Belarus: Lukashenko vows to stay in first interview since protests

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President tells Russian journalists that if he resigned the opposition would destroy Belarus

Shaun Walker Central and eastern Europe correspondent –  The  Guardian

The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has used his first interview since mass protests erupted against his rule to say he does not plan to step down soon.

Lukashenko spoke to a group of pro-Kremlin Russian journalists including the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, and made it clear he plans to fight to cling on to power.

“[I will] not allow everything we created with the people, with those generations, to be destroyed,” he said. He did acknowledge that he may have overstayed his welcome after 26 years in power – “I may have sat in the president’s chair a little too long” – but he made it clear he would not bow to demands from the street.

The Belarusian leader, who has lost legitimacy among much of the Belarusian population and is looking to Russia for support, is due to travel to Moscow in the coming days for a key meeting with Vladimir Putin, and much of his messaging over the past fortnight has appeared aimed at the Russian president rather than his own people.

In Tuesday’s interview, he suggested that if he stepped down the opposition would destroy the country and repeated his assertion that the protesters in Belarus are backed by shadowy foreign forces who would eventually target Russia.

“All of this is globalised and internationalised. If you think that great Russia will be able to deal with this, you’re wrong. I have spoken with many presidents, with my old friend – I call him my older brother – Putin, and I warned him. It is impossible to stop this,” Lukashenko said.

Putin has declined to provide the military assistance Lukashenko has publicly requested, but promised to send a contingent of special forces to Belarus to prop up Lukashenko’s rule if necessary.

While in the early days of Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on protesters it seemed the Kremlin was still weighing its options, over the past two weeks it appears that Putin has decided propping up Lukashenko, at least for now, is the best option.

This appeared to be borne out by the friendly nature of questioning from the Russian journalists. Although the full interview had not been released by early Tuesday evening, those fragments that had been publicised did not suggest Lukashenko was subjected to tough questioning about the ruthless repression and police violence against thousands of people protesting against his rule.

In a photograph released by the Belarusian president’s press service Simonyan can be seen holding Lukashenko by the arm, with both smiling.

Also on Thursday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there could be no contact between Russian authorities and the Belarusian opposition, because an opposition body set up to oversee a transition of power was illegal according to Belarusian law.

Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, said he feared Russia would use a weakened Lukashenko to push through a soft annexation of the country, something that in the past Lukashenko himself has resisted. “Russia will now finish what they weren’t able to for 20 years, and it is very worrisome,” he said.

 

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