Alexender Lukashenko is answering the journalists’ questions
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 because of 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.
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 the ones within state apparatus, and the agro-industrial and construction complexes. The country’s leadership and the 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.
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.
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 do 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 $5bln. 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 $15bln 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.
Last year will be remembered as the 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 start 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, the 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.
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 have created this model and have 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.”
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.”
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 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.
Form generates content
Once journalists had found their places in the conference hall at the Palace of Independence, the President commenced his ‘Open Dialogue with Journalists’. Alexander Lukashenko began by asking that media representatives ask questions openly, and be ready to discuss, argue and share their views on the most acute social and economic problems facing the nation.
Conference participants’ reaction to the new format.
Lilia Ananich, the Information Minister:
The tone set by the Head of State in our country is open, democratic and dynamically developing. This discussion and this new format have again demonstrated to society that our state boasts huge potential. Our major wealth is our people, who need to be heard. As our state policy centres around individuals, it was a wise decision to organise this dialogue with journalists. We are working towards a single goal: making our country more beautiful and filled with mutual understanding.
The media has additional responsibility, as Mr. Lukashenko’s press conference has shown. They are deeply involved in state development and bear the burden of speaking the truth. After the conference ended, some commented that the President had been too sincere but I feel that our Head of State is always sincere, for which the Belarusian nation loves him.
Ivan Mikhailov, the Deputy Director of the TV News Agency:
Journalists were initially surprised to be invited to ask questions freely. They chose not to hold back and were rewarded with detailed answers, as usual. Often, dialogue finishes with unexpected resolutions. The President set a record of speaking with journalists for seven hours but, still, time passed too quickly. Alexander Lukashenko was sincere with us and I found his words interesting as a journalist. He repeated often that he was eager to share all with us.
Tatiana Zenko, a commentator for the 1st National Channel of Belarusian Radio:
This was the President’s first open dialogue meeting with journalists and the experiment proved successful. It’s important for media representatives to be heard and to establish mutually interesting discussion. This time, we shifted from the traditional format, whereby journalists can feel inhibited. It’s been quite the opposite here. It seemed to me that the President was interested in not simply answering questions but in listening to others’ problems and alternative views on events of importance to our country. To gain a full picture, you need a variety of sources.
Prof. Igor Goncharenok, the Pro-Rector for Academic Affairs and Director of the Managerial Personnel Institute of the Academy of the Public Administration:
The President said that we are all citizens of Belarus. It doesn’t matter whether we disagree on some matters; the state’s interests and security remain our priority. Our modern world is complex, with many external problems and threats. The situation in Ukraine, so close to our borders, could spread globally, threatening our national security. We must not let this happen. The President communicated with us so openly that the opposition media seemed to have no call to confront him with tricky questions, as is usual. He set the record straight and set clear tasks.
Today’s world is not so simple and national security is vital, making it all the more important to be united. It matters not that citizens have differing political positions; we can still join forces.
Tamara Subbotko, the Editor-in-Chief of Gomelskie Vedomosti (Gomel News):
On the eve of the conference, I hardly imagined that it would be so sincere, open and fruitful. I loved Alexander Lukashenko’s commentary: that we need to forget our quarrels and join together to overcome events observed in neighbouring Ukraine and Russia. Even representatives of the opposition media agreed, although they usually argue against the President’s opinion.