News conference following Russian-Belarusian talks 2021-09-09 22:15:00 The Kremlin, Moscow Vladimir Putin and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko held a joint news conference at the Kremlin following Russian-Belarusian talks President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Lukashenko, ladies and gentlemen, We will briefly inform you about the results of our today’s work. Our talks with the President of Belarus were intensive and constructive, as they have always been, which is fully in line with the nature of relations between our countries. I have said this before but would like to repeat it today: Belarus, for us, is a good neighbour and our closest ally. Russian-Belarusian cooperation rests on the principles of mutual respect, support and consideration for each other’s interests. Close friendly ties between Russia and Belarus are buttressed by a common history and spiritual values and often by family relations. The Republic is our main trade and economic partner in the CIS and was our third largest partner in the world in 2020, in this respect. This year, trade is once again on the rise and has already surpassed the pre-pandemic level. In January-June it amounted to $17.8 billion, recording growth of 34.9 percent, almost 35 percent. Russia accounts for almost half of all of Belarus’ foreign trade. Russia has also made the biggest investment in the Belarusian economy. So, it is no accident that during today’s talks we focused on trade and investment in our bilateral relations and on the issues linked with integration within the Union State framework. As you know, over several years – we said today that we stepped up this work three or four years ago – our governments have been intensively working on a package of documents to further deepen integration between Russia and Belarus. These are 28 so-called “union programmes” that are aimed at the unification of laws in Russia and Belarus in various economic areas, the levelling of conditions for the operation of the two countries’ economic entities, the formation of uniform financial and energy markets, transport infrastructure, the development and implementation of a common industrial and agricultural policy. Today, I would like to say with satisfaction, that all 28 programmes have been agreed upon. Tomorrow, they are to be approved at a meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State in Minsk, after which they will be submitted for approval by the Supreme State Council of the Union State, which will convene before the end of this year. Mr Lukashenko and I have agreed on that, and we will now check our schedules and determine a more or less exact timeline. Let me briefly go over the contents of these programmes. Some of them seek to harmonise the taxation and customs legislation of our two countries. In particular, an agreement will be signed covering the general principles of levying indirect taxes. An integrated system for administering indirect taxes within the Union State will be put in place. The goal is to make the price structure of products clear. Also, the general guidelines for forming a single monetary policy in the future, and implementing currency regulation, integrating national payment systems and creating a common payment space within the Union State have been outlined. All this will help ensure fair competition and boost business activity on the financial market, as well as effectively mitigate the risks of money laundering and the financing of criminal activities, including terrorism. We have reached agreements on matters that are highly sensitive for the Belarusian side, which are related to prices for Russian energy. After lengthy discussions, we managed to come up with mutually acceptable approaches to gas supplies. The price for Russian natural gas for Belarus will remain at the current level in 2022. A document to create a unified gas market within the Union State will be signed before December 1, 2023. In addition, we will conclude an agreement on merging the petroleum and petroleum product markets, as well as an agreement on a single electricity market. I would like to emphasise the fact that common approaches to legislation covering labour relations, occupational safety and health, employment, social insurance and pensions, as well as support for families with children, will be developed within the framework of these union programmes as well. Implementing the Union State programmes will be an important step towards creating a single economic space for our two countries, as provided for in the 1999 Treaty on the Establishment of the Union State. Eventually, this will provide a strong impetus to the further growth of the two countries’ economies, will facilitate an increase in labour efficiency, serve the interests of large, mid-sized and small businesses and help create more jobs. Russian and Belarusian businesses will be given the opportunity to expand their activities across the Union State, including by establishing new joint ventures and boosting their export potential. Most importantly, the average person in the two countries will, hopefully, benefit from the integration. Russians and Belarusians will be given equal rights and equal opportunities in the economic and social spheres and, the most important thing, the necessary conditions will be put in place to ensure a real improvement in living standards and the wellbeing of the people. Today, we also discussed matters related to building a single defence space and ensuring the security of the Union Sate along its borders. In this context, we gave much attention, as we attach great importance to this, to upcoming joint military exercises, Zapad 2021, to be held in Russia and Belarus. These exercises are not targeting anyone. However, conducting these exercises is logical, given that other alliances, for example, NATO, are moving fast to build their military presence close to the borders of the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation countries. Mr Lukashenko talked about the political situation in the Republic of Belarus, which has stabilised. In conclusion, returning to the main topic of today’s talks, I want to note that the development of equitable and mutually beneficial cooperation in the Union State has remained an explicit strategic priority for our two countries. I want to thank the governments, ministries and teams of experts of the two countries who took part in developing and coordinating the Union State programmes. Thanks to you – I am now addressing our colleagues – and your well-coordinated and painstaking work, we have managed to achieve very impressive results on the path to integration. We believe – I am again addressing my colleagues in the government – that you will continue to proceed like this in the future. Thank you for your attention. