On 15 January President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko held a press conference for the Belarusian and foreign mass media.
During the five-hour press conference the President answered more than 60 questions regarding economic and social development of Belarus, foreign policy, relations with Russia, the West, other countries and regions. Journalists were also interested in integration processes in the post-Soviet space and participation of Belarus in these processes. Reporters also asked a few personal questions.
The press conference took place in the National Library. Attending the event were over 350 reporters representing 285 media. Among them were about 200 reporters representing 184 regional mass media. Partaking in the event were also representatives of foreign mass media from seven countries.
According to the President, a similar press conference was held just over a year ago. It focused on the future of Belarus, reporters asked various questions, including on pressing issues. “I named conditions under which we can ensure social and economic stability in Belarus, preserve independence of the state. If you remember, I did not promise easy living. However, I did not scare you with gloomy prospects. The year 2012 has passed. Today we cam make conclusions, which of the things came true and which things did not (for whatever reason),” the head of state said.
“Back then I expressed confidence that all in all we would cope with new challenges of the time. Now I can see that this is so. This is a fact. We have posted small but stable economic growth, ensured increase in real incomes of the population,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
“Perhaps not everything that we planned was done. 2012 was a very difficult year. We had to deal with financial problems and address the issues left over from the year 2011. More or less, we coped with this problem. This was our major goal,” the President said.
“Of course, we always want more. But for us, Belarusians, the only one way to achieve more is to work harder. I have already talked about it,” Alexander Lukashenko remarked.
“In general we did better last year then in 2011 and achieved great headway. But the min thing is that we boosted export and posted a record-high trade surplus, despite the fact that the world prices were not to our benefit,” the President said.
The head of state dismissed the speculations about possible resignation of the government.
The President believes that the goals set in the economy are feasible. “ To the person who rebuked me for setting unrealistic targets I can say: I formalize them, approve them. I demand, of course, a certain balance to the economy. I want people’s incomes to increase, I want people to live a normal life, to have decent salaries so that they could provide for their families, ” the head of state said.
Belarus will keep the market-driven exchange rate. “We tried to somehow restrain the Belarusian ruble in the past. You know what it led to. Therefore, the National Bank and the new government were instructed to never artificially restrain the exchange rate because of the consequences,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
“I have always said that we are getting a real market-driven rate of the Belarusian ruble. Therefore, there is no need to rush to currency exchange offices and stand in queues,” President noted.
The head of state stressed that talks about the fall of the Belarusian ruble are far from reality – the “apocalypse” promised to the Belarusian ruble last year and in early 2013 has not happened.
Alexander Lukashenko expressed confidence that Belarus will handle foreign debts. “Yesterday I met with both the Prime Minister and the Chairperson of the Board of the National Bank and we discussed this issue. This year we will have to pay more than $3 billion taking into account interest rates. The Chairperson of the Board of the National Bank reported that we have already set aside $3 billion to pay these debts. We need to find $1 billion for these payments. I think we will find the money,” the President remarked.
“The country will not collapse under the debt burden. It will be easier in the future. We will have to pay a couple of billion dollars per year. We are on the peak of the situation right now. We have calculated everything and we know how to deal with it,” the head of state said.
The press conference also focused on modernization and investments. “When it comes to foreign investments, it is essential to see what kind of investments, who they come from,” the President believes.
“Let us say I was offered $13 billion in investment. They are ready to transfer the money tomorrow! Big sum? Sure. This is the solution to all problems for our state. Then comes the second question: what kind of investment this is? They say they want to buy Belaruskali for this money. And I say to them goodbye right away! Our Belaruskali is worth $30-32 billion. Here is your investment,” the head of state said.
Alexander Lukashenko stressed that the property of the nation will not be sold for a song. “We do not need such investments. I guard the interests of the Belarusian people,” the head of state said.
However, the President added that he expects foreign investors to work honestly in Belarus. “Come here and work. But work like in America, where no one would think of hiding a cent from tax authorities because it can mean a minimum of 25 years in prison. Of course, my attitude would be tough,” the President warned.
“All conditions have been created in Belarus for investing and for the calm, honest, transparent work! Honest people have all guarantees,” the head of state stressed.
As far as Belaruskali is concerned, the President confirmed that the state-owned controlling stake in the company will not be sold. “The price is set, if anybody wants it, go ahead. The controlling stake will belong to the state in any case,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
At the same time the President noted that assets of big companies are not sold during the drop in prices for potash fertilizers in the global market. “We are not going to sell Belaruskali during this phase,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
“As for the overall economy, it is clear that the drop in prices for potash fertilizers will result in the loss of revenues. That happened last year,” the President added.
