‘We welcome such changes — evolutionary and calm’

Many foreign journalists desire the opportunity to meet and interview the President of Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko eagerly welcomes them, answering all questions in his usual sincere manner
Representatives of various media were guests of Mr. Lukashenko’s official residence in Minsk’s 38 Karl Marx Street: from authoritative editions, agencies and TV channels. Curiously, journalists often ask similar questions, as if trying to personally ensure that they’ve correctly understood the publications of their predecessors. The interview with Reuters Agency included some familiar questions which the President had already answered in dialogues with other reporters. However, journalists’ interest never wavers; each time, they rediscover our country and its leader for themselves.

Reuters Bureau Chief for Russia and the CIS, Tim Heritage, was joined by the chief correspondent for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, Richard Balmforth, interviewing Mr. Lukashenko for over 90 minutes. Tackling various topics, they showed greatest interest in Belarus’ socio-economic development, asking about the situation on the currency market, the influence of the global crisis on the Belarusian economy and how the consequences may be overcome. Privatisation and modernisation were also high on the agenda.

They were also keen to hear about prospects for developing the Belarusian political system and democracy, as well as the President’s views on international issues and relations with the EU.

These are the details of the President’s answers during the interview:

Money
August and September saw enhanced demand for foreign currency. The National Bank is trying to support the national currency and the exchange rate but we’ve agreed that this will be done exclusively via market forces, with no excessive intervention.

During this period, we also saw our Parliamentary elections. As usual, there were enough ‘friends’ who saw fit to tell the electorate: ‘There’ll be devaluation after the parliamentary elections’. People acted to try and secure themselves, fearing that they’d lose something through devaluation. Of course, time has passed and people have seen that no devaluation has occurred. In October, we completely stabilised the monetary situation, with no intervention from the National Bank needed to maintain the exchange rate in October or November. Rather, it has been buying foreign currency — as it did in early 2012.

Devaluation
There’s no need for this, as acknowledged even by our critics, opponents and enemies, who admit that there’s currently no need to devalue the national currency in Belarus.

Global crisis
Europe is creating the major problem for us, as our economy relies on exporting 80 percent of its manufactures; we’re dependant on external markets. If you have problems, then we do too. In Europe, customer demand has fallen, as is commonly known. We sell more to the EU than to Russia so, as soon as you fall into difficulties and stop ordering from us, it’s immediately reflected in our economy. Of course, we’d like Europe to escape such disturbances.

Servicing external debt
With a GDP of up to $60bn and a budget of up to $20bn (from all sources), our debt of $2.5bn isn’t a big problem. Where will we find the money? We can earn it! Moreover, we have an agreement that, if we are short by $1bn or so, we can have another loan. We can agree on grace periods. We’ve already agreed many areas with our creditors.

Privatisation
We shouldn’t earn a living by selling our national treasures. Obviously, everyone wants to buy the profitable elements of our state property and we’re not against selling. However, I’m categorically against selling just to ‘eat’ or pay off debt.

I’ve noted many times that any enterprise can be privatised in Belarus, even the most valuable. Do you know which of our enterprises is most valuable? One example is Belaruskali. We’re ready to privatise even this enterprise if someone will pay a fair price of $30-32bn. I was originally criticised for this valuation but just one month ago Bloomberg (the world’s leading agency of professional financial information) estimated it to be worth $30-32bn. Everyone has admitted that I was right. Using this price, people can buy a particular number of shares. It’s a joint stock company and we’ll sell it but not at a price cheaper than that announced.

Why are we insisting that the sale price can’t be cheaper? Because we’re not in a hurry to sell... It’s a very profitable enterprise paying significant taxes and dividends into the state budget; last year, it earned more than $3bn. Why should we be in a hurry to sell? If someone is genuinely interested, we’ll sit down and discuss terms. We’re currently negotiating with five companies — from China, India, two from Europe and an Arab enterprise.

Selling MTS state package
It’s the same story… Today, the controlling stock of shares costs slightly over $1bn: we have confirmation. If you don’t want to pay this amount or can’t afford $1bn, we’ll wait. Its profitability is high, so there’s no hurry. If we lack a buyer, we’ll just continue working.

Dialogue with IMF
We’re fulfilling all our obligations with the International Monetary Fund, as no other state is doing. They’ve never reproached us and simply cannot.

If the IMF is purely a financial and economic organisation, we’ll be able to agree but if they ‘play politics’ we’ll be long negotiating. I think that, as soon as the IMF rids itself of political clichйs and the political criteria in its approach towards Belarus and our economy, we’ll agree within 24 hours.

Oil
We’ve agreed all positions with the Russian Federation. However, we are only currently being given 4-5m tonnes of oil when we’d like to process 23m tonnes next year. We received 21m tonnes for this purpose this year, which is within our capacity. We’ve modernised our enterprises and their processing depth is much higher than that of Russia, which is our advantage. We offer European level quality, so Europe is pleased to buy from us. 

