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From ministers to actors: Belarusians discussing President's 2016 State of the Nation Address

The famous American magazine Time published this week a list of the most influential people in the world. This is an annual tradition. The list includes politicians, businessmen, and idols of the public. About 30 people are in the Leaders section: these are heads of the largest countries and international organizations. The influence ranking is not built according to the scale or the size of a country. This is a worldwide vote organized by the authoritative edition.

The list, however, does not include the UN Secretary-General and presidents of many leading countries. Even Putin is only 29th. And, by the way, this rating is always being awaited and widely discussed. But Russia this year somehow hushed up the discussion, because Putin topped the ranking in 2015 and now, in 2016, is only 29th. And, by the way, he is the only leader of the post-Soviet region to get into the list. It does not include, for example, Nazarbayev, although he rules a great country, and he is already a politician with a long history behind. Poroshenko is not on the list either despite him being in the center of political conflicts. But it seems a conflict does not equal influence.

Number 1 this time is Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde. She was recognized the most powerful person in the world. President Lukashenko, in his State of the Nation Address to the people and the Parliament this week, highlighted cooperation with the IMF. Not in vain, of course.

Why am I telling you this information, which, it would seem, has no direct relation to Belarus? Let us just recall a few recent meetings and negotiations and everything will fall into place.

The President of Belarus spoke with the most powerful person, Christine Lagarde, in New York at the UN summit a few months ago, and presented her with a bouquet of flowers. Earlier, the Belarusian leader demonstrated gallantry at the Independence Palace in Minsk welcoming German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the Normandy 4 talks (she is, by the way, the third most influential person on the list).  French President Hollande (one of the most influential people) also arrived in Minsk with Merkel. Vladimir Putin, also from the top of the list, is a permanent counterpart of Alexander Lukashenko. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Belarus and welcomed Alexander Lukashenko in Beijing. Finally, let's not forget about the recent important meeting with another person of the Time magazine list - President Erdogan of Turkey.

The most influential people in the world are interested in Belarus and consider it important to meet with the President of that country. No explanation is needed, it speaks volumes. This is not only thanks to Belarusian foreign policy or the bright personality of Lukashenko, but also thanks to achievements and ambitious plans of the country, among which, for example, is a nuclear power plant. No one would argue that this is an important achievement. Belarusian satellites' space flights is not only the achievement but also a prospect. To add to the list is the communication service Viber, designed by Belarusians, and of course Belarus' successful peacemaking efforts.

And what's next? What are Belarus' further plans in this difficult economic (and political) time? President Lukashenko has laid out a concept this week answering these questions in his annual State of the Nation Address to the people and the Parliament. Yevgeny Pustovoi has more on the topic.

The message is like a red carpet for the country. Government offices with high ceilings are awaiting instructions for action, and millions of Belarusians would like to hear clear promises for the coming months.

Konstantin Sumar, member of the Council of the Republic National Assembly of Belarus:
After each of these events, staff started to re-evaluate their work, and give other assessment to the results of their work. This is a kind of push to everyone. And for all those working it provides some incentive to improve their performance, to work more effectively.

These walls still remember President Lukashenko as a deputy, sincere speeches and bold statements by then Chairman of the anticorruption commission of the Supreme Council. After becoming President, Alexander Lukashenko remained faithful to the traditions. From the stands of the Oval Hall, the head of state always openly and clearly speaks about plans and actions for the coming year.

This message is the twentieth. It was preceded by routine work. The interior of the Oval Hall is conservative, with its constant attribute, a star-like chandelier. It is equipped with more than 500 light bulbs. It weighs like the first Belarusian BelAZ trucks - about 50 tons. Therefore, preparation for the important political event began with checking the fixing of this chandelier.

Anatoly Yarmolenko, from the Siabry (Friends) band is a coveted singer around the world. But even after the most successful tours, the People's Artist of Belarus always returns home, like cranes about which he sings.

Anatoly Yarmolenko, People's Artist of Belarus:
For the first time, in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, I went to America and was surprised very much. Now I go there almost three times each year taking part in festivals and concerts. I see that Belarus is better or has at least caught up in some aspects.

The President also raised the topic of love to the native land addressing the Belarusian people and the deputies this week. Alexander Lukashenko stressed the importance of commitment to everything Belarusian: from cultural heritage to national currency.

Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus:
We need to invigorate the process of de-dollarization of our economy. In this regard, much has been done. When people trust their national currency, they thus support the national economy. Much has been done to reduce the use of foreign currency in domestic settlements. Banks created favorable conditions so that people can get real income from Belarusian ruble deposits. However, de-dollarization is not possible without a change of the psychology of people who are used to count everything in US dollars or euros.