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko: Mr Putin, media representatives, According to traditions and protocol, first of all, I would like to thank my colleague, the President of Russia, for the warm welcome that our delegation has been given today, as well as the extremely honest, open and constructive nature of today's meeting. Among other things, all of you, journalists, finally have an opportunity to hear firsthand about the results of our meeting today. We must frankly admit that we have not often indulged you with such meetings after our long negotiations. I would like to start with the biggest and perhaps the most popular topic of today's conversation. Everyone is interested in the future of the union programmes. Taking into account what the President of Russia has just said, I will just try to add a few things. But I must apologise because I have to start with the history of this matter. The President has just mentioned that this work begun more than three years ago now, and we have been duly reacting to all the feedback, concerns and criticism voiced in both Russia and Belarus, about the Union State having lost some of its dynamics. As I said, substantive work on the so-called roadmaps, as you remember, began more than three years ago. Those roadmaps, in fact, provided integration frameworks for specific areas, that is, the roadmaps indicated in broad strokes the path that we were ready to take with regard to a specific topic of interstate relations. That is, we outlined our plans. Each of today's programmes – they actually evolved into programmes about 18 months ago, when we approached specific agreements because we thought that we had enough framework plans and needed more specific ones to respond to our people’s requests, and so – each of the programmes is a specific plan of actions we are going to implement. The governments have done a tremendous job. Mr Putin and I have made all the fundamental decisions today that concerned us. I do not want to go into the contents of the documents we have reviewed. They are not classified and will be made public. But I will just mention a few of the main points. They include equal rights for businesses of both countries, Belarus and Russia, the importance of which various representatives of Belarus, including me as the president, have been stressing for many years now. That is the basics. We are equal partners. The competition must be honest for all companies on the Belarusian and Russian markets. It was the equality, beneficial and fruitful cooperation that the Belarusian‒Russian integration was started for in the first place. The union programmes clearly describe development mechanisms for our shared economic space, for building integrated sector-specific markets and for implementing harmonised policies in finances, taxes, lending, pricing and trade. I would like to specifically point out such matters as solving the problem of energy supply to Belarus, the increase in transportation services, funding for new investment projects, adopting common approaches to implementing our agricultural and industrial policies, and raising the level of mutual social guarantees for our citizens. President Putin has just covered these topics extensively. Yet, it is high time we asked our critics in Belarus – specifically, in Belarus – the so-called opposition, both fugitives and those living in Belarus, who criticised me and the government and shouted so loud. I would like to ask the critics of our integration in Russia as well: where do you see a ball chained to Russia’s legs? There are no downsides for either Belarusians or Russians in these programmes – and there could not be. As President Putin mentioned, the aim of all these measures is to improve the welfare of our peoples. And it is probably time to put a lid on this matter. Our integration was coined to be mutually beneficial and nothing else. It is fundamentally important that we have managed to achieve mutual understanding on all major aspects. Our governments will immediately start polishing certain points – tomorrow, during a meeting of the Union State’s Council of Ministers in Minsk. If the final touches are approved and agreed upon (and we are certain they will be), we will be ready to approve the package of union programmes, as President Putin said, during a meeting of the Supreme State Council. We will try to set a date for this meeting today. We often hear accusations that the Union State is a purely political project. No, it is a unique integration framework that is advanced in many spheres, including politics. Take our military and political union. It is not a secret. We have advanced quite substantially in many fields, such as foreign policy, defence and security. I would like to stress: life is convincingly proving that everything we do is for the benefit of our people and is aimed to meet their concrete needs. The Belarusians and the Russians do not feel they are aliens in either country: they have freedom of movement and they can get an education and [easily] find a job. This stands high. Moreover, people are confident that it is a matter of course, that it has always been this way. And this is the best proof of the viability of our union. I am absolutely certain that broadening integration and building up multi-faceted collaboration is the most indicative and effective reply to all our ill-wishers. Together we