In December, Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko was elected to his fourth term, and pro-democracy opponents took to the streets, charging fraud.
Police rounded up some 700 people and charged 42, many with organizing a riot, an offense carrying a prison term of five to 15 years. The crackdown prompted the European Union and the United States to impose travel restrictions on Lukashenko and other top Belarusan officials and to freeze their assets.
On Wednesday, Belarus sentenced three men to up to four years in a top-security prison. In a three-hour interview with Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth on Monday in his Minsk office, Lukashenko ranged from combative to plaintive.
The taped interview was conducted in English, with a Lukashenko aide interpreting, then transcribed. Following are excerpts.
The U.S. and E.U. have imposed travel sanctions on you and officials in your government. Has this made you think twice?
If it were to happen again tomorrow, I would do the same thing I did at that time. I would protect the house of government as it has to be done according to the constitution.
Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton met with you only weeks before this happened. The United States was hoping you would open up, as you had been doing in a minor way. You had allowed opposition candidates to run, so people were surprised when you completely changed course. Why did you do that?
We hoped that Americans and Europeans were interested in this country being independent and sovereign and in developing their relations in a good way. Unfortunately, after the events of the 19th of December, we were sure that you didn’t want that.
The U.S. was always clear on its terms. It wants democracy and transparency; Washington hasn’t changed its terms.
We told you clearly that there is no less democracy in Belarus than there is in the United States.
If you hold an election and seven out of the nine candidates running against you end up in jail, it is not a very good signal to the West that this is an open and democratic place. Plus, there were limits on the amount of money the candidates could raise and how much time they could spend on television. There was only one debate, and you did not participate.
The question is not about the time limit the candidates [had] in the media. The question is what these candidates said. They were saying that Lukashenko needs to be hanged. Belarus is a wayward country. So, the Americans decided to treat the results of the elections in a very negative way.
The Americans treated the Dec. 19 arrests in a negative way?
What would the president and the United States security services do if 3,000 people went to the White House and tried to break in?
If they really were breaking into government buildings, they might be fined or arrested, but not jailed for 15 years. Are you really going to put these people on trial?
Do you have information that we have imprisoned anyone for 15 years?
It was reported that one young man who participated in the demonstration was convicted and sentenced to four years last week, and he was just an aide to a candidate. Reportedly, the sentences for others could be as long as 15 years. Is that correct?
Probably they can. That is the law. If your security services had information that people were trying to engage in mass disturbances, they would arrest hundreds of thousands of people.
I don’t think so.
You don’t think so, but I know so. Please tell me, as a representative of a democracy, why have you destroyed Iraq? This is an international crime. . . . How did you respond to the rape of your colleague – a journalist – in Egypt?
It was terrible, but it was by Egyptians.
They are your friends. Why didn’t you take a firm stand? You are afraid because you have interests there – you need to establish relations with the authorities who replaced [former President Hosni] Mubarak, and you spit at the lady who was raped although she is your citizen. But if it were to happen in Belarus, you would be lambasting us all over the world. American democracy has two faces.
Would you ever grant amnesty to any of the people who were arrested that December night?
I have this right.
Will you exercise it?
When the time comes, I will tell you about it. It is not necessary at the moment. Only the court can make a decision about those people. Why are you trying to push me to interfere?
To an American, some of the cases seem tragic – like the couple with the 3-year-old child. You could grant them amnesty.
I understand that you have been instructed to act as an attorney on [this] one particular matter. But you will agree that any parent who has children must think of his children and the consequences before acting. I am not personally aware of the families where the parents would be away from their children. About whom did you read?
Candidate Andrei Sannikov and his wife, the journalist Iryna Khalip.
I will verify and give orders to verify.
It has been reported that both were in a KGB jail, and finally they let the mother out.
These two people were detained as the central people who were to blame for the disturbances, and it is only because they have a little child that the mother was released.
Are you thinking of changing Section 193 of the criminal code, which makes it so difficult for NGOs to register and thus to act without fear of prosecution?
It is no problem to register a nongovernment organization, provided they do not violate the laws.
That’s not true. What about the Belarusian Christian Democrats?
In Belarus, the Christian Democrats will probably never get registered. They participated in the riots. . . . They are not Christian Democrats, they are bandits.
Why did you kick out the U.S. ambassador in 2008?
Why do we need an ambassador who is masterminding the actions of the fifth column?
Do you really believe this?
I am the president of Belarus. I know this.
I heard that you disbarred three lawyers who are representing the presidential candidates who were in jail. The presidential candidates were given no access to lawyers. Moreover, the head of the Minsk bar association has been disbarred.
It means that they broke the law if this is so.
How come the presidential candidates who were in jail (and one still is) are not allowed to see their lawyers?
What you say is an outright lie. A lawyer’s job is to meet with a defendant.
But it is widely reported in the papers that the jailed defendants had no access to lawyers.