Many world level automobiles are found in the Russian Federation but they lack high quality petrol and insistently ask us to supply them with 2-3m tonnes of this grade. We’re ready and are negotiating to receive deficient 4-5m tonnes of oil. I believe we’ll eventually agree, as Russia has plenty of oil. Of course, there should be no barriers to trade within the Single Economic Space and oil is a commodity, so I think we’ll agree soon on oil supplies and processing.

Closeness of the world
We are mutually dependent and we depend greatly on the Russian Federation. Russia is also very interested in Belarus, shaping its economic, political, military and strategic policies accordingly. We depend on each other in the world arena. In fact, Europe is also dependent on Belarus although sanctions have been introduced against us.

Is the European Union worried about illegal immigration? Yes — very much! Who is battling this….? Belarus! We’ve seen 120,000 Afghans enter and many remain, alongside those from Asia and the Caucasus. They wish to enter the European Union but we detain them at the border, defending Europe. What do we gain? Are we paid? No! Rather, they’ve started to strangle us.

You introduce sanctions against us yet we can’t hold immigrants at our own expense, as we’ve done before! Additionally, how many explosives and radioactive substances are we detaining at the border? We can’t close our eyes to the fact that people are trying to bring such materials into Europe, so we warn you, saying, “Stop strangling us! Do not pressurise us or impose sanctions.”

Prospects of European vector
At the request of the EU and some of its politicians, we’ve already taken steps toward but are yet to receive the promised steps in return. You can draw your own conclusions...

Being more positive, we need to sit at a table together and look into each other’s eyes to determine how we should live. What are your claims and what are mine? Don’t push the situation into a dead end with sanctions...

Decide who should take these steps. We’re ready so you shouldn’t come to negotiations setting conditions for us. We’ve already fulfilled dozens of conditions and I’ve personally fulfilled those set before me. In response, we’ve received stronger sanctions...

Modernisation
This is the primary question for the economy. For example, we’ve being focusing on agriculture, rebuilding villages. We’ve been modernising over two five-year plans. The result is that, this year, we’ve exported food worth $5bn. By 2015, this should reach $7bn. Ten years ago, we couldn’t even feed our own population.

Another example is the wood processing industry, including paper and wallpaper production. Paper is in great deficit worldwide so we’ve built a new factory and have plans for another. We have the raw material needed: wood.

We’ve been modernising for a long time but, this year, have set the task of ensuring that every enterprise, even those producing stools, chairs and tables, has its own plan of modernisation. Each must decide what it will produce and to which markets it will sell, producing its own modernisation plan by the end of the year. This is our primary strategy to ensure that we can compete with the West and in Russia, which has joined the WTO.

Political modernisation
In what direction are we developing? There are many variants but we use the majority system: each deputy is elected from a set territory where they campaign and are known. You have a party system, selecting parliamentarians according to party lists. From any given party, only the leader is known or a few members near the top of the list. You vote but, afterwards, nobody knows anyone or sees anyone. Do you consider this normal?

We don’t have an acute need to change from our majority system to proportional. Why should we get ahead of ourselves? Some claim that it’s necessary and is the best and most progressive system. I don’t deny this, which is why I say that all things are possible. We lack strong parties, except the Communist Party and the Nationalist party (a wing of the BPF nationalists). Our people don’t know any other parties. Some are splinters of the BPF or Communist Party but people are not interested.

We’ll push to see more parties, encouraging people to unite in groups and express their opinions. When these parties are formed, with genuine party members rather than ‘dead souls’, we can introduce some form of proportional elections.

Probability of Middle East-style revolution in Belarus
In your dreams! Belarus is not the Middle East. The policy of the Belarusian leadership and the policy of the Middle Eastern leadership differ cardinally. We do not share the same policy. I’ve been elected by ordinary people — teachers, doctors, workers and agricultural labourers. I work hard and have never deviated from my promised policy yet I’m criticised. They say: ‘Mr. Lukashenko is a populist, which is at odds with running an economy’. I try not to violate economic laws. I graduated from an economy faculty. Life is more complex than the law can sometimes comprehend, so we try to be flexible, to benefit people; we sometimes subsidise more than we should but, in honesty, I’ve only acted for the benefit of the people.

This is why we shouldn’t compare policy in Belarus and in the Middle East. Some have tried to provoke a situation via social networks, as in the East… but have failed.

Changes
Every day, change is occurring but not revolutionary change. The limit of revolution for Belarus has been exhausted. We should be reserved and make change calmly — for the best and for our people. Such change is evolutionary, calm and welcomed. There won’t be a revolution here!

Human rights
The most important human right is that to life. What claim do you have on the life of Belarusians? Our main problem is a lack of people. We are worried for each person. We have a wonderful health service and our infant mortality level is lower than yours. In general, our health service is free. Our secondary education is absolutely free. Higher education is about fifty-fifty. We prepare people for work, as is necessary. If someone wants to pay for their own education that’s fine; it’s quite cheap. We educate a lot of people and I don’t see any serious problems in doing so. Everything we do is for the people.
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