BBC Newsnight journalist Natalia Antelava shared her impressions of the Belarusian president’s interview to Evgeniy Lebedev, Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev’s son and the proprietor of the Independent and London’s Evening Standard newspapers in her material
“Europe’s last dictator’ Belarus’ Lukashenka opens up” which was published on the official site of the BBC on October 22, 2012. As Ms Antelava confessed, Western journalists rarely get a chance to hold Lukashenka to account, but Mr Lebedev managed to get the opportunity through his personal connections. BBC Newsnight was invited along, but as observers not interviewers.
It is curious that tonight channel Belarus 1 is representing the full version of the interview but taking into account that state-owned television’s production is subject to sweeping censorship some extracts of the material might be of interest to the Belarusian audience.
According to Natalia Antelava, the four-hour interview touched on many subjects, from democracy and economy, to the fall of the USSR and the war in Iraq, from Mr Lukashenka’s friendship with the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – “I told Muammar ‘beware of Europe!” she quotes the Belarusian president as saying.
Island of stability
Hardly have there been an interview that went without the Belarusian leader’s applauding himself for alleged preserving stability in the country. That time there was no excepron either: Lukashenka was comparing Belarus to neighbouring Russia. According to him, what happened in Russia in the 1990s was not democracy but anarchy. As for our republic, Lukashenka stated that they managed to nip anarchic tendencies in the bud and saved the country.
But in Ms Antelava’s view, the relative stability of Belarus comes at a price: there is no presidential term limit here and the 1996 referendum consolidated Mr Lukashenko’s power; not a single election in Belarus has been deemed as free or fair by the West; not a single opposition candidate won a seat in the recent, parliamentary vote; protests have been violently supressed.
The execution bears marks of haste
A BBC Newsnight investigation in July into the attack raised the possibility that security services were involved in the bombing, and the mother of one of the men said confessions were extracted under torture. Although the BBC journalists were present only as observers Ms Antelava told the president about the findings of the Newsnight investigation and asked him why the verdict was so rushed.
In response Mr Lukashenka advised her to watch the footage of the entire trial on her own eyes before “jumping to conclusions”.
“Are you trying to convince me that I blew myself up?” Natalia Antelava quotes him. “We have an image of a calm, stable Belarus, which we don’t want to lose. The worst thing for us is to lose that. Are we such idiots that we would have planted and detonated the bomb ourselves?”
Sigh of relief
“So, what’s your opinion on group sex?” asked Evgeny Lebedev, inspired by comments about the merits of group sex made by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a discussion about jailed punk band Pussy Riot. funnily enough, but such an unequivocal question made all the room, full of political advisers and camera operators, sighed with relief as the conversation moved to the apparently less awkward issue of human rights abuses, Ms Antelava said.
By the way, Lukashenka answered the question after a pause for just a fraction of a second: “I really don’t have an opinion on group sex.”
“After the interview, the president put his arm through Mr Lebedev’s and the two men disappeared for a private meeting. Mr Lebedev later told me he came to Minsk with a message from somebody in Europe, but refused to elaborate,’ the BBC journalist stressed.
Being a bit surprised Natallia Antelava asked the interviewer why he spent so much time debating with Mr Lukashenko on the perils of Western democracy instead of challenging him on problems in Belarus or why he chose to grill him on failure to rename the KGB, but not on torture that it is accused of, Mr Lebedev replied that managed to get Irina Khalip [an independent journalist and the wife of ex-presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau] out…
But there was nothing
to rejoice over: when asked whether Lukashenka’s declaration would shape Iryna Khalip’s future a district penal body’s officers stressed that they should act in accordance with court orders, not with anyone’s words.