However, First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko said that today the price for potash fertilizers has stabilized and makes up $400 per one tonne. More than that, the price is expected to increase. In 2013 Belarus is expected to earn more from the sale of potash fertilizers than in 2012.
Belarus attaches national importance to modernization. “The issue is not when we need it or not. This is the issue of life. We have no choice. Competition is growing tougher. Our major export markets are Russia and the European Union, and they are not wasting time. They are richer and stronger. If we fail to upgrade our industry, we will be lagging behind. Therefore, we will not sell our products. They will not be competitive. Therefore, we need to modernize our enterprises. If we want to live nice in the future, we need to continue modernization of agriculture, transport, logistics. We need to create new industry. Practice shows that the market will solve nothing. People are all important,” the President said.
Reporters were also interested in the optimization of staff and functions of government bodies. According to the President, the government bodies’ staff should be cut by no more than a quarter. “We already see it happening – 25%, I think we should stop at it, because further reduction in the staff number might bring about a collapse in civil service. But cutting down the number of civil servants we will increase salaries up to the national average for those who will stay,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
Many questions focused on Belarus’ relations with various countries and regions, including with the West. According to Alexander Lukashenko, the European Union is unwilling to maintain dialogue with Belarus. “If you want to establish relations with us and you see that something is wrong with us, we also see a lot of flaws in you, so why not sit down at the negotiations table and discuss the issues. You do not want to do that. This means that you are not interested in rapprochement,” the head of state said.
“Instead of talking, democratic Europe banned entry for 232 people, including my children. Why so? Ok, my elder son is my aide, but my younger son, Dmitry, has nothing to do with politics at all, he did not take any part in the election. And this child? He knows nothing about politics! Are you crazy? Do you really want a normal dialogue with me, with Belarus,” the head of state asked.
“I can recite even more crazy things you did. You banned entry for judges. Why? Judges make decisions in accordance with the law, and the decisions are based on the provisions of the law. You banned entry for them. This is pressure on justice!” the President said.
Alexander Lukashenko reminded that the pressure extends to economy.
“You demand releasing the so-called political prisoners, rehabilitating them and something else. To be honest, I have not been following these accusations and demands recently. But I would like to ask you a clear-cut question: if a person was involved in a mass riot, if this person was charged in line with the Belarusian law, why do you criticize me? I could understand if you criticized the court, after all, you advocate the separation of power and independent judicial system. Why do you have a problem with me then? Why do you want me to go and release them? Why? Would the chancellor or the president in Germany or in France go and set someone free? They will not even discuss the matter! However, you are dragging me into the issue!” the head of state said.
“You call us undemocratic and so on. What has recently happened in your democratic Northern Ireland? Mass beatings coupled with the use of tear gas. People die. You make no bones about it. You pour water on them in freezing weather without any remorse. We have never used even water cannons. Never ever! You want us to leave a government building unprotected? We have security forces and the law to protect it. What does it have to do with dictatorship? Everything is in compliance with the law. You start demanding impossible things from us,” the head of state said.
Alexander Lukashenko also reminded about the situation in Libya, Egypt and Iraq. “If you are so democratic, if you value human beings, their freedom, their lives, why did you bomb Libya? The French were in the vanguard of the campaign. Why did you destroy Iraq? You did not even apologize to anyone, neither to the public, nor to Iraqi people. What weapons did you find there? What is going on in Afghanistan? Why do you demand something from us while terrorizing countries around the world; your actions bring much more harm than the things you accuse us of,” the President said.
A number of journalists asked about the fate of the so-called political prisoners. According to the President, they may be let out, including early, in accordance with the law.
“They can go out. They do their time and they will go free. You ask me if they can get out early? They can. Read the law, it says everything. You ask me if I can release them, again read the law. It says everything. You know it,” the President said.
As for Irina Khalip, she refused to leave Belarus in spite of the provided opportunity, according to the head of state.
“Khalip refused to go. She understands perfectly well that she is ‘sufferer’ here and no one needs her there just like her husband who left for either England or another country. Who talks about him except you? Even you do not talk about him! The same will happen with Irina,” the head of state believes.
“She is not silly. She is a journalist. She understands well that today she is ‘a victim of the regime’ and tomorrow they will forget about her. Perhaps, that is why she stayed here,” the President said.
“Therefore, I reiterate, if you want to take her somewhere tomorrow go to the Prosecutor General. I have relevant authority. You will take her. But she will not go,” the head of state added.
Alexander Lukashenko remarked that as a Belarusian he does not want to see opposition candidates in any executive positions because they do not fight for the country’s independence. “I want to see people who fight for the independent country. Not with words but deeds,” the President stressed.