But so far, Belarusians have still been collecting banknotes with portraits of overseas politicians in their purses. Now is not the best moment to do so.

The President devoted half of his speech to the pressing problems in economy. Here are the most memorable quotes.

Alexander Lukashenko:
We will not be errand boys. We are an independent and sovereign state.
Optimization is underway, so we need to release a certain number of workers. But chiefs need to take these people by the hand, accompany them to some other enterprise across the road and make sure they are employed.
Families who give birth to three or four kids say sometimes: 'These are Lukashenko's children and it is he who needs to bring them up.' No way, my dear!
The main thing is to pay taxes. And then you can sleep well or do what you want. It's your right.

Alexander Lukashenko did not voice a long-term program but promised to do this during the All-Belarusian People's Assembly. However, the Belarusian leader set out the prospects for the forthcoming year.

Alexander Lukashenko:
Our conversation will be about the prospects for the short term and specific goals for the current year. I attach to it particular importance (as well as you do) for many reasons. But first and foremost this is because 2016 is the first year of the next five-year development term. It must be a turning point in overcoming the negative trends in the economic sphere. We must not forget that the pace of development in the economy has slowed down in the last 2-3 years. And although this is mainly due to external factors, it must be admitted that some domestic flaws also took place.

The basis is recent Decree No.78, which rests on 10 points. The cost price needs to be reduced by a quarter. There are some reserves. It is not necessary to dig deeper to find more hydrocarbons. After all, Belarusian enterprises receive them at lower prices than Western competitors. But magic transformations take place later: for some reason, Belarusian products are still more expensive than western ones. Maybe it's due to import dependence and dangerous love for illegal delivery schemes.

Alexander Lukashenko:
Some companies purchased products abroad, then involved their subsidiaries, and sold them to Belarusian enterprises 2, 3 or even 5 times more expensive and then withdrew money to send it to offshores or controlled companies outside the country. This is double damage for Belarus. On the one hand, enterprises' production costs rise and revenues fall significantly. On the other hand, tax evasion and withdrawal of capital abroad affects the state budget and the economy as a whole.

There were voiced several high-profile revelations in the agricultural sector. Some unscrupulous manufacturers of fertilizers from Brest and Grodno were mentioned. The country's chief auditor, Leonid Anfimov, attended the Address of the President with a heavy folder in his hands. It is possible that some new criminal cases will be initiated in this regard. Although there was no time for frank talk Leonid Anfimov revealed some details to Picture of the World.

Leonid Anfimov, Chairman of the State Control Committee of the Republic of Belarus:
Particular attention is drawn to how social problems of citizens are sold, first of all payroll management. Raising this layer of problems we draw attention to the fate of people. That is, salary. If people are not paid today, I don't know in what mood they will get up and go to work tomorrow. So, of course, this issue is monitored by the [State Control] Committee.

Economic experts call on the Government to optimize costs, salaries and staff. But there were no public statements. Alexander Lukashenko for the first time publicly voices his view on the problem.

Alexander Lukashenko:
If optimization is underway at MAZ, BelAZ, MTZ and other works and a certain number of workers is laid off, chiefs must take these people by the hand, accompany them across the street to some other enterprise and make sure these people are employed. No one must be thrown out on the street. This is not the first time I have said this, but we will control this area strictly. People need to have an opportunity to go to work every morning, honestly work and get paid to feed their families. That is the only requirement.

President Lukashenko's message has broken a record of brevity. 1.5 hours was enough for the discussion of all the key points.

The President instructed the Government to remove bureaucratic obstacles on investors' way. Governors need to create 50,000 jobs yearly. Self-employed businessmen need to be stimulated to develop their businesses to medium and large enterprises.

Alexander Lukashenko:
The main thing is to pay taxes. And you can sleep quietly or do what you want. It's your right. But give what you have to give to the state. Like all over the world. And do not tell me about those arrests. Tomorrow, they say, other persons will come under fire. Well, of course, there will be more arrests if you don't pay taxes. Show me facts when at least one entrepreneur or a businessman was detained for reasons not related to tax evasion. Put such facts on the table. They don't exist.

Import substitution and export diversification are still pressing and relevant. In this address, Alexander Lukashenko clearly focused on "knowledge economy." This will be a new economic formation.

