The Baltic Course  

Lukashenko: Everything will be fine in Belarus

Olga Pavuk

On September 17, 2002, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko for nearly three hours answered questions by foreign and Belarus journalists during a live television broadcast. Contrary to expectations by certain mass media, which predicted a pre-staged show, the President delivered on his promise to answer all questions. At this news conference the Baltic states were represented by the BC and the Lithuanian Radio.

Photo: Preses Nams archives

Over 100 reporters gathered at the Republic Palace in Minsk and their questions were interspersed with comments by Belarus citizens from the official presidential website and direct TV link to the city of Lutsk. Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko is, no doubt, a charismatic personality. And it is always interesting to listen to him, especially in person. Many questions were asked. We picked the best topics and grouped them as follows.


On a Union with Russia

Russian TV company ORT is concerned about the prospects of building a union with Russia, the issue arising recently in view of numerous unpleasant comments exchanged between both Russian and Belarus politicians.

Alexander Lukashenko:  The Union’s ideas and the Union itself cannot die. As our classic used to say, the process has been started, let off and started up. And to my pleasure, and I should think yours too, this process is impossible to be stopped…         

What will come out of it and what will be done? I will repeat myself. The Constitution of our would-be Union, elections, referendum on the Constitution, Belarus-Russian Union parliamentary elections on the grounds of this Constitution and formation of government and governing agencies. That’s the path we will take. It was outlined under the Treaty.

ITAR-TASS news agency asked for the Belarus evaluation of benefits from getting Russian energy transmission rates at the same levels as apply to the Russian domestic market and also from the introduction of Russia's common railway tariffs.          

A.L.: Since we are building a single whole union, based on common economic and customs policies, you should agree that economic subjects must have equal conditions in Russia as well as in Belarus… Meaning, if it’s a railway, we in Belarus will offer Russian cargo carriers the same rates as Russia has determined for our forwarders at home. It should not be presented in the light of Russia having tossed us some charity

The same refers also to gas. Russian mass media claims that Gazprom is selling us gas at the same prices as in the Russian Federation. Firstly, this started only at the beginning of summer 2002. Secondly, when they speak about us getting energy resources, this energy resource is just gas, because everything else goes at world prices. Nobody cares to mention that transit of the same Russian gas and other cargo through Belarus is four times cheaper than transit through Ukraine and eight times cheaper than it would cost to carry them via Poland… 

Therefore don’t think that the Russian state, the Russian government is sponsoring Belarus… According to reliable figures from Western sources, Belarus could get extra revenues of between 800 million to 1 billion US dollars in world prices from gas and oil product transit via its territory…

Pravda newspaper asked Lukashenko to comment on the problem of incompatibility between the Belarus and Russian economies.  

A.L.: It’s total nonsense to say that our economies are incompatible. I can expand on your question. They say: economies are different because “with us everything is privately-owned already but you still have state ownership.”  In France, I think, the state sector takes up 60 percent of national economy. Well then, let us assume that half is state-owned and the other half private… [In France the state-owned sector is about 17 percent – ed.] 

Schpringer foreign information agency claimed that the latest public opinion polls in Belarus showed a minority of the population supporting Union with Russia.

A.L.: I assure you this information is absolutely wrong. You paid the wrong person to conduct these polls for you. It is not true. At least until this whole polemic, 80 percent of Belarussians were in favor of the Union with Russia. A Union which would be based on equal rights. I do not think that now their numbers have dropped anywhere below 70-75 percent. But Belarus people also made it very clear that we are not going to join Russia under the status of a mere province, that we do not want our country to be sliced up and incorporated into Russia, that the Union can only exist on basis of equal rights.

On economy

The Baltic Course asked a question about investments in the Belarus economy.

A.L.: That's the right kind of question. Let’s be frank, the main investments in the Belarus economy come first of all from businesses themselves. Mainly, these are depreciation charges and profit taxes. And this is a lot of money – about two billion US dollars annually. Secondly, there are budget investments: tax exemptions, lending, financing, etc. And, thirdly, about 400 million USD in foreign investments. Every year we invest in our economy some 3 billion US dollars from all kinds of sources. If Latvia has any available funds, we are ready to accept them.   

RIA-Novosti inquired into the possible cross- investment of Russian and Belarus capital.

A.L.:  We are being accused for slowly giving in to Gazprom and not wanting to sell-off our networks… But nobody has agreed to this. We did agree that we would sell-off Beltransgaz as civilized people and, putting shares up for sale. Who can guarantee today that Gazprom will win the tender? Or will it be Ruhrgas? Or maybe the Americans pay us more for these transport arteries? It’s an economic matter. And Russia is a market-commercial country. You can call it that. Then out of the blue: give it to Gazprom. Nobody has promised to give anything to anybody. First we establish a joint stock company, then an open tender and we will see who buys it.  They say we demand 10 billion for it. We have never mentioned the price yet… We are still working on estimates of how much that would cost. And, believe me, we have many people good at calculations. We will set the initial price. If you have money, buy it. If you don’t, no need to cry. Without money, you have no business with us. We need money, everybody says that – for investments, etc. But if all offers are equal, we are ready to give preference to Gazprom. Why? Because these pipelines are carrying Gazprom gas. And today we – with pleasure, luck or regret – receive gas from Russia through these pipelines. But this will apply only if all offers are equal. Therefore do not push us, pressure us, demanding that we should give it to you. There’s nothing in Belarus we will just give away like that.