If Lukashenko is not good for them they can criticize me but not to the detriment of the Belarusians,” the head of state said. He mentioned examples when actions and statements made by a number of opposition politicians were against the interests of Belarus.
“When we took a loan from the Czech Republic, when we collected less than 5 million tonnes of cereals. The politicians, who are earmarked to be sparring partners for me during the forthcoming presidential election, were running around, shouting: ‘Don’t give it!’ Many remember it. So are they the future leaders of Belarus? They have betrayed the interests of the Belarusian nation,” Alexander Lukashenko said. “It is frightful and dangerous to think that what I have been struggling to preserve for Belarus, creating this country, will go under the hammer. Should I worry about it? I should! Therefore, I evaluate them like that,” he added.
The President was asked about Belarus’ relations with neighboring countries in the West. In particular, the head of state was asked about the introduction of mall border traffic with Poland and Lithuania. “Political and economic problems alike, I am not going to specify them. And the overall policy of Poland towards Belarus. Several things to be addressed, I am not going to specify examples regarding cooperation between special units and special services. An entire bunch. They know about them,” the President said speaking about the Polish side.
Asked when small border traffic may be introduced between Belarus and Poland, Alexander Lukashenko said: “We will make the decisions together with Poland and Lithuania once we come to terms. I don’t know when for now. It is not up to us to decide. There are certain problems, they are worrying, once we get certain guarantees from them and see a friendly policy on their part, we will make these decisions”.
“All the decisions have to be balanced and have to be adopted in one package if you want. We have many questions to ask the Polish side and the Lithuanian one. They may have some questions, too but primarily political ones,” Alexander Lukashenko noted.
Speaking about Lithuania, the President expressed confidence that Lithuania will not choose to break partner relations with Belarus. “Cutting ties with Belarus would be an insane decision,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
“About 30% of Lithuania’s budget is generated by Belarus. As I was informed, in 2015 or even earlier, the European Union will not subsidize Lithuania anymore like it is doing now by giving it two or three billions. Lithuania will face even bigger issues” the head of state remarked.
Alexander lukashenko reminded about the transit of Belarusian cargo through Lithuania: “We transship up to 10 million tonnes of goods in their ports. The ports survive on our products. It is true that we told our Lithuanian partners that we are considering other options, too. As soon as we agree on the ports in Leningrad Oblast and on rates with Ukraine, we will not put all our eggs in one basket”.
Speaking about the forthcoming presidency of Lithuania in the EU, the President noted: “I count on it [Lithuania’s presidency] so far forth as Lithuania is independent in the European Union. The fact that Lithuania will assume presidency does not mean automatically that it will become a top decision-maker there. I do not have high expectations about it in fact”. Alexander Lukashenko reminded that Belarus and Lithuania are neighbors: “One cannot choose neighbors. It was destined and the two countries should live in peace”.
The head of state talked about participation of Belarus in various integration associations, including in the CIS, where Belarus assumed presidency. Alexander Lukashenko hopes Belarus’ initiatives will be supported by other CIS member states.
The motto of Belarus’ presidency is "Integration for the benefit of people: strengthening of good-neighborly relations, developing environmental cooperation, promoting availability of ‘green’ technologies, expanding the dialogue of cultures.”
“We, the CIS member states, are too different to take up any political or serious economic decisions. The free trade zone is a very illustrative example here. That is why we try to put forward the initiatives that will work. I doubt there will be any problems here. Both ecology and green technologies are for everyone’s benefit,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
According to the President, the CIS is the platform for negotiations and harmonization of positions.
Alexander Lukashenko underlined that the Single Economic Space has advanced much more than the CIS. "Let alone the Union State with Russia. The CIS will never come close. Yet, we should not be concerned about it,” he said.
Alexander Lukashenko intends to discuss the possibility of Georgia’s return to the Commonwealth of Independent States in this or that manner with the country’s leadership.
“We have not published it. I have had consultations with a certain number of people about it. Not as a politician but as a human being I was saying that such a move would not contradict any policy of Georgia, if the country returns to the CIS, at least in several steps. It may return as an observer. But it is important for them to be with us and it is important for the president, the prime minister, and the ministers to participate in relevant structures and the common process. It is an area of interests of Georgia,” Alexander Lukashenko noted.
“I have had consultations, I have held negotiations about it with many political figures, rather influential ones. But at present I don’t see any ardent desire on the part of Georgia’s leaders to move in this direction. And you see public statements saying that the idea is not on the agenda and so on,” the President said.