Alexander Lukashenko:
The trend in the economy is quite different. The main wealth of today and tomorrow is the brain, science and innovation but not resources the Lord put into the ground. Many countries are today creating products of the future, involving brains and advanced technologies - these are products with high added value. And Belarus has also learnt to make such goods.

Vladislav Shchepov, Deputy Chairman of the Standing Commission on Economic Policy of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly:
We need an effective long-term operation and strategy. This is funding of science and education, support of scientific schools, the Belarusian Academy of Sciences and of course support to innovative infrastructure.

Knowledge economy begins with innovations in education. But many university professors in Belarus' leading universities still use yellowed notes while multimedia technologies are rapidly spreading in the world.

The Minister of Education follows the latest trends in student learning. Belarus is on the verge of joining the Bologna process.

Mikhail Zhuravkov, Minister of Education of the Republic of Belarus:
I said we would keep our classic fundamental education but we will also take into account the best practices from Europe, from other countries. Why not? This will not hurt us and we will only benefit. In Brussels, when developing a strategy of European education in the near future, they stressed from the podium that they had taken some experience even from Belarus.

The President says, however, that Belarusians will not thoughtlessly dive into the European "education river". Alexander Lukashenko, the teacher and the father of three sons, cares about some deeper processes. Winston Churchill was not mistaken in saying that school teachers have the power prime ministers can only dream of.

Alexander Lukashenko:
Everything must be done to educate, to give birth and get the new teacher. To give birth to the new one is a long process. Therefore, we need to modernize old teaching methods. Relatively old. Our teachers must be made to work with families, as it was in our time. Let's see if this is taking place today. Do teachers care about what a child does at home? No. Therefore, this is our main task.

Belarus adopted a program of demographic security 10 years ago. The results can be compared with Olympic gold in the race for life.

Alexander Lukashenko:
In 2015, the birth rate was almost on a par with the level of mortality, with nearly 120,000 newborns. We have not seen such fertility for more than 20 years. For 10 years, infant mortality has fallen by almost 3 times. According to this indicator, Belarus is among the most advanced nations. This is our main asset, when a woman gives birth and is fully confident that the child will be healthy.

Infant mortality in Belarus is almost at a zero level. Israelis go to Belarusian doctors for pediatric surgery and patients from all over the CIS appreciate local medical tourism.

Five-year Nikita now feels he is immortal after what he had to experience. Neither Russian nor German specialists could cope with the esophageal burn. But after meeting with Belarusian doctors smiles returned to the faces of the mother and son from the Komi Republic.

Anna Klokova, mother of the patient of the Republican Scientific and Practical Center of Pediatric Surgery:
Here doctors used stents and we now count on a positive outcome. We came here for exactly this procedure. In Russia, we were offered only plastic esophageal replacement. We're not ready for this. Still, this is your own body part and we are trying to fight for it.

Every year, the Centre of Pediatric Surgery services 1,000-1,200 little patients. The Centre deals only with severe cases.

Konstantin Drozdovsky, director of the Republican Scientific and Practical Center of Pediatric Surgery:
If a child is still in the womb and is diagnosed with some illness, we make sure that he or she is born near large health centers such as ours and immediately falls into the hands of specialists.

Belarus is also among the world leaders when it comes to the availability of medical services and modern equipment.

Belarus is narrowing the so-called demographic scissors. For the first time in the history of Belarus' independence, the birth rate prevails over the death rate. This is a great achievement of domestic medicine.  Belarusian surgeons now have not only conventional scalpels but also ultrasound, electrical and even laser ones.

The President also touched upon district hospitals and health centers. It is necessary to solve the problem of queues. Especially when it comes to children’s doctors. After all, taking care of mothers and children is a priority of Belarus' social policy. As a result, almost 56% of babies become every second or subsequent child in the family.

Alexander Lukashenko:
Families with many children, however, say after giving birth to three or four kids: 'This is Lukashenko's children so let him bring them up!' No, my dear, I am ready to lend a shoulder. Third and fourth are really my children and I need to help them, as well as the first and the second children. I do not refuse from them. But it is first of all the family who needs to take care about kids.

From family to cultural values, but not only in the narrow aspect of art. The President voiced support for culture as a whole.

Alexander Lukashenko:
Culture in the broadest sense should play a more active role in rallying people around creative purposes, high moral principles and our good traditions. This should be a continuous process of forming the deep hard-working, educated, spiritually rich and healthy nation. While focus will be on the artistic and creative sector of culture, a lot of attention and more attention should be paid to other areas too: production and farming culture, way of life and human relations, development of towns and villages, careful preservation of historical heritage.

