You are here

Interview with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Washington Post

In a three-hour interview with Washington Post senior associate editor Elizabeth Graham Weymouth on February 28, Alexander Lukashenko brought up Belarusian domestic policy, the December 19 presidential election and its consequences.

Would you mind if I ask you questions directly just as I ask other leaders?

It’s up to you, but sincerity and integrity are fundamental principles of relations that I appreciate.

 The U.S. and EU have imposed travel sanctions on you and officials in your government after the events of December 19. How will it affect Belarus? Are you having second thoughts about it?

If it were to happen again tomorrow, I would do the same thing I did at that time. I would protect the House of Government without resorting to violence against protesters, as it has to be done according to the Constitution.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had met with you only weeks before this happened. The United States was hoping you would open up. You had allowed opposition candidates to run for presidency and we felt like Belarusian authorities were ready to interact with the West. So people were surprised when you completely changed the course. Why did you do that?

We hoped that Americans and Europeans respected Belarus as an independent and sovereign state and had intentions to establish good relations with us. Unfortunately, the events of December 19 showed we had been deeply mistaken.

Mr. President, the U.S. was always clear on its terms. It wants democracy and transparency; Washington hasn’t changed its terms.

As for us, we made it clear to you that there is no less democracy in Belarus than there is in the United States.

For instance, if you hold an election and seven out of the nine opponents end up in jail, it is not a very good signal to the West that this is a democratic place. I guess there were limits on the amount of money the candidates could raise and time they could spend on television. Thus I believe that the elections were not democratic.

Elizabeth, you have every right to believe it. But why do you draw the line between ex-candidates and all other citizens and view their case above the Criminal Code? Law applies to everyone without discrimination. As far as time in the media is concerned, you just contradict yourself as you’ve mentioned in your first question that we did contribute to the fair election. By the way, you’re the first person to say the election was not democratic. Neither American, nor European officials made such a claim, since all the candidates had direct access to the media, both Belarusian and Russian. But the question is not about the time limit the candidates had in the media. The question is what their message was. They were saying that Lukashenko needs to be hanged. Such remarks are unacceptable in Belarusian society, and I guess, the Americans would feel the same about them. But I would like to ask you the following: what would the police and the American president do, if a tiny minority approached the White House in attempt of unlawful entry and started breaking it?

If they really were breaking into government buildings, they might be fined or arrested, but not jailed for 15 years. If your security services had information that people were trying to engage in mass disturbances, they would arrest hundreds of thousands of people. Are you really going to put these people on trial?

Do you have information that we have imprisoned anyone for 15 years?

No, but it was reported that one young man who participated in the demonstration was convicted and sentenced to four years last week, and he was just an aide to a candidate. Reportedly, the sentences for others could be as long as 15 years. Is that correct?

Probably they can. That is law. You have your own legal penalties for such crimes, such as life imprisonment and death penalty and we don’t criticize it, since it’s your law. Please tell me, as a representative of a democracy, why have you destroyed Iraq? This is an international crime. How did you respond to the rape of your colleague - a journalist - in Egypt?

It was terrible, but it was by Egyptians.

They are your friends. Why didn't you take a firm stand?

What should we take the firm stand on? Do you mean former President Hosni Mubarak?

You are afraid because you have interests there - you need to establish relations with the authorities who replaced former President Hosni Mubarak, and you spit at your colleague who was raped although she is your citizen. But if it were to happen in Belarus, you would be lambasting us all over the world. American democracy has two faces.

Would you ever grant amnesty to any of the people who were arrested that December night?

I have this right.

Will you exercise it?

When the time comes, I’ll let you know. It is not necessary at the moment. Only the court can make a decision about those people. Why are you trying to push me to interfere?

Are you thinking of changing Section 193 of the Criminal Code, which makes it so difficult for NGOs to register and thus to act without fear of prosecution?

Is it possible for non-registered organizations to operate in the U.S. or any other country in the world?

There is no problem to register any NGO in the US. And their activity is not fined.

The same here provided they don’t violate the law. But if it’s the fifth column financed by the U.S. taxpayers we are talking about, not an oppositional organization, things can really get rough for it.

What about the Belarusian Christian Democrats?

In Belarus, the Christian Democrats will probably never get registered. They participated in the riots on December 19. They are not Christian Democrats, they are bandits. By the way, we have six opposition parties registered against 10 million people.

