.
The country is ready for privatisation but the President notes that ‘our principle is to sell at a high price’. He explained his idea later, when a student from the Belarusian-Russian University asked whether Belarus is ready to sell its oil refineries if Russia promises to load them with duty-free oil. Mr. Lukashenko caused smiles from those present on asking whether an oligarch had asked the girl to ask this question. It seemed difficult to believe that this topic worries a student greatly but the President admitted that the problem is serious. “We’ve been nailed to the wall. They have calculated everything: the price they offered is unprofitable for us to process oil... If they continue ‘pressing’ us in the same manner, we’ll move away from dependence on Russian energy resources.” However, Belarus is not against selling shares in its refineries for a good price.
There is no doubt that the country is developing, with our leadership reacting to changing circumstances. That which was impossible yesterday can now be easily realised. This is well confirmed by our co-operation with the IMF. Previously, the Fund envisaged such strict terms that Minsk could hardly comply. However, it recently stepped in to save Belarus when our gold-and-currency reserves were near empty (only about $500m remained). Russia had failed to provide its promised loan. “You should know that the IMF’s money is kept by the National Bank as a reserve. We have not guzzled it away,” stressed Mr. Lukashenko.
In Russia, some think that the IMF stepped in with an ulterior motive. However, as Confucius said: ‘It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice’. Russia — our closest, proven ally — sometimes fails to understand this. The fact that the loan was allocated shows that global economists believe in the Belarusian economy. Mr. Lukashenko is convinced that co-operation with this organisation won’t hamper the fulfilment of our obligations to raise the monthly salary to $500, while increasing the value of student scholarships...
Question — answer
Mr. Lukashenko was asked many questions, including those on foreign policy and issues which worry students — such as hostels, allocation of places and curriculums. Here are a couple:
Why have the hours spent studying Belarusian history been reduced at school?
We’ll study the issue, as it’s very important for us. We shouldn’t simplify the study of humanitarian subjects if we want to raise patriots in our country…
What are your relations with Viktor Yanukovych?
Anyone thinking that he is a pro-Russian or pro-Belarusian president are mistaken. He is pro-Ukrainian. We are solving all issues with Ukraine — even the delivery of Venezuelan oil (to some discomfort from Russia).
By Igor Slavinsky