Lukashenka: Russia Should First Cultivate Its Own Lands and then Proceed to Others

On 20 May Aliaksandr Lukashenka gave an interview to independent Russian TV Rain, a station known for being critical of the Putin regime. The interviewer was Ksenia Sobchak, previously a well-known socialite and now opposition activist.

Lukashenka demonstrated his independence of mind on the events that had been unfolding in the region. He criticised Russia for the Ukrainian turmoil and revealed some of his secret relations with big names like Berezovsky and Saakashvili.

Domestically though, he seems to be stuck in a deadlock. He does not trust a democratic transfer of power and does not know to whom to transfer it to, even if he were interested in doing so. He also admitted that his regime has yet to come up with a way to truly unite Belarusians as a people.  

Criticising Russia on Russian Opposition TV

When speaking about Putin’s role as a 'gatherer of Russian lands', he advised Russians to stick to sorting out the issues existing in Russia. “You should cultivate, sow, harvest them… Uniting, annexation – you should be careful with that”.

Sobchak asked Lukashenka to comment on his words from his April address to the nation: “if Russia will decide to occupy Belarus, it is unclear which side the Russian soldiers will take”. “A Russian will never turn a gun on a Belarusian, here we are the most pro-Russian province in our mutual fatherland”, Lukashenka explained.

The popularity of Lukashenka among Russians indeed remains high, but the current situation with Russian public opinion is unclear due to the ongoing propaganda war in Russia and Lukashenka’s divergent stance towards Ukraine crisis. This may, at the end of the day, turn into a trap for him, as Russians may come to see yet another “Bandera fascist” in Lukashenka striving for sovereignty.

Lukashenka accused Russians for the the failure of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. According to him, Russia was afraid to create a union on equal terms and suggested instead that Belarus become a part of Russia. The Russian elite feared Lukashenka seizing the Kremlin and this was the reason that Belarus' relations with the west have deteriorated. “Are you afraid that Lukashenka will take your Monomakh’s Cap away?”, Lukashenka said in his characteristic humorous tone.  

Lukashenka called the independence referendums in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics null and void from a legal point of view. He said that Belarusian security forces are monitoring the situation and have their informers in the regions: "The people in the regions are confused, and the separatists should not repeat Yanukovych’s mistake – the authorities should have the respect of its citizens”, he said. According to Lukashenka, Putin has no right to meddle in Ukraine as "this is the Ukrainian people’s private business”.

Saving Toppled Presidents, Dealing with Oligarchs and Russian Enemies

Sobchak was particularly curious about Lukashenka’s secret relations with famous oligarchs and former presidents. And he revealed some very interesting details.

Lukashenka said that Mikhail Saakashvili, former Georgian president and fierce enemy of Putin, “was fighting for Belarus in the West like no one else had done”. He was on good terms with the USA government and tried to persuade them that its policies towards Belarus should be changed, that no sanctions should be applied to Belarus.

Saakashvili invited Lukashenka to Georgia, but he turned down the invitation not to irritate Russia. Lukasheka indeed seems to have a keen sense of which lines cannot be crossed with Russia.

The Belarusian leader gave some details of how Kurmanbek Bakiev, former president of Kyrgyzstan ended up in Belarus. Bakiev was toppled in 2010 as a result of the Tulip Revolution. According to Lukashenka,

... at that time he was in southern Kazakhstan, with his children in his arms. Everyone abandoned him. I called him and asked what was going on, and he started to cry. He said, we have never been friends, but asked to save at least his children. And I promised him to save his entire family.

Shortly thereafter, Bakiev received Belarusian citizenship, and currently is building a mansion in the elite Drazdy area of Minsk - not far from Lukashenka’s own private residence. The Kyrgyz authorities continue to demand Bakiev's extradition, accusing him of numerous crimes, but Belarus will not do it.

Lukashenka revealed some details about his dealings with Boris Berezovsky, whom he met with the help of Badri Patarkatsishvili, the famous Georgian oligarch, and “some people in Russia”, declining to name names. When meeting him for the first time, Berezovsky was already wanted in Russia with serious charges being brought up against him.

Lukashenka reassured him that Belarus would never give him over, because “we (Belarusians) did not hand over Jews, even during the war”. Lukashenka mentioned that Berezovsky had indeed paid British PR manager Timothy Bell a heft sum to help improve the international image of Belarus as a sign of gratitude to Lukashenka.

Domestic Politics: Popular President with No National Idea

When asked whether he will ever hand over power, Lukashenka said that a rotation in government is not a cure-all in his opinion. Instead, he said he was following the will of the Belarusian people who elected him four times according to official results. Lukashenka thinks that if the opposition comes to power, the situation will be much worse than the situation currently unfolding in Ukraine.

Regarding a his possible replacement in the future, Lukashenka said he was not going to raise an heir, and whoever was going to take the reins should fight to create a name for himself. “Don't think that I seized power and enjoy it”, he reassured Sobchak. Given the current situation in the region, a transfer of power could indeed provoke turmoil, but generally it seems clear that Lukashenka neither understands nor accepts democracy in principle.

Lukashenka admitted he had to deliberately forge election results in 2010, because the true figure was above 90%. The West was ready to accept the elections if the figures were around 50%. So he indeed decided to force the electoral committee to draw lower figures (82%), a move that he now regrets. Ironically, the election result tampering that he admitted to simply demonstrates how local electoral commissions can manipulate the figures to to his liking.

Finally, Lukashenka admitted that Belarus had no "national idea". 10 years ago he ordered scholars and the authorities to create a unified idea (known in Belarus as its state ideology, a discipline one can find in universities), but so far it failed to unite Belarusian people. 

Lukashenka could not accept the ethno-national ideas of the opposition in 1990s, but a better alternative has yet to appear in its stead. 

This interview shows that in his foreign affairs Lukashenka somehow still manages to pursue a relatively independent policy and even criticise Russia, domestically he is at an impasse. Desperate about Belarus' future, he has no clear successor picked, nor does he have any ideas about how to unite the nation whose identity and integrity his authoritarian policies have weakened over the last two decades. 

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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