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'The fate of the country was at stake': Belarus admits to 'excessive' force but stands by response

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By Euronews
Vladimir Makei
Vladimir Makei   -   Copyright  Euronews
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"There was an attempt at a coup d'état," says Vladimir Makei. "Therefore, the actions of law enforcement agencies and authorities were absolutely adequate and necessary."

The Belarusian foreign minister defended his government's anti-protest actions in an interview with Euronews on Thursday morning.

Since the fateful election of August 9, 2020, his country has never been out of the headlines. Thousands were arrested during huge protests against Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian rule after an election result that many questioned. Months later, the president still presides and the opposition no closer to bringing about the change they believe the nation desires, but is there an acknowledgement of heavy-handedness? Of ignoring people's human rights?

"Yes, maybe the authorities sometimes acted in an excessive way," Makei conceded. But asserts that "there was an adequate reaction to all the non-peaceful violent protests that took place."

"The fate of the country was at stake," Makei asserted.

The wide-ranging interview spans not just the immediate fallout from Lukashenko's election 'landslide' but also relations with the EU, the involvement of Russia, and how there will be amendments to the constitution this summer.

Here is the Q&A from this exclusive interview:

ANELISE BORGES: The administration you are part of has been accused of “massive and systematic” human rights violations in the wake of contested presidential elections last year. I was in Minsk and I saw the brutal crackdown against protesters who were out in the streets demonstrating against what they believed was a “stolen election”. The UN condemned the response by your government and said “Belarusians should have the right express dissent”. Do you regret the actions of your administration?

VLADIMIR MAKEI: You know the whole problem is that you and I have different views on what happened Belarus last August and, unfortunately today, the mutual accusations have gone so far that there’s no turning back. We see the events of the last year from absolutely different points of view. Yes, maybe the authorities sometimes acted in an excessive way. But that was an adequate reaction to all the non-peaceful,, violent protests that took place in Belarus last year after the presidential elections. In fact, there was an attempt at a coup d'état. Therefore, the actions of law enforcement agencies and authorities were absolutely adequate and necessary. The fate of the country was at stake. And if the choice was the fate of the country or these things you are talking about - including human rights - I am convinced that the government of any country would have chosen maintaining independence of statehood and sovereignty. That's exactly what the Belarusian authorities did.

ANELISE BORGES: But have you chose sovereignty over your own people? Some 30,000 people have been detained since the protests started. Hundreds remain behind bars today. The UN has called for the immediate release of all political prisoners. And yet people continue taking to the streets, albeit in small numbers, this opposition movement is not going away - what is your plan out of this crisis?

VLADIMIR MAKEI: Today, the situation in Belarus is absolutely normal. It has stabilized and normalised and there are no protests that you mention. As to those individuals who were detained in the past, I must assure you that they were detained for specific crimes and rights violations. For example, I think that in European Union countries these crimes of terrorism would be evaluated differently. We had 8 cases of terrorism linked to arson attacks against buildings, car bombings, etc, there have been 10 cases of blockades of railway tracks, and a huge number of road blockades. Is this is all politically motivated? Or rather clearly related to violations of specific legislation of the Republic of Belarus, such as attacks on police officers and the threatening of family members of civil servants and law enforcement officers, including children? All this is subject to criminal punishment in all European countries. We also act in the same way in Belarus. So it's not a question of someone being unreasonably detained. Those who were unjustly detained have been released and are being released. As for the detainees, they are undergoing trial and will be punished in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Belarus.

ANELISE BORGES: So you’re saying that Katsiaryna Adreyeva and Daria Chultosva, the two journalists sentenced to two years in jail for doing their job, 17-year-old Mikita Zalatarou, Viktor Babariko and his son Eduard Babariko, Maria Kalesnikova… Yury Siarhei, Kiryl Kazei, Ivan Tsahalka… the list goes on and on. Are you saying all these people are in jail because they should be there and not for political reasons?