can only get stronger. At the start of our talks, the President of Russia mentioned a very important and interesting phrase: We are emerging from the situation of a pandemic-crazy world, where production volumes and many other processes have sunk to nought over this period of time. We have to look for additional stimuli to promote the socioeconomic development of our countries. He said this and it is bang on to the point. We are looking for these advantages in the union of our two countries in order to overcome the negative consequences of the pandemic. Today, we have also discussed in detail some current international problems and our relations with neighbouring countries and assiciations. We have dwelled on the situation in zones of instability, primarily in Afghanistan, from the point of view of threats to security of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. The priority in this context is to ensure comprehensive security of our countries and the CSTO as a whole. We will jointly approve a common position on this matter during the upcoming events in Dushanbe. Even we, though located in the centre of Europe far from the so-called theatre of operations, felt the impacts of the Afghan crisis. Look at the refugee crisis on our borders, at how the progressive West is behaving: they are rattling the saber all the time. As is only natural, we have broached the subject of our allied military exercise, Zapad-2021. We will continue to build up our joint counteraction to common challenges and threats. There is no need to scream out loud that we are holding this exercise. We have an army, we have a joint force deployed in the Western sector, and it needs to be trained and instructed in military tactics. We are doing nothing that wouldn’t be done by our rivals and adversaries. We have also focused on further normalisation of transport communications and cooperation in the field of microelectronics and building industry. Yes, we are confident that the Union State should expand the use of its scientific and technological potential. It is clear that far from all the knots in our relations have been untied. But it is normal, given the existing scale of collaboration, and a platform for further progress has been created. Based on this platform, we will continue to ensure social guarantees and consistently enhance the wellbeing of Belarusians and Russians. Many people will get the impression that our talks on these subjects and Union programmes are going on forever, and that we are handling these matters with kid gloves, to put it mildly. There can be no alternative because somewhere in the mid-1990s and by the late 1990s when you and I were exchanging ratification instruments of the Union State Treaty, we agreed to conduct integration at various speeds and various levels. At that time, the Belarus-Russia Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, called the Customs Union at the time, was established on your insistent initiative, and the CIS. We maintain different speeds at these three levels on post-Soviet territory, but we were always ahead. During the era of President Yeltsin, we discussed the possibility of renouncing the Union State and the Belarus-Russia Union and making this format part of the Eurasian Economic Union. At that period of time, we had enough intelligence and wisdom not to go ahead with this. The new President of Russia supported this, and we were not mistaken. We are setting an example of how to move ahead within the EAEU and all the more so within the CIS. In effect, we are pushing ahead like a bulldozer, and we are paving the way for, as we really hope, future associations and unions in the post-Soviet region. The Union is an example and a road that all states counting on a more close-knit union will have to take. The President of Russia tactfully avoided mentioning all kinds of assertions that someone would take over someone, and so on and so forth. I would just like to point out that the President of Russia and I never suffered from this disorder. We can treat anyone who has had this disorder. I have recently said that we are sufficiently smart people, and if we find it necessary to make our already thoroughly close relations even more powerful, he and I will accomplish this in no time at all. Therefore one should not rattle and juggle old phrases and terminology about us trying to take over someone or to merge together contrary to the desires of our peoples. We simply wanted to accomplish something, and we singled out 28 areas and implemented the task in three years. Quite possibly, three years is a long time, but this is a mere instant in terms of history. Therefore one should not worry in this respect, and we will do everything possible in the interests of the people. And if we need even more close political and military integration, we will do this without delay, as soon as we feel this is required by our people in Belarus and Russia. Most importantly, and the President of Russia and I have discussed this, 28 programmes have been inked, and this is a conceptual view of any specific problem. Today, it is necessary to sift through volumes of domestic legislation and our joint agreements, to adapt them or to channel them via a direction that has been determined by the President of Russia and me. As has been said, we will finally approve this direction at a meeting of our Supreme State Council. Thank you. Question: Good afternoon, I have a question for you, President Putin. Indeed, the list of subjects included in the union programmes brings union integration between our two countries to the highest and broadest level. We must give credit to the governments that were able to agree upon a number of highly sensitive and principled matters such as monetary and foreign exchange policy, customs and taxation systems, a number of sector-specific problems, and social guarantee convergence. However, we must also admit the fact that for a number of years now, year in and year out, the development of the Union State was held back by a number of trade and economic hurdles. Frankly speaking, it is not easy for the Belarusian