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The Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs defends the country's actions on protests

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By Anelise Borges
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The Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs defends the country's actions on protests
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On August the 9th 2020, Belarus was thrust into the international spotlight after the Presidential elections triggered mass protests. President Aleksander Lukashenko was re-elected for a sixth term despite uproar and opposition leaders disputing the results. The continued protests have met with often violent crackdowns and resulted in the arrest of thousands, including journalists. Many members of the opposition have gone into exile.

For the first time since the crisis began, an official from Aleksander Lukashenko's administration has agreed to talk to Euronews. Vladimir Makei, Belarus' Minister of foreign affairs, gave us his perspective on the protests, democracy in Belarus, relations with Russia and what his administration wants moving forward.

To watch the full interview, click on the media player above.

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

Vladimir Makei, Minister of foreign affairs for Belarus:

"You know, the whole problem is that you and I have different views on what happened in 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 to maintain the independence of statehood and sovereignty. That's exactly what the Belarusian authorities did".

Have you chosen sovereignty over your own people? Some 30 000 people have been detained since the start of this crisis. Hundreds remain behind bars today. The UN has called for the immediate release of all political prisoners in your country and yet people continue taking to the streets, albeit in smaller numbers. This opposition movement is not going to go away is it? What is your plan out of this crisis?

Vladimir Makei, Minister of foreign affairs for Belarus:

"Today, the situation in Belarus is absolutely normal. It has stabilised 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 don't 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. Do you think this is all politically motivated or is it clearly related to violations of specific legislation of the Republic of Belarus, such as attacks on police officers and threatening family members of civil servants and law enforcement officers, including children? All this is subject to criminal punishment in our country as well. 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 on trial and will be punished in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Belarus".

Are you saying that **Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, the two journalists sentenced to two years in prison for doing their job, 17-year-old Mikita Zalatarou, Maryia Kalesnikava, Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard Babaryka, 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, Minister of foreign affairs for Belarus:

"I don't represent judicial power or 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 Zinchenko, Mr Avtukhovich and Mr Olinevich are detained for specific acts of terrorism, a coup d'état. About that, 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 the Russian special forces uncovered a plot against the Belarusian authorities including a plan to assassinate the Head of State, the removal of 30 members of the government, internment and their subsequent killing. Why is the western public opinion and the media in Europe not talking about that?"

The United States, the UK and the European Union have said that last year’s Presidential elections in your country were neither free nor fair and many western powers today don’t recognise Alexander Lukashenko as the legitimate President of Belarus. What are relations like between Belarus and some of these Western Powers today?

Vladimir Makei, Minister of foreign affairs for Belarus:

"Yes, unfortunately, at this stage, I have to admit that our relations with the European Union, with the west in general, are in crisis. Though we have always regarded and still regard 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 have achieved much more than in the 15 years with sanctions against the Belarus regime. Everybody recognises this. In trade and economics, in humanitarian and human rights spheres, etc. Today what we have is, even well-known human rights organisations, like Freedom House, which is not sympathetic to Belarus, it stated on April 28th, 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".

The Belarus of Alexander Lukashenko still has friends though or should we say an important friend, Russia. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, hosted Alexander Lukashenko last week. Can you tell us more about the content of the meeting between the two leaders? More importantly, perhaps, is Russia your last resort when it comes to sticking to power?

Vladimir Makei, Minister of foreign affairs for Belarus:

"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 of human contact and history. This is also very important and we have achieved, within the framework of the Union State, to provide 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, prices for hydrocarbons and so on and so forth. And of course, given that it is beneficial to 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 area".

What is your plan going forward in terms of restoring the trust of your people? Do you have a message today to the people of Belarus?

Vladimir Makei, Minister of foreign affairs for Belarus:

"If you follow the events in Belarus closely, then you know that this message has been long delivered to the public. 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 1st, 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 dialogue which is based, not on attempts to make a revolution or to seize power through the streets with demonstrations, but based on the country's legal framework, we can succeed. Only through this kind of dialogue can we succeed and have 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".