VLADIMIR MAKEI: We don’t represent the investigation committee, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so I can't speak about each specific case. We can send you the relevant information confirming violations of the law by these particular individuals in each particular case. I can cite some names, Mr. Zenkovich, Mr. Autukhovich and Mr. Alinevich are detained for specific acts of terrorism, a coup d'état. About which, by the way, the Western media and public opinion stayed ashamedly silent. It is no secret that just a few days ago the special forces of the Republic of Belarus in cooperation with Russian special forces uncovered a plot against the Belarusian authorities including a plan to assassinate the Head of State, the removal of 37 members of the government and their subsequent killing. Why is The West not talking about it to public opinion? Why is the media in Europe not talking about it?

ANELISE BORGES: The United States, the UK and the European Union have said last year’s presidential vote was neither free nor fair - and many western powers don’t recognize Alexander Lukashenko as president of Belarus anymore. What are your relations like with these nations today?

VLADIMIR MAKEI: Yes, unfortunately, at this stage, I have to admit that our relations with the European Union, with The West in general, are in crisis. Although we have always regarded the European Union as our second trade and economic partner, as a source of technologies and innovations for Belarus. And believe me, in the last five years since the lifting of sanctions against Belarus we had achieved much more than in the 15 years with sanctions against the Belarus regime. Everybody recognizes it. In trade and economics, in humanitarian and human rights spheres, etc. What we have today: even well-known human rights organization Freedom House, which is not sympathetic to Belarus, stated on April 28, that the idea of a more democratic Belarus is now a more distant perspective than before. I absolutely agree with this conclusion. The only question is why it happened? Why Belarus was thrown back and thanks to whom? The question is rhetorical. It is addressed first of all to those advocates of human rights in Europe.

ANELISE BORGES: The Belarus of Aleksander Lukashenka still has friends though, or should I say one important friend… Russia. Aleksander Lukashenka was received by Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week. What can you tell us about the content of the meeting between the two leaders? And perhaps more importantly, is Russia your last resort when it comes to sticking to power?

VLADIMIR MAKEI: It's not about Russia helping the regime stay in power. Not at all. Our relationship with Russia is dictated by our geographical location and our history. Russia is our neighbor. It is a powerful state both economically and militarily and it is a geopolitical player on the world stage and this explains the need to build normal, friendly relations with this power. Moreover, our relations go way back and we are linked by centuries-long history of human contacts. This is also very important and we have achieved, within the framework of the union state, practically equal rights for Belarusian and Russian citizens. As to our relations with Russia, we are interested in strengthening the development of those relations, first of all from a trade and economic point of view. We want to ensure equal rights for economic entities of Belarus and Russia within the framework of the Union State. During the meeting you mentioned, they were talking about further strengthening the Union State, further integration, about the development of industrial cooperation, about equal gas prices for hydrocarbons and so on and so forth. And of course, given that it is beneficial for Belarus, that it strengthens its sovereignty and independence, we intend to further develop the integration processes with our neighboring brother Russia. Moreover, I should tell you unambiguously, that the sanctions the European Union and other Western countries are applying against Belarus only contribute to the further development and strengthening of the integration processes on a bilateral basis and not only on a bilateral basis, but also on a multilateral basis in the whole post-Soviet space.

ANELISE BORGES: Sorry to interrupt, I have one final question. What is you plan going forward in terms of restoring the trust of your people. Do you have a message to the people of Belarus?

VLADIMIR MAKEI: If you follow closely the events in Belarus, then you know that this message has been long delivered to the public opinion in the country. There is an absolutely inclusive, open dialogue which is aimed at the improvement of the constitutional process and at the introduction of amendments to the constitution. Everyone can take part in this process. By August 1, proposals for amendments to the constitution will be prepared. They will then be presented for broad public discussion. Therefore, whoever wants to take part in this dialogue is welcome to. And we believe that only through a dialogue which is based not on attempts to make a revolution or seize power through the streets and demonstrations, but through the country's legal framework, can succeed. Only through this kind of dialogue can we succeed and have a true democracy in the Republic of Belarus, a democracy that is not imposed with sticks. But a democracy that matures in the minds of citizens.

You can watch the full interview with Belarus' foreign minister on Euronews' Global Conversation special on Friday evening.