Meeting with representatives of general public, expert community, Belarusian and foreign mass media “Big Conversation with the President”

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The Big Conversation with the President will become the foundation for preparing the Belarus President’s annual address to the nation and the parliament. Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko made the statement as he met with representatives of the general public and expert community, Belarusian and foreign mass media on 1 March.

The head of state noted that today’s conversation, which involves everyone – citizens, authorities, representatives of Belarusian and international media communities, and experts of all kinds – is hugely important. “Everything to be said in this hall today will become the foundation for preparing an event of national importance – the President’s annual address to the nation and the parliament. We will have to come up with an objective evaluation of the most discussed topics, which particularly strongly worry people and the society. Which means they need explaining and an open discussion,” Aleksandr Lukashenko pointed out. “This is why the meeting is being broadcast live to enable an honest and sincere conversation in order to reduce the number of consequent complaints about something being allegedly cut out or cut short. We are also going to replenish the lack of truthful information about some matters.”

At the same time Aleksandr Lukashenko noted that “if our society, experts, reporters, simply forward-minded and honored people need such a conversation, I am always ready for it.” “Certainly, without going to the extreme because otherwise I’d become some kind of lecturer. Although I should say it is sometimes useful so that our people would know and understand the policy the government pursues,” the head of state noted.

“You all know that Belarus’ foreign policy is multi-vector and is aimed at ensuring security and maintaining peace in the world. We are against any form of aggression, both military and information. But new points of tensions are emerging along the Belarusian border. The treaties that have ensured the balance of military power on the planet are collapsing. We are in the midst of a new arms race. When we respond to modern challenges, or make a step towards strengthening our own military capabilities, we immediately see high emotions running both in international political circles and in the internet,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

In this regard, the President mentioned the news that Poland intends to spend around $50 billion on defense. Speaking about defense and security, he touched upon Russia’s efforts to strengthen the Western District. “This is the joint group of armed forces in this area which directly borders on NATO. So, if there were the news that Russia deployed some additional regiment to the west of Moscow, we would hear uproar immediately. Here's the attitude to the two facts. Let us then develop some sort of criteria and evaluate the events according to these criteria. I have no idea why Poland is beefing up its army at $50 billion,” the President said.

The head of state noted that Belarus will never be a source of any wars and conflicts, especially with regard to Poland. “We do not need this,” he said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko called on the media, who are positioning themselves as independent, to be more objective and use the same criteria when informing of such facts.

“We got used to the fact that not everybody is happy about a small independent country in the center of Europe with a quiet life and a socially oriented policy serving human interests. We can see this and understand this. Not everyone likes it. This fact provokes, perhaps, the greatest number of attacks on our domestic policy from unofficial and anonymous sources.  You know the best how it works, how easily one can turn any positive news into negative. Fortunately, we have developed immunity against destructive criticism. I read a lot, analyze information, get analytics. I am especially surprised when I see blatant lies,” the head of state said.

The President called for objectivity in evaluating information. “Our people know for sure that justice and truth are the real power. Therefore, this meeting is an opportunity to bring them to people. Experts hold a special niche in the media. You are the leaders of opinion. Journalists, as well as their target audience, look at many facts and events through your eyes, figuratively speaking,” he said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko expressed confidence that the participation of professional specialists in today’s Big Conversation with the President will produce good results. “We have met in the roundtable format many times. You know that there is no such thing as an inconvenient or inappropriate question in our communication. I, therefore, suggest we have a frank dialogue,” the head of state said.

On the Future of the Union State

“I was, as they call me in Russia, the main initiator of our union. I always said in Russia and here that our fate is to live together. When looking at people around, I can see what policies they pursue. It is the same, in relation to Russia, and in relation to Belarus. Only forms differ. Therefore, we need to be together,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

he head of state stressed that Belarus and Russia are not only two close countries, the countries are tied in economic terms. “You know, when I was making decisions at the dawn of our independence, with whom and how to be, the fate of our state and my policy was largely determined by the fact that we are connected with each other, we are close people. The entire economic basis relied on it. Our economy was the finishing high-tech production, and we used huge amounts of resources, spare parts and other things, first of all, from the Russian Federation. Then finished products were exported. This also pertains to two oil processing enterprises which were built to process oil and to export their products to the premium European market. I needed to preserve and restore those plants, to give jobs to people and to help them provide for their families. Many factors encouraged me to advocate for such close allied relations with our brotherly Russia,” he remarked.

“When we signed the Union State Treaty, steps to create this state were envisaged there. The main step that we had to take was to pass the Constitution of our state at the referendum in order to answer all the questions, from common currency to state administration bodies,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said and added the Russian side did not go for it back then.

“You remember that only the lazy did not throw stones at me back then. They started to accuse me of virtually ruining the constitutional order in Russia. Some people were afraid that Lukashenko will come, take Monomakh's Cap and rule there. Were there any remarks of this kind? Yes, there were, up to bans, visits to Russian regions were unwelcome and so on. We held out,” the Belarusian President remarked.

He said that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a generation has grown who got used to living in an independent state. “If we put the question about the unification of the two states or, like many want in Russia, about the inclusion of Belarus into Russia to a referendum, 90% will vote against. Not because our society is opposed to Russia. A new generation has grown up. The older generations have understood that too that we can cooperate in a totally different format, as family and relatives. Today the Belarusians want to be together with Russia but to live in their own apartment. What's wrong with that?” Aleksandr Lukashenko asked.