people to understand some of them. For example, the working conditions for Belarusian carriers in Russia are worse than for the Lithuanian or Polish carriers, and this despite the fact that our countries agreed on creating a common economic space more than 20 years ago. In this regard, my question is: do you think that once adopted and implemented, these union programmes will make it possible to resolve that pile of long-standing mutual problems and to leave them behind as we push ahead into the future? Vladimir Putin: You have taken a bird’s eye view of the matters finding a solution to which was a challenge for us. But if we start to dig deeper, it will become quite clear why it was so difficult for us to agree on things. It is because one side believed that it was enough to make some operational decisions at the governmental level and things would be settled, while the other side believed that certain decisions on certain matters could not be made until more fundamental decisions had been made. I just mentioned what we agreed on, and I will say it again, since this is an absolutely critical matter. So, we have agreed on conducting common macroeconomic policy. I will not go into details now, and you are probably aware of what this is about. We have also agreed on harmonising monetary policy, payment system integration, ensuring information security, and deepening cooperation in customs regulations and taxation. That is, we are talking about transparency of the customs value of goods and definition of the transparent structure of the value of goods in the economy in general. Our experts believed that without resolving these matters we cannot move on to other matters concerning individual commodity groups, including energy. We agreed to create a single methodology, which is important, for harmonising indirect taxes and a department which would control these processes. When the economy becomes transparent, when it becomes clear how much the goods cost when they are imported into any of the two states, Russia or Belarus, and then enter our customs territories, then we can talk about those goods’ real value. And this allowed us to agree on something else – we are now moving towards a unified industrial policy and access to government procurement and government contracts. This amounts to a transition to very specific work in these areas. But we disagreed for quite a long time. I have to say that our Belarusian partners are hard negotiators, but still, gradually, breaking the ideas down to elemental parts, we have practically – well, not practically, but fully agreed on all these matters. The President of Belarus and I have reaffirmed this today. We have agreed on all the details, you know, all the problems. When we got down to the details and spelled it all out, this puzzle just came together, and I hope it all really works. Question: Thank you very much. Please, if it’s possible one more short question, since I have such an opportunity. Did you discuss full resumption of air services today after COVID-19, and further developments in general? Were some decisions made maybe? Vladimir Putin: No, we discussed this at our previous meeting. This time, the President of Belarus did not bring up this matter, but the President of Belarus does not yet know about the decision just made at the government commission, which met not far from here, at Government House. They decided to lift all COVID-related restrictions on air services. Alexander Lukashenko: You have not told me about this. Vladimir Putin: No I did not, but now I am informing you. Alexander Lukashenko: Well, thank you. Vladimir Putin: Before these so-called COVID restrictions were introduced, we had over 200 flights a week. To be precise, 201 in fact, and at the moment just 36. I do not expect the pre-COVID level to get back to normal in just a couple of two days – to over 200 flights – because it all depends on the market and the carriers. But I believe the process will unfold speedily, also because, I hope, the agreements and the programmes we have informed you about will be quickly and efficiently implemented. Question: A question for both presidents. You touched upon the topic of economic integration. What are the prospects for political integration, or are there any? And, back to the Union State programmes, will Belarus enjoy special prices for energy resources? Is there a plan to create a single energy market regulator in the Union State? I am also interested if a decision is planned on a common Union State currency. Have you discussed additional credit support for Minsk? Vladimir Putin: With regard to political integration, this is what the Union Treaty was tasked to accomplish from the outset, when the Union Treaty was being formed in 1997 and a treaty signed a little later, I think, in 1999. We believe – just as your colleague asked a question about individual commodity groups, and what they succeeded in agreeing upon and what remains to be agreed – we decided that we need not to focus on separate items that are beneficial or not to a particular side, but instead should make comprehensive decisions thus creating a solid economic foundation for making progress in sensitive, but still peripheral matters. It works the same way here. We operate on the premise that, in spite of this being a noble cause, we must first create political integration and an economic basis, a foundation, in order to be able to move forward, on the political track as well. We have not taken up these issues yet. To reiterate, we believe that we should first focus on the economy, and everything else will then need additional regulation, including, perhaps, at the level of the Union parliament. I do not rule out the possibility of this being created. But before we do that we need, as they say, to grow up. We did not discuss this, and these items were not on our agenda. With regard to the second part of your question, I have already said that we will be addressing issues related to individual product groups in a comprehensive manner, even though we understand that the energy issue is highly sensitive. Therefore, as