Why are you talking about newspapers? [There was] a recent editorial in The Washington Post that really astonished me – the outward lies. The editorial said that the Obama administration should convince the European Union to impose sanctions. The aim was to punish this regime for brutal repression of the opposition.
What is wrong with that?
Everything is wrong.
You are not out on the streets. How do you know that it is not true?
I witnessed online what was transpiring near the house of government. I saw what was happening on monitors.
What did you think of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt?
This will backfire for you. . . . The fact that the entire Arabic arc is being radicalized . . . is a really big thing. And you want to mastermind a regime change in Belarus. . . . It’s better to cooperate with us.
How is your fiscal situation? Are you dependent now on Russia? You have a big current-accounts deficit.
We have some economic drawbacks, but we have positive tendencies as well. For the first two months of this year, we had 7 percent economic growth. At the end of this year, we plan to have growth of 10 or 11 percent GDP. The price of oil has almost doubled, and we are still importing oil and gas.
You are isolated from the U.S. and the E.U. – what is your game plan? You have Iran and China as allies.
We are trying to work around the world. We would like very much to cooperate with the United States.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) claimed that your December election was flawed. Will you fix this in a future election?
I cannot change everything. This electoral law is no worse than that in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan – countries with whom you cooperate very well.
What is your impression of President Obama?
Good opinion, but you don’t let him do his job.
Who is «you?»
You mean Republicans?
Not just Republicans – I mean businessmen, some part of the security forces. I don’t think Obama would like to repeat the fate of Kennedy.
Why did you bring that up?
If Obama will go on pursuing his course of action, there will be people who may not like it. He will pursue the interest of the majority of his people, but there will be radical people who don’t like this course of action. It may have bad consequences.
You joked about being the last dictator in Europe.
Madeleine Albright said it. [Note: Condoleezza Rice said it, not Albright.]
Is that how you see yourself?
That is what she said. She is a wise politician, but she said a stupid thing. The stupidity is that Belarus and Lukashenko do not have the resources to be a dictator.
In 2008 you released political prisoners and opened your media a little bit. All of a sudden you turned, and there was a big crackdown.
That is the way you perceive it.
Am I wrong?
You are smart, tough and a very experienced person. But why are you so delusional?
You have to address the fact that there is no way you can put these people on trial and expect America to be happy with this.
God forbid you are talking again about those people. Don’t worry about those people. Their destiny is in their own hands.
I am worried about them. Why don’t you take their fate into your hands and give them amnesty?
Tell the Americans we are not bloodthirsty.
What does that mean? You will give them amnesty? Do you think you can do something to help these people? It seems like a terrible situation.
It is not as terrible as it may seem to you.
But you can’t leave people who were running against you for president in a KGB jail called «Amerikanka.» How can you do this? And then you say the West is being unreasonable?
I absolutely for sure know that they will not sit in the dungeons of the Amerikanka jail.
Okay, you won the election, they protested. They didn’t like the election results. This happens in the U.S. all the time. Why would you put them in jail?
Okay, but don’t break windows.
What about the accusation that it was your own security people who broke the windows?
I swear to you, these were not our people. This has been proven by video recording.
Why can’t you allow an independent media in Belarus?
I am not afraid of mass media.
So what about independent television and papers?
Go to the first floor of my office and buy an opposition paper.
Your Internet is controlled by the government.
Nothing belongs to the government on the Internet. There is a site that belongs to the president. Are you going to think about having rule of law here and making the gestures that the U.S. wants in order to resume relations?
I have just said that I do not think backwards. I am not planning to get engaged with the Americans or the Europeans in any political games.
Why have you forbidden my sons to enter America? They do not belong to al-Qaeda. Why have you punished my children? What do they have to do with this? Why have you closed entry to dozens of people who were not to blame and had nothing to do with the alleged events of the 19th of December?
It seems like you and the United States government could get together.
We did a number of steps closer to your direction. You cheated us, and we don’t believe you.
Did you really mean it when you said that you don’t care about the U.S. and the E.U. sanctions?
Absolutely. You are not treating us decently. If you want to make myself or my people to kneel down, that won’t happen. You won’t succeed.
I still think you should let those people out of jail. Don’t you feel sorry for them?
Come to the trial and act as an attorney for them. These are people who were led by your propaganda, who took your money.
You blame the U.S. for the people in jail?
Who else to blame? You gave them money. Should I blame China? We will not allow you to create a fifth column in Belarus . . . to undermine the system in Belarus. My power is okay. But God forbid you to turn around the situation in our country and have events unfold . . .
Like in Egypt?
It doesn’t look like you will have any problems.
I won’t. Recently in Georgia, President Saakashvili suppressed in a most brutal way a manifestation of the opposition. Yet you continue to deal with him. Why? Because Saakashvili is your son of a bitch.
Tell the Americans we think very highly of them. We will never build an iron curtain to prevent them from coming to Belarus.