President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Lukashenko,
I am pleased to see you.
I have already congratulated you on your victory in the presidential election, but I did so in writing and over the telephone. Now, I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so in person. I would like to wish you all the best and every success.
Of course, we are aware of the internal political developments in Belarus related to these elections. You are well aware of our position: we are for the Belarusians themselves, without any suggestions or pressure from outside, calmly and in a dialogue with each other, sorting this situation out and come to a common decision on how to organise their work in the future.
We are aware of your proposal to begin work on the Constitution. I think it is a logical, timely and proper thing to do. We are also aware of the position that your representatives most recently voiced at the OSCE in connection with the work on the Constitution. As far as I recall, a corresponding body has already been created, which is headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Constitutional Court. I am confident that, with your experience of political work, work in this area will be organised at the highest level, which will allow you to break new ground in improving the country's political system and, thus, create proper conditions for further development.
Russia remains committed to all our agreements, including the agreements arising from the Union State Treaty and the CSTO Treaty. We regard Belarus as our closest ally and, of course, as I have told you many times in our telephone conversations, we will honour all our commitments.
We undertook these commitments mutually in 1992 and, I believe, in 1994. Anyway, in 1994 you were already President; I wasn't, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that Russia undertook certain commitments, as I said, and regardless of who is in power at a particular point, the country must honour these commitments. You are aware that we have repeatedly stated that we will do so.
With regard to our economic relations, Russia remains the largest investor in the Belarusian economy. Just one of the projects – a nuclear power plant – is estimated at 10 billion in US dollar terms. In general, over 50 percent of Belarus' foreign trade is with Russia. Almost 2,500 enterprises with Russian capital are operating in Belarus. We have very stable and deep cooperation in a number of areas and industries.
By the way, the coronavirus has affected our trade, unfortunately, but this is happening all over the world, and our trade levels are down as well. In this connection I believe we need to make extra efforts in order to not only restore the pre-crisis level of trade and economic relations, but to create conditions for advancing our trade as well.
I suggest that we focus on this today as well. I have a number of proposals. I think we can make extra efforts at the government level, as well as the ministry and department levels and even with individual companies in order to overcome the existing problems and, as I said, create proper conditions for moving forward.
Our colleagues at various levels – companies, ministries and departments – are in constant contact with each other. Yes, the Government in Belarus has changed but this will not change our active work, all the more so since Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mishustin visited Belarus quite recently. I know that he had very serious, lengthy talks and they were successful in all areas of our cooperation, including finances. We agreed that during this complicated period Moscow would grant Minsk a state loan of $1.5 billion and we will do this. I believe that our finance ministers are now working at a professional level on this issue.
We will have to continue our cooperation in defence. Of course, I am referring primarily to defence companies. We have intensive cooperation in this area, including fairly sensitive areas, such as in the military sphere.
Incidentally, today we start the military exercises that were planned last year, which are scheduled to run for several days. But, in effect, this is routine for the military. This is for the training of troops. Let me repeat to prevent conjecture: this is an event that was planned and even announced last year. After the joint exercises the Russian units will return to their permanent stations.
In conclusion, I would like to mention a very urgent issue, notably, our efforts to counter the coronavirus infection. As our prime ministers and later our healthcare ministers agreed, Belarus will be the first country to receive our antivirus vaccine against COVID-19, and it has already started taking part in the last phase of the testing. I think this will allow us not only to develop joint production but also ensure the appropriate level of vaccination for the safety of our citizens and the efforts to counter this disease.
Mr Lukashenko, I am very happy to see you. Welcome.
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko: Thank you, Mr President.
Thank you for listing the matters to be discussed at our meeting today so frankly and fully. This is good, because never before – the circumstances are making me monitor the news very carefully in the various media now – never before have there been so many conspiracy theories before our meetings. So what you just said is very important and generally covers the challenges and sentiments reflected in the media.
First, I would like to thank you. This is natural, and everyone understands this. I am not thanking you for fulfilling the agreements – that much is natural. But you have acted very decently, appropriately, so I thank you, personally, along with all the Russians, all those – I am not going to list the names now – all those who have been involved in supporting us during this post-election period.
I will tell you in detail what happened. It was most certainly not at all like they made it look in the media. You are experienced, and you know as well as I do how things can be shown and described. Also, in our time, a time of information confrontation and warfare, you know how thigs are presented. That is why I am going to inform you in detail about what is actually happening, not even in Belarus, but specifically in Minsk on weekends. Sometimes I watch this closely; I do not want to oversimplify, but I look at this with a smile: we have a march of women and young ladies on Saturday, and a general march on Sunday. Saturday and Sunday. On workdays, the country leads an ordinary life. But on Saturday and Sunday, we free an area in Minsk so people can, if they wish, march across that part of the city.
But what is most important, and this is what I always say, is not to cross the line. There is a red line, and you know about it even better than I do: you have had to draw red lines – in Chechnya first of all, when you were a young President, and I remember that. God forbid, of course, to have this situation in Belarus, but nevertheless, there are lines that no one has the right to cross. So far, no one has actually tried it. That is why, as people say both in Russia and in Belarus, this dragged-out story is just going back and forth.
True, a friend in need is a friend indeed. This is a lesson for us all, not just Belarus and Russia, but all post-Soviet republics as well. We will discuss this again at the EAEU meeting, primarily, the CSTO. There are things to discuss as part of our CIS meetings as well. I think you will be interested in hearing my remarks about these bodies not just because we have re-evaluated everything there was. We keep evaluating and re-evaluating things. As we mentioned in our telephone conversation when these events started unfolding in Belarus, we must learn from these events. For us too, this was a very important test which I hope you and I passed.