I said, we will leave the same price for Belarus for the next year, 2022. The price for Belarus will be $128.5 per 1,000 cubic metres. For your information, in case you are not aware of it, the price on the European market is $650 per 1,000 cubic metres. So, I think, the difference is clear. We will not even adjust the price for Belarus to take account of the dollar inflation, which is quite high. They planned 2 percent, but it will be over 5 percent actually. Now, they are saying it will be a little lower, but still two to three times higher than the target. But we are not going to adjust either for the inflation in Russia or for the dollar inflation. We will keep the price as it is this year. However, later on, as I said, we will nevertheless work out common approaches both on the gas market and on the petroleum and petroleum product market. What was the third matter? Question: Are you planning to provide additional support to Minsk in terms of lending? Vladimir Putin: Yes, the governments are discussing this. The President of Belarus and I also discussed this. The total volume of loans from September through late 2022 will amount to about $630 million, approximately $630–640 million. Anyway, it is going to be over $600 million. Alexander Lukashenko: As concerns political integration, I fully support President Putin although he was too modest and did not mention his own role in resolving this matter. We hit a brick wall at the time with certain issues in the Union, including political issues. It was then that the Russian President said words that became proverbial. We were having similar talks, in this very office where we had a one-to-one meeting today. That meeting was in an extended format. He reproached both Belarusian and Russian experts and said: “If we hit a wall and obviously have no way of solving this problem today, let’s put it aside until a moment comes when we can deal with it, when the time is ripe.” We have managed to not politicise our talks too much ever since. I have just said openly and honestly: we can go back to any problem, including a political one, if we need to, and we will develop our relations based on that premise. This issue will not get rusty, as we like to say in Russia and Belarus. This is why I support President Putin’s idea that the time will come and we will not keep anybody waiting. As for special prices, you must know that in fact, all our products are priced based on special terms due to free trade agreements in the Union State and the EAEU. We pay no duties, with the exception of energy. President Putin spoke about gas. Because it is an exception, we review the prices, including gas prices, almost every year. At this point, the oil exported outside Belarus sells at global prices if we exclude the duty. Regarding loans, President Putin did not say anything but I must admit that I told him that we do not need more loans. If we can save money thanks to the nuclear power plant for which we received a loan (according to Russia’s practice everywhere in the world), I asked him to give us this saved money as a loan. He agreed to consider it if there were good promising projects for Belarus and Russia. We are happy with this. There is also the loan that my colleague has just mentioned. Speaking about common currency, I would like you, as journalists, to understand: the question is not whether Putin or Lukashenko are stalling on this process. Remember, we have researched this issue. The Central Bank of Russia and the National Bank of Belarus unanimously asked us not to consider this issue yet. They said that neither they nor our countries were ready. President Putin and I listened and put this issue aside. It does not mean we will never get back to it. Currency is not the problem per se. It does not matter if the value of the dollar, euro or ruble increases, what matters and has always mattered is a common issuing institution. There is a definite problem with this. I think we may be able to solve it even while we are both presidents. This is the background I wanted to explain. Vladimir Putin: Regarding a common currency unit, we agree with this, and the President of Belarus has also agreed that it is very important to implement a unified macroeconomic policy. We have taken the first steps in this field. I have already said that the Central Bank of Russia and the National Bank of Belarus should harmonise monetary policy, ensure the integration of payment systems and facilitate information security in the financial sphere. This means that we are moving to address a more difficult and complicated problem. Alexander Lukashenko: Yes, this is correct. Vladimir Putin: We need to work gradually. The road maps and these programmes stipulate all this. Consequently, everything will be obvious there. We can see that countries with weaker economies are suffering in the European Union. They could devalue something in a well-known situation, but they are unable to do this because they have no national currency. The euro is a strong currency, and what are they to do? All-out price hikes is the only option fraught with dire social consequences. Therefore we must act very cautiously, analyse the pluses and minuses, the positive aspects of our neighbours and negative examples. We are trying to do this. You are talking about energy prices. I have said that 1,000 cubic metres cost $650 on the free European market. But the wise-guy members of the European Commission’s previous line-up invented market gas pricing, and the results are here for everyone to see. And we prefer a different approach. We also stipulate market pricing, and this price is pegged to the crude oil price. No one but market regulates it. But the fluctuations are much less pronounced. But here, someone has failed to pump the required 27 billion cubic metres into underground gas reservoirs, causing a shortage in gas supplies, business activity increased or something else happened, and there you are – gas prices start to exceed the prices of crude oil and petroleum derivatives. So you can see a substantial price hike. Gazprom does not charge such selling prices