You possess power and can control many spheres. Why don’t you eventually allow them to get registered?

Firstly, the control we exercise is not as strict as in the U.S. Secondly, any party that complies with the law will be registered like 2,500 other non-governmental organizations that operate in Belarus.

Why did you kick out the U.S. ambassador in 2008?

But you did the same with ours, didn’t you?

Our ambassador was first.

Why do we need an ambassador who is masterminding the actions of the fifth column? An ambassador’s mission is to improve relations between states, not to make them worse.

Do you really believe this?

I am the president of Belarus. I know this.

In fact, what’s the point of an American ambassador if the U.S. is not interested in cooperation between our countries? What will be his responsibilities? Financing the fifth column? We don’t need it.

How come the presidential candidates who were in jail are not allowed to see their lawyers? Why don’t you give order to give them access to lawyers?

In Belarus, there’s no order needed for the access to lawyers. What you say is an outright lie. A lawyer's job is to meet with a defendant.

But it is widely reported in the papers that the jailed defendants had no access to lawyers.

Why are you talking about newspapers? There was a recent editorial in The Washington Post that really astonished me - the outward lies. The editorial said that the Obama administration should convince the European Union to impose sanctions. The aim was to punish this regime for brutal repressions of the opposition.

What is wrong with that?

Everything is wrong.

How do you know that it is not true?

I witnessed online what was unfolding near the house of government. I saw what was happening on monitors. And after, it was covered on Euronews.

It seems you are controlling all the TV stations.

If I did, you would have no time for my job. It’s the U.S. that exercises a total control over everything, isn’t it? And I don’t condemn you, since you want to protect your citizens. It’s the right thing to do.

We do not do that.

Why won’t you release thousands of prisoners at Guantanamo Base held in detention without judicial safeguards?

It is not the same. They are people who tried to blow up the World Trade center.

How can you be sure? It’s for the court to deliver a verdict. That is not democratic.

Because I live in New York.

So you just trust whatever they cover in newspapers. But in a democratic state, it’s only for the court (and not even for such a top-flight reporter like you are) that is eligible to deliver such a verdict. What kind of democracy is that? You promised to close the base, since it’s seen as an anachronism in the modern world. Why didn’t you do that?

Do you really think that we should close it?

It must be closed immediately, as it is, according to what you’ve just told me, a bad message to the international community.

Many people would agree with you.

See how many examples of the U.S. regime being not democratic I gave you? Just kidding.

If you came to the U.S., you would be surprised that we don’t control what reporters write in newspapers.

You have your own ways to exercise control. Why are you so anxious about WikiLeaks? Why do you keep looking for reasons to imprison Assange and sentence him to death? He just published true facts– it’s not democratic.

This is not us. The US government does it.

You see, but it’s me whom you’re condemning. You should better watch your own government.

What did you think of the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt?

This will backfire for you. It proves that the expedient U.S. policy is a complete sham.

How will it backfire for us?

Time will tell. The fact that the entire Arabic world is being radicalized is a really big thing. And you want to mastermind a regime change in Belarus. It's better to cooperate with us.

As far as your relations with Russia are concerned, are you still dependant on it given the hard time in the relations with the EU and the U.S? I know that earlier Russia supplied gas to Belarus, and you had an opportunity to resell it. What is the situation today after you have lost this opportunity?

Elizabeth, if during my presidency I resell at least one thousand cubic meters of Russian gas – I am not the President. You’ve been misguided by wrong newspapers again.

How is your fiscal situation? I heard you have a big current-accounts deficit.

We have some economic drawbacks, but we have positive tendencies as well. For the first two months of this year, we had a 7 percent economic growth. The price of oil has almost doubled, and we are still importing oil and gas.

Do you import it from Russia?

As far as raw materials, hydrocarbons in particular, are concerned, we depend upon Russia due to the historical circumstances.

Is Russia your main commodity import partner?

No, 47 percent is exported to Russia, and the rest to the European Union and other countries. Earlier we used to export 85 percent to Russia.

You have problems in the relations with the U.S. and the EU – what is your game plan? Is there a third way? You have Iran, Venezuela and China as allies. You give the impression that you are a very smart person. You must have a plan of further development.

We are trying to work around the world. We would like very much to cooperate with the United States. If our trade turnover were between five and ten billion dollars, that would be very good for our economy.