In his words, among other things such reactions testify to the West’s unwillingness to see Georgia return to the Commonwealth of Independent States. “Before speaking about it I thought that it would be kind of a test for Georgia’s leadership. If you don’t want to return to the CIS in some manner, you may be too attached to something in the West”.
“US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped somewhat a while ago. She stated that America and the European Union are dead set against Russia’s strengthening in the post-Soviet space and against unification processes. It is understandable that Georgia will be restrained from doing so. But it is a test for them,” Alexander Lukashenko noted.
“I am not abandoning the idea. I think that in the near future we will be able to talk about it with Georgia’s leader Mikhail Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. The president sent me an invitation to visit Georgia. I think that I will find time to meet them, maybe even in Georgia, in order to talk about it,” the Belarusian head of state said. “If you don’t want, you don’t have to enter any military organizations of ours and so on. But you have to make some steps towards your neighbors”.
“But it doesn’t work with Russia due to some circumstances. But it is possible to use the venue and talk to us and Russia in a human manner. Why does it have to be rejected?” the President wondered.
“Therefore, I am in favor of this process. Everything is up to Georgia. Nothing is up to the CIS, Russia, or us. If Georgia is willing, they will sit together with us to discuss common problems, including problems of Georgia,” Alexander Lukashenko added.
Speaking about the statement made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said she fears tighter Eurasian integration and said the USA was ready to prevent the process, Alexander Lukashenko said: “What is there to comment? She said it today and tomorrow all the officials of the Department of State started furiously denying it was not what she had meant”.
“They may be worried about what is going on here in the post-Soviet space and we are worried about what is going on in Afghanistan, Iraq, along the Arab arc. It is unacceptable for us! We are worried about it, too. Therefore, we understand their worries but we don’t wage wars. We don’t use arms to destroy these countries and nor does Russia that Hillary Clinton tried to reproach in the first place,” the President noted.
Alexander Lukashenko sees nothing wrong with Russia trying to collect all these countries around it in some civilized manner at last.
“They have an area of vital interest! Everywhere around the world is the area of vital interest of the United States of America! Does it worry you? It does. It worries me, too. However, we don’t worry the way they do,” the head of state added. “We build our relations depending on our interests. And we will continue doing so. I know it is the view of all the countries,” Alexander Lukashenko stressed. “We see reference points of the global economy, the world order and we align ourselves for them certainly. But we have our own interests”.
Speaking about the Eurasian integration, the President believes that Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia are not ready for more radical integration steps for now. “Russia may want some faster steps or more radical ones but neither Kazakhstan nor Belarus will go for it off the cuff,” the President said.
He reminded about the idea to introduce a single currency in the Union State of Belarus and Russia. “We had a difficult time counteracting the process. I asked for explanations why we should build a home starting with the roof. And what for? Nobody gave me an answer. It means that if there is no answer, let’s shelve the matter for now. It means it is not the time for it yet. And Russia did not fight with us over it,” the President said.
Speaking about the Union State of Belarus and Russia, Alexander Lukashenko said that the Eurasian integration is yet to go a long way to reach the cooperation level the Belarus-Russia Union State has today. “I can say that the SES, WTO and others are still economically-underdeveloped unions. In our SES we still have to go a long way. Even if we make it by 2015 we will not be able to reach the cooperation level the Union State enjoys today,” the President believes.
Many areas in the Union State such as human rights, military, foreign political cooperation have well-developed systems as in the single state. Alexander Lukashenko stressed that this approach was supported by the Russian President at their last meeting.
“I think that these issues in the SES and the Eurasian Economic Union will be addressed not in our time. That is why the Union State should stay functional,” the President said.
“I am satisfied with the processes that are taking place within the Union State. We should consolidate the positions we have reached. We, or someone after us, will go further, holding these achievements as a basis. I hope more progress will be made in the near future,” Alexander Lukashenko stressed.
One of the reporters mentioned that deliveries of oil products had been discussed rather vigorously recently. Ambassador of Russia to Belarus Alexander Surikov had commented on the matter, too.
Alexander Lukashenko confirmed that agreements in principle for the delivery of Russian oil to Belarus do exist. “If we speak about the view of the Russian ambassador to Belarus, he can be rather exotic in his remarks sometimes,” Alexander Lukashenko said. “I received a report when I was in Moscow and we made arrangements with Putin and the Prime Minister on all the matters. We have obligations to the Russians. They have obligations to us, including oil and natural gas ones. We had considered everything, had reached an agreement and right at that time he started talking about this issue – paint thinners and solvents – in his interview”.
