Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko took part in a Belarusian-Austrian business forum in Vienna on 12 November. Apart from important business matters the head of state spoke candidly about a number of topical world problems and geopolitical issues.
Aleksandr Lukashenko stated: “I think meetings in this format have been long overdue. The private sector of our countries expects clear political signals (count it as a signal if necessary) demonstrating the readiness of Minsk and Vienna to make the bilateral relations long-term ones. The purpose of my official visit to the capital of Austria is to confirm Minsk’s interest in building solid ties not only with European politicians but with the private sector as well.”
Despite the seriousness of the event participants of the forum began the conversation with a joke. President of the National Council of Austria Wolfgang Sobotka had to address the audience away from the speaker’s stand because it would be physically difficult for him to do otherwise due to a recent knee surgery. However, he said he was confident he would get better soon and will even be able to overtake the Belarusian head of state over a distance of 100 meters.
In turn, Aleksandr Lukashenko said it was a bold statement. “I can give away the garland of victory for 100 meters but don’t risk it in a 10km run,” he said jokingly.
Later on the head of state started talking seriously. He remarked proposals had been made to send members of the government to the business forum instead of his coming here personally. However, he decided to come in person particularly taking into account expectations of the business circles. “I couldn’t stay away. Today as I was sitting here looking at the audience, I told myself: well done for coming here!” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.
Aleksandr Lukashenko stressed that sending some sort of signal to the business community was not the idea. “First of all, I wanted to demonstrate my respect for you. If someone wants to receive some signal on top of that, I don’t mind. Consider yourselves getting the signal right now,” the head of state said.
The president stressed that Belarus and Austria have a huge untapped potential. He described the bilateral trade in the vicinity of $200 million as nothing but a shameful fact. “It is shameful to simply mention these figures,” the Belarusian leader believes.
“Imagine the potentials of the two countries. Huge logistics routes cross our countries and immense financial and material resources flow across them. Talking about $200 million in this situation is a shame. We should get rid of it fast,” Aleksandr Lukashenko stated.
Aleksandr Lukashenko told representatives of the private sector plainly: “If you come to us with investments, if you work and treat Belarusians like you treat Austrians, you will always be my kind of people, my citizens to me and I will support you by all means. I’ve said it absolutely sincerely.”
The president explained he had seen all kinds of businessmen. Some come to make a killing, other ones are after the small prey in a bid to make money. And yet other ones are intent on benefiting the country where they work in addition to making money. “We are going to work fast and well with the third kind. We are going to support you,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.
He added that if some project needs personal support, this practice is available in Belarus. “Many reporters and politicians have reproached me for authoritarianism and dictatorship in Belarus… I advised them right away to ask their businessmen whether they are satisfied with this kind of dictatorship in Belarus. If they are satisfied, I will take my cues from them!” the president said.
“It is not a good idea to waste time on idle talk about some kind of democracy. Frankly speaking, today I’ve told politicians in Austria (not only Austria but everyone in the West who tries to criticize me): watch out, you may have to come and learn democracy from Belarus later on. Because we see what processes are going on,” the head of state said.Aleksandr Lukashenko referred to the problem of illegal migration as an example. “It is very difficult to fight it in the age of globalism. Make sure that your democracy does not bury you. I don’t want it to happen. I am saying it as your friend. Before criticizing someone you have to get to know the situation unfolding in a specific country,” the Belarusian leader stressed.
Aleksandr Lukashenko remarked that if they had not installed a power vertical and had not united the nation in Belarus more than 20 years ago, the country would not exist today.
Aleksandr Lukashenko stressed the readiness to build transparent and mutually beneficial relations with foreign companies. “You don’t have to bring suitcases full of money as bribes. It is the most important thing. If you do that, you will never be welcome in Belarus. To be precise, you will be welcome to serve time in prison. This is why I warn you: we will not tolerate any bribery and corruption. Come honestly, openly, and transparently,” the head of state said.
Aleksandr Lukashenko assured that Belarus will follow the agreements that have been reached to the letter: “If we come to an agreement, we will always honor our commitments even if it turns out doing so is detrimental to our country. A deal is a deal!”
“These are the key principles we will follow while working with you. Come and let’s work together. Come into the safe country of Belarus where there are highly qualified people, where responsible people who have had their fair share of suffering over the course of history and know how to appreciate the money they earn,” Aleksandr Lukashenko stressed.
The head of state noted that reporters are prone to using old cliches and have started dropping hints that Belarus will not be allowed to join the Council of Europe if it fails to do something to fix human rights or abolish capital punishment. “Calm down. We do not seek membership in the Council of Europe. If we become a member, we will be grateful. If we don’t, we can wait. Don’t you make conditions for us. We act bearing in mind the situation unfolding in our country,” the Belarusian leader stated.
“Come and take a look around. Get to the bottom of things. Maybe you will come to understand us and support us in the end. If you don’t, if you see something is wrong, tell us about it. We are capable people. We can learn. We will hear you,” Aleksandr Lukashenko assured.
Aleksandr Lukashenko believes that the meeting with representatives of the private sector will be a good incentive for expanding horizons of business activity between Belarus and Austria. He stated that the two countries have a lot in common and have a good foundation for advancing cooperation in various spheres.
