On January 28, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered his state of the country address to the Belarusian parliament (YouTube, January 28). This is an annual event, though, in 2021, he skipped it altogether. This last speech lasted 2 hours and 36 minutes; in addition, Lukashenka spent an hour responding to questions. Each theme of the address was accompanied by a tagline on the screen behind the speaker: for example, “The Escapees’ Program,” about the members of the opposition who fled Belarus in the wake of the August–September 2020 crackdown on post-election protests; or “Defense and Consolidation,” when the topic of Lukashenka’s remarks turned to propping up socio-political unity. Indeed, a demonstration of unity was the overarching goal of the address and its refrain. In such a way, Lukashenka’s speech not only marginalized the aforementioned escapees but all those who participated in the protests. The Belarusian leader called upon the impelled emigrants to return home and beg for forgiveness because their fate in the West, ostensibly already unenviable, is bound to worsen, he asserted. In a semi-serious fashion, he declared a special commission could be organized to accept those returnees, who would only be required to pay some fines because compensating the state in full for what they had done is beyond their means.
On the possibility of the Belarusian army participating in a war, Lukashenka stated that it could happen only under two circumstances: military aggression against Belarus itself or against Russia. He insisted that 1.5 million–2 million Belarusians have to be trained to use a gun, a rifle and even a machine-gun. He also confirmed that it was he who initiated the current Belarusian-Russian military drills (see EDM, January 26), which are needed to make sure “we can defend our southern flank,” i.e., the border with Ukraine. He pledged that “we will return our Ukraine to the bosom of Slavdom.”
As for other non-Russian neighbors, he castigated the Lithuanian authorities, juxtaposing them against ordinary Lithuanians, who are reportedly friendly toward Belarus. As a matter of fact, a recent seven-member Lithuanian delegation from the Dawn of Justice public movement, headed by the former leader of the Socialist Front, Algirdas Paleckis, was supposed to demonstrate this friendliness. According to somewhat awkward reasoning by the Lithuanian pundit Vitis Jurkonis, the fact that this low-level delegation was received by Belarus’s foreign minister smacked of desperation on the part of Minsk, especially against the backdrop of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, one of those opposition “escapees,” regularly hobnobbing with Western heads of state (Delfi, January 17). But in his address to the nation, Lukashenka was careful not to demonstrate anything even remotely resembling desperation. He accused the authorities in Vilnius of so “overzealous[ly] selling their foreign policy adventures to the Americans” that the latter must, at times, restrain them. He also suggested that Poland’s Belarus policy is all about Russia and repeated claims made by the Polish deserter Emil Czeczko (YouTube, December 25, 2021) that the Polish military supposedly killed “hundreds” of Middle Eastern migrants who crossed the border from Belarus and buried them in forests of eastern Poland.
Lukashenka called sanctions targeting Belarus the modern-day “inquisition” and claimed that half of the world is subjected to sanctions imposed by the West, in a bid to retain its global hegemony. He boasted that Belarus’s strategy of dealing with COVID-19 without lockdowns is now accepted as the right one by most of the world even though his country is rarely if ever acknowledged as the authentic pioneer of that strategy.
Belarus’s head of state rejected the idea that the protests of 2020 could have been caused by domestic problems, stressing that outside powers had spent $6 billion on an attempted regime change in Belarus. That insidious influence, he declared, was exerted through a network of non-governmental organizations (NGO) funded by the West—which, he contended, both he and the Belarusian foreign ministry had taken “too lightly”—as well as via armed sleeper cells and bloggers. However, according to Lukashenka’s estimation, only about 10 percent of Belarusians are interested in regime change. The president referenced that Belarusian high-technology-sector workers, especially those employed by resident companies of the Minsk-based High-Tech Park (HTP), had been a common sight at the protest rallies in 2020. He attributed the intense participation to the fact that, unlike other information technology (IT) specialists, those at the HTP perform tasks outsourced by major IT giants from the United States, so purportedly, the orders to join protests came immediately from their headquarters. Lukashenka, nevertheless, pledged that Minsk is ready to return to peaceful cooperation with the West and can even help Western politicians “save face” if they agree to extend an olive branch. One peculiar comment pertained to growing contacts with Turkey: “Look,” Lukashenka exclaimed, “Turkey is a NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] member, and yet it behaves decently.”
He assured the audience that Russia is not planning to absorb Belarus. And one result of their close bilateral cooperation, the Belarusian nuclear power plant at Astravets, turned out to be immensely beneficial; a second such plant may be built in Mogilev Oblast in the foreseeable future, he predicted. Indeed, Lukashenka pointed out that Belarus recently extended a helping hand to Ukraine by supplying it with much-needed electricity.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing topics touched upon during the state of the country address was constitutionally mandated term limits for Belarus’s president. In response to a question from the audience, he averred that he favors two consecutive term limits. As to why he himself has not abided by this principle, Lukashenka explained that “the situation did not let him go” and that a disaster would have happened had he decided, as he reportedly planned, not to take part in the 2020 elections. However, provided the country is stable, two terms, assured Lukashenka, are more than enough. And despite his repeated past assurances that combining political positions is unacceptable, a recent initiative concerning the exception to this rule was advanced specifically for the incumbent president (Belta, January 22). In other words, Lukashenka, while still president, may be “asked” to also chair the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a body that has been officially written into the new constitution, which will seek legitimation in a referendum scheduled for the end of February. This initiative confirms what has been suggested by multiple commentators, including this author (Ukraina.ru, January 27): while President Lukashenka may be thinking about retirement, he is not about to announce it any time soon.