The head of state expressed confidence that Russians are not afraid of any integration unions and are ‘ready to unite even tomorrow’. “I joke in response: let us incorporate Russia into Belarus. Do you think the Russians would be against if we were serious about this issue? No. Why should they be afraid?” Aleksandr Lukashenko wondered. He added that, unfortunately, Russia is not always ready to follow the principle of equality in bilateral relations.

For example, when discussing the joint currency of the Union State Russia obviously has her ruble in mind. The Belarusian President said: “Today we are offered to have a joint currency. We support this idea. Of course, this will be the ruble. We have the ruble and you have the ruble. Why should we invent a thaler? The only question is not about this. This will not be the Russian ruble or the Belarusian ruble. This will be our common ruble, should we ever decide on this,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said. It is also important for the two countries to agree on the issue center, and Belarus is ready to discuss different options.

The Belarusian President considers it necessary to, first of all, improve the efficiency of the work in the Union State. However, the countries should avoid putting too much pressure or taking steps that would harm the situation. Therefore, during the meetings Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin discussed possible solutions to the issues in the Belarusian-Russian relations.

The Belarusian President recalled that the Union State has the Supreme State Council, the Council of Ministers, and the Parliament who are in charge of many issues. “These bodies have big powers and can deal with issues. Let’s submit the issues that people are concerned over today to the Supreme State Council,” the head of state said and added that this requires step-by-step action.

“If we do not remove pressing issues in the Belarusian-Russian relations, we will not be able to talk about any big goals, any unification. We need to address fundamental matters first. Yet, the Russian authorities, and first of all the government, are not ready to go this way,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said. The President stated that very often the decisions made even at the level of the presidents of Belarus and Russia are not implemented. This happens not because of Belarus. In accordance with the agreements, Belarus has set up a working group to resolve problematic issues and this group is ready to start working. However, Russia is not there yet. “So far, no progress has been made in this regard. This is, however, not catastrophic for the Belarusian-Russian relations, as we have a range of opportunities and can gradually solve our problems,” the President said.

On delivery of farm produce to Russia

The head of state stressed that Belarus exports its best food products to Russia. However, certain groups in Russia exert great pressure and have Belarusian supplies blocked. “The Russian government needs to stop lobbying for the interests of these clans, these oligarchic groups, as they call them, where big business has merged with the authorities to push their interests, blocking our relations in the union. All the treaties and agreements, however, envisage the common market where we can trade freely,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

“I said to the Russian government that if they manage to make their agricultural products and food as good as in Belarus, they will be happy people. It is worth mentioning that Russia acknowledges our progress in this regard. Then why block these supplies under the pretext that they are unhealthy? This happens because there is a lot of pressure from certain groups,” the President said.

As an example, the head of state cited the fact that former Russian Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachev is one of the largest agricultural barons of the Russian Federation. “I have good relations with him, but this fact is known to everyone. Do you think he will let our sugar, best in quality, through to Russia when he has bought about seven or ten sugar mills,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said. According to him, people know that Belarusian sugar is of good quality, that Belarus has upgraded its sugar plants, certified them, including for deliveries to Russia. “But he [Aleksandr Tkachev] understands that we are a very strong competitor to his sugar mills,” the head of state said.

On freeloading

Belarus has never lived off Russia and never will, Aleksandr Lukashenko said. “Stop accusing us of this. We have never lived off you and never will. When people hear these statements, when I, a proud man, hear them, the desire to have any unions goes away immediately.”

According to the President, the interest rate on Russia’s loan to build the Belarusian nuclear power plant stood at 4.8%, while that for Vietnam and Armenia was below 3%. Why? We have recently paid back the loan to Gref (Chairman of the Executive Board at Russia’s Sberbank). The interest rate on this $600 million loan was 9% and it was issued under the guarantees of Belaruskali. We tried to find common ground, because time passed and interest rates dropped. We suggested the same interest rates as our western “enemies” or China offer, which is 2%. Our proposal was rejected. After that, I told the government to immediately find the necessary funds, down to gold and foreign currency reserves, to pay this money back,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

“What has the bank gained from it? It issued loans, received interest rate payments. You granted a loan and now you say every day that you gave these loans to these scroungers. Every year we pay a total of $1 billion in interest on these loans. Americans give Russia $10 million for the $200 billion or something that you keep there. And then, what is the interest rate that is paid for Russia’s billions of dollars in America? Below 1%,” the head of state said.

“Every alley is a dead end no matter where you go. Specialists and the government of our country know it; however we do not get people involved in it. These are our issues, and it is us who should tackle them; and these issues should be addressed indeed, they are on the surface,” he said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko added that during the Sochi meeting, the Russian President started saying that Russia helped Belarus with loans, admitting though that there were no issues with interest rate payments, that people in Belarus are very disciplined in honoring their commitments. “It is always like that, in particular, when it comes to money. And I had to say the following: as we are the finishing assembly shop, the companies in Russia that cooperate with us employ over 10 million people, or more than 40 million if calculated with their families. Therefore, by supporting the end manufacturer, which is Belarus for you, you support your own enterprises. Even your liberals admit that,” the head of state noted.

“I apologize for being so straightforward about it. My friend, Mr President, and other friends in Russia tell me not to say such things in public. But I do it, because otherwise no one in Russia will hear that. Therefore, I have to say this in order to make people in Russia understand that we are not scroungers, that we are a friendly nation, we are ready to cooperate with you,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.