There are terms you’re aware of. The democracy, freedom of the press and free trade unions. They have not been altered. In December, Mrs. Clinton told you that the U,S, has not changed its attitude. The terms have not changed. The U.S. is interested in developing relations with Belarus, provided transparency is ensured.

If you are interested in mutual cooperation, let’s try to find ways to promote it without setting conditions of democracy. Democracy is universal, but you picture it your own way and try to persuade every country only your way is right. Besides, you have different democracy principles are for Russian and Belarus, EU, China, Iran and Venezuela, Israel, and the Arab world. It’s not my first priority to cooperate with the U.S. We are fine like we are.

It is wrong.

Maybe it’s wrong. But we live in a democratic society, where everyone has a right to express opinion.

When we needed help, Venezuela, China all Eastern, African, Latin American countries, Brazil, Russia were ready to cooperate with us. From your prospective, those are wrong countries, only the USA is the right one. Well, to bring prosperity tp Belarus, we’ll be cooperating with those countries.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) claimed that your December election was flawed. Will you fix this in a future election?

I cannot change everything. This electoral law is no worse than that in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan - countries with whom you cooperate very well.

What is your impression of President Obama?

Good opinion, but you don't let him do his job.

Who is "you?"

I mean the opposition.

You mean Republicans?

Not just Republicans, I mean businessmen and some of the security agencies. I don't think Obama would like to share Kennedy’s fate.

Why did you bring that up?

If Obama goes on pursuing his course of action, there will be people who may not like it. He will pursue the interest of the majority of his people, but there will be radical people who don't like this course of action. It may have bad consequences.

What about the Russian Prime Minister Putin? How do you interact? Do you have good relations? May he become Russia’s President again?

First of all, the Russian president will be the person elected by the Russian people.

As for our relations, we get on very well with Mr. Putin. We’ve been working for more than ten years together. I would recommend you not to vilify Putin.

He’s a hard-edged person who has the backbone to defend interests of Russia, no matter what. And the U.S. seems not to like it.

It seemed that you tried to reset your relations last year.

You try and have always tried to reset your relations for your own benefit. I wouldn’t suggest you to talk like this with Russia and Putin, in particular.

I just quote the Vice President. He said that, not me. I mean the government.

You’d better listen to what Putin says. He is a responsible person, who keeps his promises, unlike the USA and Europe.

May he become president again?

Being among leading political figures in Russia, he may, if he is willing to.

Everyone discusses whether he will run for presidency again.

If he wants, he will.

Have you ever been in the United States?

Sure, around five times, mostly for international conferences. And once I came to your country to visit several destinations from east to west. Then you forbade the country for me, but I’m not your enemy and don’t belong to al-Qaeda. What kind of democracy do you have if you put up an iron curtain?

Mr. President, being a smart person, you must understand what the U.S. wants.

Elizabeth, I do understand what the U.S. wants from us, but I’d also like you to know what we want from you.

I read newspapers. I think that you will agree with me. I also talked to some people in the United States. It seems to me that in 2008, you made the country more open, didn’t you?

Look, did anybody prevent you from entering the country?

The people who met me treated me well.

Everyone is treated well here, Elizabeth. We are an absolutely open country. We can’t close it for anyone, because we are not the United States.  

Does the future of your country look promising for you?

Yes, otherwise I would’ve not become President. What’s the point of a president who doesn’t see a chance for the country to become prosperous?

When you saw the change of power in Egypt and Tunisia, didn’t you think the same could happen in Belarus?

First of all, I didn’t think so. Secondly, I wouldn’t like it to happen either in Belarus, or in the United States, even though there are more reasons for that in your country, for example, fifty million people with no medical insurance.

Didn’t you think this could happen here regarding you?

Why regarding me, but not Obama?

Because we conduct elections, where people vote. In the United States people can change the government.

Hosni Mubarak conducted elections as well. Secondly, when our country reaches your level of democracy, we’ll do the same.

Why can’t you make a change now?

Changing political figures doesn’t mean changing political system of a country and its policy. The stage settings are changing, but the policy of dictatorship remains the same. It’s hard to say, what’s better: to change political figures or its policy. I guess, the second point is more important. And you’ll have to face it.