The head of state noted that the Belarusian economy and the Austrian one develop progressively. “Each of us has achieved a lot in building an independent state. Now is the time to pool efforts and reap greater economic profits from working together. Only by acting together while complementing and supporting each other, we will be able and should be able to reach new heights,” the Belarusian leader is convinced.
Aleksandr Lukashenko noted it is a problem when medium-sized and small countries like Belarus and Austria cannot get together and come up with their own agenda to make large countries reckon with them. “We are just being divided and conquered. There is no unity. Parliamentarians should get to work. It would benefit the entire planet.”
Aleksandr Lukashenko stated there are all reasons to talk about a brand new context and content of Belarus’ interaction with the European Union. Preparations for signing a visa facilitation agreement are over. Respected financial institutions – the European Investment Bank and the EBRD – work in Belarus.
Belarus is working on joining the WTO. “Although we are in no big rush. Because, frankly speaking, after all the statements by Mister Trump I don’t know what will happen to the WTO. In fact, it does not exist anymore. Many large countries have acknowledged that. But we are working [on WTO accession]. It may come in handy down the road,” Aleksandr Lukashenko noted.
Aleksandr Lukashenko stressed that in fact Belarus follows WTO rules since the country’s partners in the Eurasian Economic Union are already members of the organization.
“If you need some special provisos in our relations, we can make them fast. If we understand that it is profitable for you and us,” the Belarusian head of state assured the Austrian businessmen.
Aleksandr Lukashenko said he sees positive dynamics and a high degree of trust in the political dialogue between Minsk and Vienna. He attributed it to the European Union changing its approaches to Belarus. “At the same time I should note that even in the most difficult times Minsk never considered the possibility of using reciprocal restrictive measures against Austrian citizens and commercial entities and those of the European Union as a whole. We could have made things bad for you,” the head of state noted.
Aleksandr Lukashenko mentioned massive transit freight traffic moving via Belarus as an example: “All of it goes through Belarus. And yet you have never been able to blame Belarusians for some disorders with regard to freight transportation.”
“This is dictatorship for you. Order, discipline, and utmost responsibility before partners are Belarusian brands. We treasure them. Because we are a transit country. And we don’t do it out of the goodness of our hearts. We are pragmatic like that. We benefit from it,” Aleksandr Lukashenko stressed.
Aleksandr Lukashenko went on saying that reliable and well-reputed institutional mechanisms to support economic relations have been created and the necessary legal base has been formed over the years of cooperation with Austria.
Aleksandr Lukashenko noted that active work to improve framework conditions for doing business bears fruit. “Belarus has recently adopted a number of strategic documents, which gave a serious impulse to the development of entrepreneurship and stimulated an unprecedented upsurge in the sphere of services,” Aleksandr Lukashenko pointed out.
A noticeable increase in Belarus-Austria trade was the result of joint efforts. In the last two years Belarus-Austria trade increased by nearly 20% while trade in services was doubled. Positive dynamics has continued this year. Austria remains one of the leading investors in the Belarusian economy. Investment projects worth a total of about $1 billion are in the pipeline.
“We are ready to do everything necessary to make the volume of real trade reflect this figure,” Aleksandr Lukashenko stated. He stressed that the necessary decisions will be made promptly and effectively.
According to the president, the future of Belarusian-Austrian economic relations belongs to manufacturing cooperation and the development of the sphere of services in the areas Belarus and Austria have traditionally been strong in such as petrochemical industry, food industry, woodworking, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, transportation, logistics, and information technologies.
Aleksandr Lukashenko mentioned he believes the digitization process is becoming a thing of the past while people are captivated by the opportunities artificial intelligence offers. Aleksandr Lukashenko had an opportunity to familiarize himself with these matters during a recent visit to the UAE. He noted that that country invests heavily in AI and has gathered the best scientists.
“I went to see one such lab and I understood we puff out our chests in vain. What digitization are you talking about? Artificial intelligence is the way to go! They already offer their services to us. I think they could reveal a lot to you, too,” Aleksandr Lukashenko believes.
At the same time, he was alarmed by the fact that the AI developers do not know where their efforts may lead in the future.
Using the sphere of high technologies as an example, Aleksandr Lukashenko remarked that business operations are no longer limited by borders. “This is why let’s expand the limits of our countries. Let’s work in Belarus the way they do in Austria and vice versa. Let’s understand that it is our common home, particularly Europe, and that there will be no other. Let’s stay united. I am talking to you, Europeans,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.
Aleksandr Lukashenko remarked he is an ardent proponent of the united European Union without Brexit because the European Union is one of the pillars of geopolitics. “If you take away this pillar, I am afraid the system will not stay stable. This is why I am in favor of your unity,” the Belarusian leader said.
Aleksandr Lukashenko said he believes the European Union should not have so much red tape the way it does now. Decision-making takes a lot of time at times. Countries sometimes follow the lead of one or several countries without trying to get to the bottom of things. “Your surrender without an effort. Don’t. You have to get to the bottom of the situation. Things around us are not that simple. Ukraine is a case in point. If you think Ukraine is far away, you are mistaken. It is in our home and we should keep it in order,” the head of state stressed.
“As a national trait Belarusians are prone to weighing things up to make any decisions. But once we strike a deal with a partner, we scrupulously honor our commitments. Let me assure you: if Austrians take a serious interest in Belarus, they will never be disenchanted,” the president concluded.