One of Fidel Castro’s longest speeches on record lasted seven hours and 30 minutes on February 24, 1998, after the national assembly re-elected him to a five-year term as president. On August 9, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko spent more than eight hours talking with journalists during his press conference. So what did he say?
It is worth noting the conference was held on the one year anniversary of the controversial presidential election. Although the West never recognized Lukashenko’s victory, and considers him “illegitimate leader”, he firmly pulls the strings in Belarus. With Russia’s help, he managed to consolidate his power, and most of his opponents fled the Eastern European country. Those who stayed are either imprisoned, or have agreed to play the role of the “systemic opposition”. Lukashenko announced that he could soon release almost 100 people who “who have gone astray” during the mass protests against the alleged election fraud in the summer of 2020. It is unlikely that such a move is his attempt to improve relations with the West, given that the US, UK and Canada imposed new sanctions on Minsk while Lukashenko was speaking with journalists. It is entirely possible the people who will be released will soon join the “systemic opposition” and will cooperate with Lukashenko in writing the new country’s constitution. Still, the West will not recognize any constitutional referendums, and will keep insisting that Lukashenko must go.
The media conference clearly demonstrated relations between the West and the Belarusian President went from bad to worse.
“Choke on your sanctions, you are America’s henchmen”, Lukashenko told BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford, calling her a propagandist and saying the BBC is a fake news company.
He also argued with other Western journalists from Sky News and the New York Times, while Belarusian journalists joined and criticized Western governments over their actions Syria and Libya, as well as the former Yugoslavia in 1990s.
“How many people have you jailed after events in the Congress?” was Lukashenko’s rhetorical question to Western journalists.
“Was it legal when you stomped all over the legally elected president (I mean Trump), removed him from mass media, from YouTube and the rest, and installed your own president”, Lukashenko emphasized.
The Belarusian leader also criticized the European Union’s sanctions against Minsk, and called the EU the “European Soviet Union”. Moreover, he said he would keep responding to EU sanctions by not preventing migrants coming to Belarus from Iraq from crossing the border to EU member Lithuania. According to reports, more than 4,000 illegal migrants have been detained at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border since the beginning of the year, which is 50 times as many as in 2020. In late May, Lukashenko said his country has served as a barrier against the trafficking of illegal migrants to Lithuania but, amid Western pressure, Minsk stopped performing this function which is Lukashenko’s “asymmetric response” to Western sanctions.
Belarus responded to Ukrainian sanctions on Minsk by imposing counter-sanctions, which resulted in the deterioration of relations between the two countries. Speaking at the press conference, Lukashenko, acting again as a peacemaker, warned Ukraine against any forceful attempts to recapture the Donbass from the pro-Russian forces.
“If you dare to do it with the help of other countries, I will never take your side”, Lukashenko said, joining the official Kremlin’s narrative that “any attempt on your side to take it back forcefully will end in a tragedy for Ukraine”. In addition, he firmly refused to recognize Moscow’s incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation.
“I will recognize Crimea as part of Russia only when every Russian oligarch does the same, and starts developing business there”, said Lukashenko.
Indeed, to this day many Russian oligarchs, as well as state-owned Sberbank, refuse to do business in the Crimean Peninsula, yet the Kremlin indirectly demands from Belarus to formally recognize Crimea’s current de facto status. Russia is also reportedly pressuring Lukashenko to establish direct flights between Belarus and Crimea, and that is something that Belarusian leader could do in the foreseeable future, even though such a move will have an additional negative impact on the country’s relations with Western-backed Ukraine.
At the same time, Belarus under Lukashenko is expected to keep strengthening ties with Russia, although the Belarusian President criticized Moscow’s decision to close the borders with the Eastern European country due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He also defended his approach to Covid, explaining that Belarus was the only country in Europe that kept its borders and economy open.
“We didn’t go crazy and didn’t introduce a curfew as the World Health Organization demanded from us. We also refused to impose a lockdown”, Lukashenko said, pointing out that in today’s world “the so-called democracy has long been replaced by digital dictate”.
“Blatant lies, hype, hate, bullying, trolling and other communication novelties rule this world. The saddest thing is that this artificial virtual world affects the adoption of real fundamental political decisions in the international arena,” he concluded. Lukashenko, as an experienced politician, is quite aware how the global politics work. He knows the West will keep imposing sanctions on Minsk, which will leave Belarus very little room for political maneuver. The country is already heavily dependent on Russian loans, which is why Lukashenko will likely have to keep making various concessions to Russia – its only ally. Moscow, for its part, will keep supporting Lukashenko in the absence of any serious alternative to the 67 year old Belarusian strongman, at least until the “systemic opposition” in Belarus is completely formed.
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