Would you like to go back to complying with the law as it was in 2008? Wouldn’t you think you should observe laws for transparency? You know that the United States hasn’t changed its terms, so maybe you should go back to resume relations?

I’ve just said that I don’t back up. I don’t intend to play any political games with American and Western political figures, as they turned out to be dishonest. They cheated us and didn’t keep their promises. If you seek to establish good relations on an honest basis, we are ready for collaboration. If not, we’ll go without you.

Have you decided when the next elections are to be held?

It's parliamentary elections that are to be held next, in 2012, I guess. The presidential elections are to be held in five years. You’re welcome to attend the election without a visa. I do allow American journalists to enter the country; unlike you do with our journalists. Why did you deny Belarusian journalists entry into the U.S. territory? Because they have their own point of view? 

I didn’t know, I haven’t thought about it.

You see and now you reproach us for the lack of democracy. Why did you prevent my sons from entering the USA? They are not criminals and don’t belong to al-Qaeda.

That is why sanctions exist.

Why have you punished my children? What do they have to do with this? Why have you bannrf entry to dozens of people who were not to blame and had nothing to do with the alleged December 19 events?

I don’t know.

You see, but we still have lots of other questions to the U.S. government.  Why did you break the agreement of 1994, when we unconditionally gave the nuclear weapons to whom you wanted? You promised never to apply economic sanctions. Why do you apply them then? Who will trust you after that?

I don’t know, but I think there is a simple way out of this situation.

You should consider keeping your promise first.

Why wouldn’t representatives of Belarusian and the U.S. government meet and discuss this issue? After you release the people from jail, the sanctions will be lifted. There will be transparency and freedom of mass media. The states will become closer.

Sounds like a good idea. You can write in the Washington Post your own point of view that the representatives of Belarusian and the U.S. government should meet and discuss everything, rather than put up an iron curtain.

No one will ever consider my ideas. But the bright side is that you’re going to take steps, and then it would be up to us to do the same...

We made a number of steps closer to your direction, starting from the nuclear weapons. You cheated us, and we don't believe you.

You made some steps in 2008, and then backed up. You allowed candidates to run for presidency. Not everyone supported you. You allowed them to hold meetings. At least, to some degree.

Not to some extent, but sometimes in violation of the Law. They did everything they wanted.

What we saw in the press was that the president permitted other candidates to run for presidency.

I was the same candidate like them. And the Central Election Commission only allows or denies according to the Law. And everyone who wanted to participate in the presidential elections did participate.

What did Mrs. Clinton say when she met Belarusian Foreign Minister? She said that Belarus had to become a democratic and open state and elections need to be held. If you won the elections, it’s one thing, but if you arrest your opponents…

We arrest individuals, who violated the law by breaking the House of Government. It’s prohibited both in Belarus, and in the USA.

You arrested 40 people. Are they still under arrest? Do they wait for prosecution?

Yes, but hundreds of people are waiting for prosecution in Guantanamo.

People in Guantanamo are not the leaders of democratic or republican parties.

These 40 people are not the leaders either. You have different laws for the Democrats, Republicans and all other people.

Yes, we do have a different law for the terrorists blowing up big buildings. It is not the same.

Elizabeth, we have the same laws applicable to those who blow up buildings. In Belarus, all of the citizens are equal under the law. I wouldn’t like some building to explod in Belarus over time like the Trade Center in New York.

Those were the representatives of Saudi Arabia

We’ve had representatives from the neighboring countries. And the fifth column was financed by the Americans.  

Do you mean Poland?

Both Poland and Germany, all the schemes were prepared abroad. 

I still think you should let those people out of jail. Don’t you feel sorry for them?

You should come to the court room to defend them as a lawyer.

Don’t you feel sympathetic to these people?

I do. They are poor people who believed your propaganda and took your money and now they have to pay back.

Mr. President, maybe there is something else you want to say on your own initiative. If no, I would like to thank you.

You know, Elizabeth, you have already asked a lot, and maybe I didn’t develop my ideas well enough, but I think, at least it was enough to give you an impression about the policy of Belarus.

I would only ask you not to vilify me or Belarus. Belarusians are quite good people, no worse than the Americans. And life here is absolutely quiet.

We are a stable and peaceful country and people appreciate it. And we would like to have good relations with the United States, if you felt the same. But we will not let anyone, including Americans, set any unrealistic goals and conditions to us.

Mr. President, it was a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your time.