Indeed, we acted strictly in compliance with the CSTO Treaty and, taking into account relations between our brotherly peoples, in fact, one people, we did just that. We did not fight or shoot; we did not throw any projectiles or even sticks. There are two opposing sides in Belarus, but we have shown our determination. If someone beyond Belarus borders is looking for a fight, we can oblige at any time. What I am particularly pleased with – and I am very grateful to you for this – is that you have shown that the Belarusian borders are the borders of the Union State, and no one is allowed to rattle weapons there.
With regard to the Union State Treaty, you correctly noted that we were proceeding systematically and incrementally. The first outlines of this Treaty were made with the first President of Russia in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
You and I did not break up the Soviet Union. This came to us as a legacy. In 1994, there were obligations under our agreement. And the Union State Treaty – I remember when you and I exchanged documents, you were the President, it was, I think, 1998, the year you just became President …
Vladimir Putin: I became President in 2000. That was before me.
Alexander Lukashenko: Yes, 2000, your first year. We were working on the Treaty before you became President, and then, I believe, we exchanged instruments of ratification.
Vladimir Putin: Correct.
Alexander Lukashenko: You are right, it doesn’t matter. Our states and our peoples will remain friendly nations forever.
As for the economy I often quote this figure: at one time the Dmitry Medvedev Government and I counted and it appeared that some 10 million people in Russia work in companies that cooperate with Belarus. In some cases this cooperation is small and in others it is bigger. Russian companies supply Belarus with spare parts and other products. As is usually counted based on an average family of four, this concerns 40 million people in Russia. In other words, this cooperation is very close. You are absolutely correct: we will do everything so that not Russians, not even Belarusians… because our country wholly depends on primary products, parts, materials and cooperation. I am not even mentioning the markets: Russia is our main market; we supply it with 48 percent of our products. This is a major part of the economy.
I once asked my colleague Mr Orban about cooperation with other countries, especially in the European Union in connection with the special position he occupies. He quoted a figure: I think he said trade with Germany was nearly 90 percent. “This is all I have to say in answer to your question,” he said.
The economy is the cornerstone of everything. Believe me, we have always pursued this policy. Meanwhile, these events have shown that we must stay close to our big brother and cooperate in all areas, including the economy.
You are right. You called me then and suggested a pattern of work. We agreed even before the election that once it was over we will actively deal with economic issues. It was proposed that the Prime Minister and his Government should come to Minsk to hold these talks to prevent us from falling into the same trap, stumbling over difficult problems.
Yes, Mr Mishustin came to Minsk and we met there. They did a very good job on the obvious issues and we reached agreements. We reserved some questions for the presidents to discuss and make the decisions. But we discussed all the issues that were on the agenda.
With regard to the coronavirus, I am grateful to you, and we highly appreciate the fact that you put us at the top of the list of vaccine recipients. We see what is happening in Europe. A strong second wave is already underway, and I am afraid that it will be more devastating than the first one. I see the trends; we are monitoring them.
It is true that there is no surge in Belarus like in Europe, but this does not mean that we are sitting on our hands. We are doing our best to avoid this wave. It is gratifying to know that the virus has lost some if its potency, as our specialists say. But I am afraid the virus will go hand in hand with various flu viruses out there. So, you and I should not relax, because a second wave, just like the first wave, will come – if it comes – from abroad. God forbid it hits Belarus and Russia again.
As military men, you and I have always adhered to the same tactics when it comes to defence. Perhaps, I framed it rudely during my recent conversation with Russian journalists when I said that we can wrangle about many issues, argue about them and so on, but defence and security have never caused disputes or doubts. We should not be asking anyone whether or not we should conduct military exercises. We have held them before and will continue to do so in the future. Anyone can join them. If someone does not feel like joining, they don’t have to.
I believe you will give an order to your Defence Minister – our Defence Minister has already received an order to the effect that we will plan these exercises for years ahead and then get specific about them. We must conduct small and large exercises together.
You have seen one of the lessons, which is the current situation in Belarus. Well, why rattle the caterpillar tracks at the borders of the Union State? We are going through a difficult period, have some patience. No, they deployed a NATO battalion recently, 15 kilometres from our border, in Lithuania. Why do this?
We must not repeat the mistakes of the Great Patriotic War when we tried to calm everyone down to prevent a provocation, saying there would be no war, etc. As a result, we were back to square one. We had an army, a Soviet army but they [the Nazi troops] just walked through Belarus and we couldn’t even get organised in time. We couldn’t counter them. They backed us up to Smolensk and only there we could finally resist them.
I believe that for this reason we should never pay attention to what we are told. They don’t listen to what we are saying and don’t consider our apprehensions. They hold their exercises whenever they want. So, if you support this idea, we will also prepare our armies without escalating tensions so if, God forbid, something happens, we are able to resist.
I would like to once again thank you and the Russian people and your colleagues for the support, primarily moral support for us in this difficult period.
Vladimir Putin: Mr President, as for the military component, you are right, we have a plan and we will carry it out. We plan to hold events both on the territory of Belarus and Russia almost every month during the next year. We will do everything as we have planned.
As for the other issues, we indeed have an opportunity now to discuss them. In fact, we have met to talk about all of them in a calm atmosphere.
Of course, first of all, we must discuss economic issues because a reduction of 21-odd percent is still a big reduction. This is not due to our work; it is due to general global trends because of the coronavirus. But we will counter the coronavirus through a concerted effort and, I’m sure, we will overcome the current economic difficulties.
There was a reason I mentioned the loan that Russian intends to extend to Belarus soon. I hope it will have a positive effect on the financial markets.