The Belarus President switches to international problems.

Alexander Lukashenko:
In the current environment, our country can and should play a more active and important role in world politics. And we are not that eager to assume this role, as some world powers require (some ask us when it comes to some issues). You saw all these meetings at my level. Today, Belarus is a security support in the region. It does not have any conflicts based on religion or on ethnic grounds. We have never created and do not create troubles for our neighbors. We will never do it.

Belarus is protecting itself not only from the fire of military conflicts. Belarus' special services have a task not to let even the smell of smoke of extremism into the country.

Alexander Lukashenko:
The "fifth column" and various so-called opposition activists have started to accuse us that Belarus is exploiting the topic of security, especially in connection with Ukraine. I often wonder how they can say this. They first of all need to think and then write. If bombs are falling from the sky and people are fighting against each other with rifles and throw grenades into windows, what kind of life are we talking about? What kind of demographic scissors? Who will give birth to kids? What salary are we talking about? Will you be able to buy anything for it? So we need to always emphasize that security is the greatest value. Everything else can be found and bought. It is of secondary importance. This cannot be compared with security and peace on this piece of land.

All the legislative measures were adopted in Belarus: a new military doctrine approved and the law against extremism amended. The Minister of the Interior is trying to gain more support from general public.

Igor Shunevich, Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus:
Remember Uncle Styopa (fair and polite policeman in a Soviet cartoon)? Of course, this topic is banal. But why did people always love him? Because he was the first assistant to the person. If people start to say ‘this is our police', then we will know our mission is over, we did our job.

Attending the speech at the Oval Hall were not only domestic officials but also diplomats. Belarus is gaining new heights in the international arena. The Belarusian ship is not drifting between East and West, top officials reiterate. And despite being invited to the largest yachts in the world by foreign counterparts President Lukashenko remains true to his course.

Alexander Lukashenko:
It's disgusting to hear from some Russian mouthpieces that we are almost making a U-turn somewhere or that a mild Belarusization has begun. I do not know where we can turn around. We were and are brothers. And it is not Lukashenko or the Belarus Parliament who should determine it. This was predetermined historically.

Belarus and Russia remain neighbors but still in different apartments.

Alexander Lukashenko:
We will not be errand boys. We are an independent, sovereign state, living with you in the same house, but having our own apartment. This is a small apartment but it is ours. By the way, these are the words of the current president of Russia. And the president of Russia is ready to build relations on this. Why do some mouthpieces, including pro-government ones, resort to some slander against Belarus? It is necessary to finish it. It does not lead to good; moreover this is lies.

Belarus is not in a hurry “to share the same house” with WTO countries. On the one hand, Belarus is an open economy since the country exports two-thirds of what it produces. On the other hand, will Belarus survive the influx of import? It is necessary to think over the terms.

Alexander Lukashenko:
In general, when we enter into any organization, we should keep in mind that we have companies we must protect. But the negotiation process is made of compromises. We give up something and they do the same. And if we see that we do not lose anything substantial, then we will go for it. If not, then we don't need to go there.

Valery Borodenya, MP of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus:
We must examine first of all the experience of our neighbors. It has both positive and negative examples, when countries did not get anything positive in general. There was a sharp drop in GDP and a sharp increase in competition. I believe there is both destructive and creative competition.

From world politics to personal problems. After the speech, the President answered 15 questions of the MPs.

Belarus always has a special respect for people in uniform, even if these are heroes of the last local war. The housing problem of Afghanistan War soldiers was raised in the Oval Hall. Several tens of people need housing. The President gave an order to find a way to help these people.

Nikolai Cherginets is one of the most famous Afghan War soldiers in Belarus. He created a museum and tries not to forget comrades. Therefore, he called the decision of the President courageous.

Nikolai Cherginets, chairman of the Union of Writers of Belarus:
We are different from many countries where Afghans still live because the President himself returns to their problems from time to time.

Being a writer, Mr Cherginets also reacted to the remark of the President about journalists. According to the President, wordsmiths' smithies have become "cooler".

Nikolai Cherginets, chairman of the Union of Writers of Belarus:
Media chiefs need to think on this remark. They need to decide how to make our press better.

Linguists say Winston Churchill has created about 100 well-known sayings. The 2016 State of the Nation Address by Alexander Lukashenko to the Belarusian people and the parliament was memorable thanks to several tens of quotations. The wittiest of them are on the lips of workers, top managers and of course on all news websites in Belarus. Now the speech of the Belarusian President is being discussed in transport and social networks.

Belarus President's State of the Nation Address 2016