“And one week later the real things emerged. We truly came to terms. Russia needs oil processed, it will be processed at our oil refineries. The more the better I guess. Moreover, we have advanced refineries. The Russians need high-octane petrol, rocket fuel that we make in a quality manner. They are interested in our shipping them to the Russian Federation among other destinations,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
“[First Vice Premier] Vladimir Semashko is present here. He was the one conducting the negotiations. He was telling them directly: if the profitability in Russia is the same as in the West, why do we have to transport it to the West? We can sell it in Russia instead. Agreed? Agreed,” the President said. “Let’s agree on the first quarter with 23 million tonnes in mind to avoid confusion. It is about 2 million tonnes more than last year. And in Q1 2013 we will settle all the issues regarding the deliveries. But, no, the ambassador had to speak his mind,” he added.
“If someone was tracking these matters with attention, he gave an opinion about the remarks made by the ambassador and his competence. There is no need to be fixated on these issues. Sometimes ministries of foreign affairs and ambassadors know too little about what is going on in real relations between countries, particularly at the top level,” Alexander Lukashenko remarked.
Development of trade and economic relations with Latin America, Asia and Africa is one of Belarus’ priorities, according to the head of state.
“We need to be where we are welcome. I have been to Venezuela, Brazil and other countries and have seen that a lot of Belarusian products are immensely popular there. We decided to make Venezuela our springboard to expand ties with other countries of the region, including Ecuador and Cuba, as well as Central America, and America. We expect to increase the trade with the continent up to $5 billion in the short-term perspective. This will help us address our major problem, which is export, because we need foreign currency,” the head of state said.
Commenting on the relations of Belarus with Asian countries, Alexander Lukashenko emphasized that Belarus had wanted to establish good ties with the region for a long time. “We are greatly interested in the Central Asian countries that used to be part of the USSR. We are working with them on a wide range of matters, from simple trade to economic modernization programs,” the President said.
Speaking about the cooperation between Belarus and China, the President said that it has been increasingly vibrant in recent years. “We are opening joint production facilities there. The People's Republic of China is creating new plants here. We welcome these projects and help our Chinese partners in every possible way,” he said. Alexander Lukashenko assured that Belarus is China’s reliable ally. "If you want to develop cooperation with other states including the European Union from the territory of Belarus, you can count on us,” the President added.
Alexander Lukashenko also mentioned the importance of good personal relations with Xi Jinping, the present Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
‘China is an empire; they help us a lot; they opened a credit line estimated at $16 billion. Projects are underway, for example, a bleached pulp factory is under construction in Svetlogorsk using Chinese credits,” the President said. He noted that Belarus and China have been cooperating for 20 years already.
“We saw them growing, we learnt a lot from them, including the establishment of free economic zones. We have strong ties with India, too. They are interested in our technological solutions. Our science has things to offer to India,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
According to the President, Vietnam is another friendly state in the Asian region. “The country is experiencing an economic boom. They always tell us straight what they want to buy from us, what they would like to have and so on. They help us cooperate with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar,” the head of state added.
“Last year’s visits to Bangladesh, India and Central Asia were very successful. Now we are gearing up for a large-scale high-level visit to Indonesia and Singapore. We are working hard in this direction,” the President said.
As for cooperation with the African continent, Alexander Lukashenko said: “The new Foreign Minister has been set forth a task to find three or four states in Africa, as powerful as Venezuela in Latin America, which need us. We will start from the very beginning, strengthening our position on the markets of these states and working on the neighboring countries from there,” the President said. “We have good relations with Ethiopia, the Republic of South Africa. We have reached contacts with Ghana. That means we are known and welcome there,” he noted.
With this the President expressed regret that relations with Libya and Syria have been suspended due to a complicated political situation in those countries. “For now economic relations are impossible with these and some other countries. But I believe it is a temporary phenomenon. Sooner or later we will restore normal relations with these states,” the head of state is convinced.
At the end of the press conference the President stressed that honesty and frankness are the core of his policy.
“Meeting face to face with you I do my best to answer sincerely to all of you questions. The core of my policy is honesty and frankness,” Alexander Lukashenko said.
In his words, quiet life could be boring, but it is much better than blasts and killings.
According to the head of state, Belarus has many ill-wishers who will be happy if the country collapses.
With this, according to Alexander Lukashenko, supporting peace and calmness does not mean ignoring bad things. There should be critics, constructive critics, in order to improve life.
Summing up the results of the news conference, the Belarusian leader emphasized the importance of such meetings with journalists, especially representatives of the regional mass media (the regional press enjoys high confidence among local dwellers). “Everyone should see and hear the President,” he said.
“There is no need to fight with each other. There is enough pressure from outside. We should stay together to protect our land,” the President stated.