Let’s move on. The reorganization of other companies is under way with joint stock companies being established. We did calculations with foreign auditors: this is the price of this business, bring your money, pay it, take your shares. Openly, transparently, for everybody to see. They say it’s expensive. Well, I cannot agree to sell cheaper. If I sold cheap like many say I should, that would mean my political death. I will not be finished off in the Kremlin. My political death lies not over there, but right here. If I acted by the principles of our neighbors: peddling cheap – then I would meet my political death. But this isn’t about any political death. We, the people of Belarus, are not rich enough to hand out our assets for free.

…They say Lukashenko does not want the privatization of Naftan, for example. When a major Russian businessman recently told me straightly: Alexander Grigoryevich, if you cannot sell at this price, you should lower the price -- it’s a civilized principle after all; I answered: yes, the price should be cut. Then why won’t you? Why aren’t you interested? he asked. I said to him: “Do you want the truth? In two years we will complete the upgrading of the entire Naftan oil company in Novopolotsk all by ourselves with participation of Austrian capital (we took loans from the Austrians, just a little – about 60 million, and they offered us more). We will fully meet European standards in production of everything made at Naftan. In two years we will complete upgrading of the Mozyrsky refinery together with Slavneft. Tell me, why should I rush to sell it all for a song? In two years or maybe a year-and-a-half I will have top-level, world-standard, European-style refineries able to compete with all these facilities in the region and with an oil refinery depth of 80-85 percent, like at all the best refineries. At present it is 50-55 percent with us. That’s the point. Why should I be blamed for this? It’s simply that there’s so much pressure. I have asked Russian oil tycoons and others: don’t pressure me. There’s no use. Let’s sit down and negotiate. No, they have to pay somebody to “squeeze” me and think they will get something from me that way. It’s useless, hopeless. If this were my property, I could start hustling and look for a way out. But I do not own it.    

Italian newspaper La Repubblica is concerned that many Belarus people have to travel to neighboring countries – whether Lithuania or Poland --- to buy good-quality and inexpensive food. This is also common practice by diplomats accredited in Minsk. The newspaper thinks this indicates that Belarus has chosen an incorrect economic model.

A.L.:  We have been through everything in this economic model. When tons of bread, our own goods, our food were taken out of Belarus to the Russian Federation, to Ukraine. This is not about us having worse bread than in Russia therefore our people go to Russia to buy it. This is about price. We fought hard and long to stop the export of all the goods from our country. Prices had to be raised to unbelievable heights to level them out with neighboring regions in Russia and Ukraine, with prices in these countries in general. We did this in four or five years, I think. It was an extremely difficult journey. It may indeed be true that in recent months our prices have increased a little on bread, gasoline, etc. This is bad, of course. It reflects as yet the unequal economic conditions in our countries or some things we may actually be doing inefficiently. Evidently, you are right on this and the reason lies in our economy.   

As to our diplomats or diplomats accredited in our country going to their homeland and eating bread there. What kind of a diplomat would he be to forget the taste and aroma of his native bread? They must eat it not to forget… If you happen to come to Belarus frequently, you probably are not exactly starving here. We have things to eat, things to drink, things to nibble with your drink, set for all tastes. Whatever my attitude to people who drink … well, they drink no less than the Russians.

Relations with the West

REUTERS news agency: After problems that have emerged in relations with Russia, shouldn't you improve relations with the West?  

A.L.: You know, even if we did not have, as you said, problems in relations with the Russian Federation, we should improve relations with all countries any way. In fact this is a process of dialectic nature or progressive nature and a philosophical matter. One always has to improve relations not only with one’s neighbors but also with all the world's countries, especially with Western countries. You meant Western Europe. Of course, we live in Europe. And where we live was determined by God’s will. We live in Europe, in a common home and we must have good relations, good neighbor relations.  

I do not think that the West is not interested in establishing warm and good relations with the Belarus Republic. I will mention just one example. Recently the problem No.1 in the West, as I learned from your information about public opinion polls, is extreme wariness of illegal immigration from Africa and Asia. These people flow in also through Belarus. The West knows what efforts we make to obstruct this flow and what it is costing Belarus. This is one example for you about the West being interested in cooperation.

