Last week, Belarus’s President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s visited Turkey (April 16) and, three days later, delivered his annual report to the parliament and the Belarusian people (April 19). Following negotiations with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Lukashenka pledged to boost bilateral trade from $1 billion to $1.5 billion within five years. In pursuit of this goal, a new assembly line of Belarusian tractors will be commissioned this July in Kirikkale, 80 kilometers from the Turkish capital of Ankara. The two countries additionally signed a package of economic agreements worth over $325 million as well as a series of intergovernmental memoranda of understanding or cooperation, including in the military-industrial sphere (Belta, Belarus.by, April 16).
In his annual address before the parliament, Lukashenka—as usual—emphasized order and care for social wellbeing and called for preventing the emergence of significant socio-economic stratification within the country. The president expressed his conviction that large state-run enterprises remain the backbone of the Belarusian economy; while they can be sold to private owners, at issue is the “correct” price of such privatization. During his speech, Lukashenka showed unusual restraint regarding economic relations with Russia and its leadership; yet, some statements revealed lingering concern. For example, he urged to accelerate the modernization of Belarus’s two oil refineries “so we will not [have to] beg and bow but [can] buy oil on the world market.” He further observed, again alluding to Russia, that “some countries introduced one-sided limitations in trade, even with respect to their closest economic partners, and that affected Belarus.” The Belarusian head of state declared that presidential elections will take place in 2020, as per the Constitution, whereas parliamentary elections will be held this year, most probably in early November. He reiterated plans for constitutional reform that would transfer more decision-making power to the legislature (see EDM, March 14), a sign he is thinking about succession at the helm of power. He also pledged not to devise stratagems enabling the president to effectively remain in power even after a formal resignation (Belta, April 19). This promise was easy to construe as an allusion to either Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan or Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia or both. Alexander Shpakovsky, a pro-government political commentator, believes that Lukashenka plans to perform his duties until after 2024, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tenure is supposed to end (Sputnik.by, April 19).
Although, this time, Lukashenka’s state of the country speech lacked the kinds of flowery and/or bombshell pronouncements that became popular memes in the past, two of his statements from last week are strongly reverberating in the media. First, Lukashenka criticized the resumed, as he put it, “language wave” that ought to have long ago subsided. “We have two official languages,” insisted Lukashenka, “If one wants to lose one’s mind, one would lose Russian. And if one wants to lose one’s heart one would lose Belarusian.” Still apparently the sitting president finds some Belarusian-language posters and billboards “excessive,” such as those along a major highway asking drivers not to exceed the speed limit. Half of all drivers would not understand the sentence containing the phrase “speed regime” in Belarusian, Lukashenka suggested. “Who would think that what you mean is actually speed, not Lukashenka’s dictatorship!?” the president jokingly exclaimed (Tut.by, April 19). These remarks set off an avalanche of emotions in the opposition-minded media from individuals intent on protecting the national language.
The second major departure from tranquility followed when, in response to a question by Anna Kanopatskaya, a member of the parliament (MP) from the ranks of the Belarusian opposition, Lukashenka suggested that the overall cost of the Belarusian nuclear power plant (under construction by Russian companies) may amount to $7 billion, not $10 billion as was agreed with Russia. The savings, Lukashenka explained, are due to strict control of spending on the Belarusian side. Kanopatskaya, instead, somehow attributed these savings to recent pronouncements of Mikhail Babich, Russia’s ambassador to Minsk (Belrynok, April 19). That exchange triggered denunciations from the Russian envoy. Babich replied that he had never mentioned the cost of the nuclear plant construction, which, in any case, would not have made sense, because the final construction cost of a nuclear power facility is never known before its completion. Therefore, “everything that was said by both the opposition MP and by the president is not grounded in facts” (Sputnik News, April 19).
When Tut.by, Belarus’s most popular news media outlet, asked the press secretary of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about that statement by Babich, the response was as follows: “I can only refer you to our previous comment in regard to his emotional statements that we offered in March [see EDM, March 19]. What we said then is fully confirmed now. Mr. Ambassador does not see any difference between Russia’s federal district where, as we were told, he indulged in incessant moralizing, and an independent state . . . You know what is meaningful in this situation? For a long time, a slew of external powers tried and failed to undermine close and friendly relations of two brotherly peoples. But what these external powers did not succeed at over several decades, Mr. Babich has achieved effectively within just several months (MFA, April 19).
When on Saturday, May 20, Lukashenka participated in a subbotnik (Saturday community work), planting trees at the so-called “Stalin line” (the remains of fortifications along the pre–September 1939 western border of the Soviet Union), a team of young journalists asked him about a “nervous reaction of the Russian ambassador.” Lukashenka responded that he would rather not comment, as this Russian diplomat “was dispatched to us by my friend Putin. They will deal with him, I am absolutely sure. Russia is an ancient country with good traditions that perfectly understands how an ambassador must behave in Russia and beyond its limits” (President.gov.by, April 20). It would thus appear that Babich has tarnished his reputation in Belarus.
In the same post-subbotnik interview, Lukashenka also touched upon the Kuropaty memorial controversy (see EDM, April 8). According to the president, the problem is excessively politicized by a few vociferous commentators. The authorities’ intent of removing excessive crosses, which outnumbered trees in that forest, and of fencing the area off was to restore order and prevent people from urinating and even defecating within this space—and thus honor the memory of the victims.
In Belarus, much depends on the actions and rhetoric of its flamboyant and charismatic president. Last week provided additional ample illustration of this long-standing formula.