Alexander Lukashenko: Belarusian strongman tries to turn the tables in a combative interview
After defying human rights abuses, including attacks on protesters, a bomb threat that forced a plane to land allowing Belarusian authorities to detain opponents on board, and what the European Union calls “arming” migrants, Lukashenko has tried to dismiss anything negative.
“This is crazy,” he said of the Polish government’s allegations that Belarus throws migrants at its borders.
But the tension between Belarus and the European Union is real.
So is the fact that most airlines no longer fly over Belarusian territory. The measure was triggered when a critic of Lukashenko’s regime was arrested in May from a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania.
A Belarusian official claimed that the armed Palestinian movement Hamas sent an e-mail stating that there was a bomb on the plane. A Hamas spokesman denied the allegations, calling them “fake news.” Protasevic’s supporters said that landing the plane on the ground in Minsk was a fictional hoax.
Pressured by CNN about whether there was a real bomb threat or whether it was made as a pretext to arrest a critic, Lukashenko only insisted that his country follow international laws.
“If you are afraid of flying over our territory, I can personally guarantee your safety and the safety of your company, your country or any other country when you fly over Belarus, just as before,” Lukashenko told CNN.
“If you choose not to fly, it’s OK, well, fly over the North Pole or the South Pole, that’s your right, I can’t force you. I’m not as strong as Great Britain, let alone the United States, dictating any conditions. If you don’t fly, others will, as I said.” Just. It’s okay, we’ll make it work.”
Lukashenko, a temperamental former collective farm chief, has been the president of Belarus since 1994, its first and only leader since the fall of the Soviet Union.
His iron grip on his country, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” has become increasingly strong, especially since the vote last year.
His public appearances are closely monitored and he is generally surrounded by country people.
In an interview with CNN at Independence Palace, he swayed and bowed trying to turn issues to the West.
“I don’t think that’s even a pertinent question, and in principle, I have nothing to apologize for,” he said.
CNN cited evidence from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that some detainees reported injuries including broken bones and burns, while others said they were forced to lie naked in the dirt while being assaulted.
Lukashenko responded: “You know, we don’t have a single detention center, you say, like Guantanamo, or those bases that the United States and your country set up in Eastern Europe … Regarding our detention centers, where we keep the accused or those under investigation, they They are no worse than Britain or the United States. I can guarantee you that.”
He initially seemed reluctant to even say the name of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who left Belarus after elections that were widely seen as rigged.
Then he said that Tikhanovskaya did not have to flee. “I swear to my children,” he said, “that Tikanovskaya did not run anywhere.”
Lukashenko paints a rosy picture of life in Belarus, saying families are safe to go out.
On the streets of Minsk, the people we met seemed afraid of something. Most of them did not stop talking to CNN and quickly ran away.
One of the young people who actually spoke gave a candid assessment of why people were afraid. “This is Belarus,” he said. “The police can arrest you and me.”
Back at the Independence Palace, Lukashenko said his people understood him. He was joking when he said the coronavirus could be warded off with a shot of vodka and a sauna.
He cultivates an image as a man of the people, and a strong and independent leader on the world stage.
But he’s still watching what he says.
In one answer he said, “I will not confess anything in front of you. I am not under investigation. So please choose your words carefully.”
He veered from not being “weak” interested in retaliating against the EU over sanctions, to threatening retaliation if relations with the West deteriorate further.
But his critics say this weakness is pushing Lukashenko closer than ever to another strongman next door, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid — the Kremlin’s support that likely comes with restrictions.
Close economic, political, and military integration has fueled speculation that Lukashenko will be Belarus’s last and first president, effectively merging his country with Russia.
In one breath, he denies it.
“Putin and I are smart enough to create a union of two independent states that is too strong to be separate. Sovereignty is not for sale,” he said.
In the next moment, he suggests what could happen if there was a provocation.
“If we need this, Belarus will turn into a single military base for Russia and Belarus in order to withstand your aggression, if you decide to do so, or if any country decides to attack. Secret it.”
CNN’s Katharina Krebs contributed to this story.