I think the West is interested in cooperation with us not only economically, but also in security. Let me assure you, we are just as interested in cooperation with the West regardless of what will become of our relations with the East, South-East, Middle East or African countries... The West is one of our priorities, one of the directions in our multi-vectoral foreign policy. Therefore, I assure you, our relations with the West are improving fast. This has also been confirmed by certain signals we received from the West.  

Lithuanian Radio is worried about Lithuanian-Belarus relations growing problematic both from the economic and geopolitical perspective and  recalled an ongoing customs war waged against Lithuanian truckers by Belarus Customs, making the notorious Uskhopchik, seen in Lithuania as the Vilnius butcher of the January 13, 1991 attempted Soviet coup, the Belarus vice-minister for defense, and a number of military exercises in recent years varying in scale organized in the north-western direction.

A.L.: I can definitely reassure you. Let’s start from the last. If you stopped for good any exercises with participation of NATO troops in your south-east direction, please, I guarantee it that we will never have any training in the north-west direction… These exercises were not aimed against Lithuania. It is a republic friendly to us. God forbid we should have some kind of conflict with Lithuania. This will never happen. We have closely knit economies. We use your country to deliver almost all our potassium salt and fertilizers to the world market… As to your second example of tension concerning truckers on the borders. Frankly speaking, this is a new problem to me. I will definitely get things sorted out. Now on to your third question -- about Uskhopchik. I promise you this general will never become any butcher of the Lithuanian people. Today he’s a good general, his service in our army is excellent… You know, in your country and neighboring states our Soviet people are standing trial and some of them are even in jail. We also do not like this. But we take it with patience. Therefore would you please be so kind as to have patience for this man, too. He will be the deputy defense minister and I’m not going to remove him from the post because he is a strong general loyal to our country, a Russian general and I cannot offend him. But I guarantee to you he has no ambitions against Lithuania and never will. I think I have calmed down you and your radio listeners.

… and with the Middle East 

Deutsche Radio inquired about Belarus relations with Iraq.

A.L.: We have normal relations not only with Iraq but with all countries of that region, with all countries in the Persian Gulf. We have very good relations with Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and slightly worse with Iraq due to certain circumstances, the isolation of Iraq. We build relations with Iraq exclusively within limits permissible under the effective UN regulations… It’s mostly “oil for food.” It is very, very difficult for us to carry out these programs. Therefore the trade relations we have with Iraq now are minor, although we have nearly 300 million US dollars worth in contracts about our products authorized by the UN and ready for delivery and of interest to Iraq. But we do not have authorization of the UN committee that approves these contracts…. Therefore, we have good trade and economic ties with this country. But we would like them to be better, like with France or Italy, for example. Major companies from these countries have been working over there for a long time. We know this very well.

Political forecast 

Magazine Der Spiegel asked Luzhkov to comment on a telephone conversation between the Russian State Duma member Boris Nemtsov and one of the Belarus opposition representatives, discussing a future attempt to overthrow the President of Belarus with help from the Russian Federation's Presidential Administration, that was recently published in the newspaper Zavtra.   

A.L.: That wouldn't work. Neither in the administration of the Russian president, like you said, nor in any other administrations whatsoever. They have been trying to overthrow me for eight years already. As you see, I’m still alive, in good health and talking to you as the President. I have seen it more than once in my life. These maniacal plans cannot be pulled off. The Belarus people elect their leaders themselves and will continue to do so in future. Therefore don’t you worry. They were just two sick people talking to each other. That’s how I see it.     

Interfax news agency asked the president to make a political forecast for Belarus for the coming years.  

A.L.: Everything will be fine in Belarus. I told you that the Russian people, mass media representatives from Russia and abroad will feel at home here, even better. We will respect them, accept them. And even treat them with patience as we have been doing so lately. But they must know that everything has its limits and that each country must show respect to other countries.  

Like we say in Belarus, above all let there be no war. This a saying with Russians and Belarussians. It should be interpreted broadly. The key thing is to have the opportunity to live and work. This is the main objective of the state power and we will achieve it.

Voice of the people

How does the state fight against distortion of accounting figures, especially in manufacturing companies on the verge of bankruptcy?

A.L.: What kind of accountancy distortions are possible in companies on the verge of bankruptcy. That’s first. Secondly, the U.S. President George Bush recently helped me a lot in this respect. He started waging war against upward accountancy distortions after major companies went bust in the U.S. and the whole global economy nearly collapsed, in fact collapsed to a certain degree as a result. Therefore today I find it a little easier to fight against accountancy distortions, although earlier my activities to this end were labeled as Soviet anachronism, or whatever, in  critical remarks thrown at me then…Therefore we are currently working on the respective legislative amendments to increase the responsibility of officials over accountancy distortions. This is not a futile issue. You know, in this respect I’m concerned mostly about management. Wrong management decisions are made when there are upward accountancy distortions and false information is submitted, statistics included.

…If a company is collapsing, no upward distortions will help however hard one may try. The company will “sink” in six months or a year and no upward distortions can save it. But those who on top of good have also altered accountancy figures will get what they deserve.