They call him Europe’s last dictator. With Europe’s increasing dependency on Russian energy forcing a thaw in relations with transit nation Belarus, euronews travelled to Minsk to speak to its president, Alexander Lukashenko.One of the last post-Soviet leaders, Lukashenko has been at the head of Belaurs for nearly 15 years. He talks to euronews about the global financial crisis, trade with his European and Russian neighbours, gas transit and democracy.
euronews: Mr President, welcome to Euronews. My first question focusses on the relations between Europe and Belarus, that have thawed recently. The Czech Republic is hosting an Eastern Partnership summit this spring. Will you travel to Prague?Alexander Lukashenko: Our interest in our relationship with the European Union is beyond doubt. I’ll give you one example: trade with the European Union last year amounted to 22 billion dollars, and that’s not counting the month of December. With Russia, trade amounted to 35 billion dollars. That’s very important but there’s something even more important. You know, what’s emerging now is a whole system of challenges across the globe. And many of Europe’s challenges cannot be handled without Belarus – like drug trafficking, illegal migration, and the transit of energy, which is closely linked to Belarus. Europe is extremely interested in that, which means there is a mutual interest that encourages a normal relationship. As for Prague, I don’t think it really matters who goes to Prague: whether I do or somebody else does. We haven’t given it any thought yet, nor have we received an invitation. But we will have somebody in Prague, we’ll discuss the problems of the Eastern Partnership. It’s a very pragmatic and sensible step, and a timely one on the part of the European Union. euronews: The differences between Belarus and the European Union appear less reconcilable on a range of other matters including freedom of the press, democratic elections, and the opposition. Are you ready to talk with Europe about those issues? Alexander Lukashenko: You know, there is already dialogue on these issues. As for the media, I don’t believe in banning the press. The people are free to read, they know their president. They have had 13 years to make up their mind about their president. We have transparent and accurate laws drafted to meet, and comply with, European standards, countries like France, Germany and England. We didn’t make anything up. And when they criticize us, we show them where the provisions of the Constitution came from. So what’s the point of your criticisms? As for the opposition, Europe takes little interest in our opposition. What is this opposition which has, for more than 20 years, been battling it out in central Europe and failed to put a single person in parliament, even with the support of the authorities? With regards to elections, we conducted the elections in Belarus the way Europe showed us. They came here from the European Union, the OSCE and told us: “You know, there’s something wrong with this, please do it this way”. We told them: “All right, let it be this way”. What sort of country can keep elections going in breach of its own laws?! None. We have breached the law but fitted it into the concepts of the European Union. euronews: Mr President, the financial and economic crisis has affected Belarus too. Has your country been hard hit? Alexander Lukashenko: Not yet. We are an export-oriented country. As for the economy, certainly, the declining demand – from food to machinery – has affected us as well, maybe because we export around 65 percent of our GDP. We are in a group of ten export-oriented European countries. So the drop in demand has affected us as well. But our prices were approximately three times lower than those in Europe and the rest of the world. As for the financial crisis, it shouldn’t have hit us at all. We did not throw our money into Wall Street or any other exchange. But it has affected us a little because of Russia, where people have been queuing up in banks to exchange roubles for dollars and euros. So, we spent part of our national gold and hard currency reserves to support our national currency. We had to devaluate our currency by 20 percent to get IMF credits, among other things. euronews: Media reports have recently argued that the interest of Western Europe in Belarus and vice versa is based on Belarus’ growing role as a gas transit country. Do you fear this role will weaken when “Nord Stream” is launched? Alexander Lukashenko: Today neither northern nor southern streams can replace that flow of energy resources to Europe via Belarus – that’s 30 percent of natural gas and about 75 to 80 percent of crude oil. The bulk of Europe’s oil transits through Belarus. Europe might get an additional 30 billion cubic metres via the “Nord Stream”, but at the same time gas consumption in Europe is growing. Secondly, regarding transit, the most convenient and shortest route is Belarus. Even through Ukraine transit is much more expensive. Not to mention the “Nord Stream”. That is an unprofitable project. But that is up to Russia. Therefore, I think, construction of the Yamal-Europe pipeline needs to be finished. One line has been built. Next to it, a second line should have been built. Moreover, the whole infrastructure was created for that. But it is not transit that makes our country attractive for Europeans. Absolutely not. Lately, many representatives of some of Europe’s largest multinationals have come to Belarus. And, despite the crisis, they are all ready to invest here. euronews: Mr President, around two weeks ago, news agencies quoting Russian officials said Belarus was requesting a 100 billion rouble loan from Russia. There’ve also been reports that Russia could condition that credit with the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko: You know, it is absolutely not true. With respect to Abkhazia and Ossetia, I have repeatedly said that we have our own position on that issue – and we defy any pressure, either from Europe or Russia. We have an elected parliament, it will discuss the issue, a proposition will be tabled within our legislation, and we will solve the issue. But that has never been linked to these credits. During the latest negotiations, we suggested to the Russians that they start taking steps immediately towards turning the Russian rouble into a fully-fledged regional currency. We urged them to give us a loan to ensure that we could, initially, pay for our energy supplies with that money. So we have good relations, and we pride ourselves on the good relations we have with Russia, and that our relations with Europe are developing. And we will fulfill our role as a link – on the bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. euronews: Mr President, thank you very much for the interview.