under long-term contracts and our pricing principles. Those Europeans who have agreed to sign long-term contracts with us can rub their hands with joy and feel happy because they would otherwise have to pay $650. Gazprom sells gas to Germany for $220; at any rate, this was the case only recently. Considering rising oil prices considered, this price will still go up, but the process will be more gradual. In reality, Gazprom is interested in this because it also creates a certain safety cushion. There will be no abrupt slump and drop in prices. This is the gist of the matter. Everyone stands to gain from this. Those members of the European Commission who came up with their own ideas have got the desired result. Question: Mr Lukashenko, Mr Putin, I have a question about migrants. It is a consequence of the current developments in Afghanistan, which actually concern Belarus as well. The humanitarian crisis in the nearby European region is gaining momentum and growing stronger, but the EU has turned a blind eye to the Polish authorities’ actions towards refugees from Afghanistan and other countries. Instead of helping, they are ousting them, throwing them out of their territory quite harshly, with the use of special equipment. This has little to do with respect for human rights and democratic principles, which the West loves to talk about so much. The question is whether we can expect Minsk and Moscow to take joint efforts soon to settle this problem. Alexander Lukashenko: You are providing interesting facts. Vladimir Putin: My Western colleagues and the leaders of some European countries have called on me to take joint actions, saying that there is a crisis on the Belarusian border with Lithuania and Poland. They are asking me to influence the situation. My answer is very simple: this is no concern of ours; this is not our border. It is the state border of the Republic of Belarus with Lithuania and Poland. This leads to my first question. In principle, all sides would like to talk directly with the Taliban, even though the movement is on the UN list of designated terrorist groups. Nevertheless, they say that the Taliban is controlling the territory and so we need to talk with them. But President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko did not come to power as a result of a war but by means of a public vote. Whether some people do not like the results of the vote is another matter. So my answer is why talk with us? Talk with the Belarusian authorities instead. Russia has nothing to do with this. This is the first thing that I wanted to say. Second, many people are indeed asking us to help evacuate the citizens of other countries and even some Afghans from Afghanistan. We are doing this. We are not doing this secretly; we are doing this after coordinating the matter regarding certain groups of citizens with the Taliban. European countries are also talking about the catastrophe underway there, beating their breasts and blaming themselves for leaving their people in the lurch. If this is so, and if some Afghans (or not only Afghans, because all refugees, including Afghans, are being pushed out of European countries) have approached the Belarusian border with Lithuania or Poland, I do not understand the logic. You can accuse Belarus of all kinds of things, but at least screen the refugees and allow the Afghans to stay. Should they be pushed back to Afghanistan? And then they will ask us to help evacuate them from the country, won’t they? There is no logic in that. I will not provide any political assessment now, but I would like to point out once again that Russia has nothing to do with this, that this is a sovereign concern of Belarus and its neighbours. Question: May I ask an additional question? What is your personal view on the situation? Do you believe that Belarus has, as the West claims, launched a hybrid war against the EU? Vladimir Putin: You see, very many sharp statements have been made to this effect. My Belarusian colleague himself is a professional when it comes to sharp statements. You can ask him, and he will tell you. Alexander Lukashenko: No, I cannot do this in your presence… Vladimir Putin: No, do not do this, please. Well, has anyone started a war there? I am not aware of this. The answer is very simple: if you want to clear up a question or a problem, if you really do want this, talk with the Belarusian authorities at any level, I do not know which level it should be, and do settle the problem with the neighbouring state. Where do we come in on this? Alexander Lukashenko: You know, the President of Russia is being delicate again. We are perfectly aware of the problem, and I have updated him; we discussed it. The EU and others are trying to settle this problem, in part, by making some complaints to the Russian leadership, in particular, my colleague, asking him to influence or pressure Lukashenko, and so on. I am grateful to him for his position, which he puts forth everywhere, that the Belarusian leadership and authorities are there and, as President Putin has said, the problem should be taken up with them. However, they claim that they cannot talk with us because the President [of Belarus] is not legitimate or the authorities are not what they should be. But the Taliban are a different matter, as we say, this is a different story, and so they can talk and communicate with them. Therefore, I am grateful to the President and leadership of Russia for their position. I personally and the authorities of Belarus appreciate this position. Second, we have overlooked one point. In fact, we have not overlooked it, as journalists in Russia and Belarus know very well. What did Washington say as soon as the acute phase of the US presence in Afghanistan ended? They called on everyone, including Russia and the Central Asian republics, and ordered – yes, ordered – the EU to take in all those who will flee (I am speaking plainly) from Afghanistan. We have recently discussed this issue during an online conference, a videoconference, and we have coordinated a nearly unanimous view on what we should do. Europeans have just rolled over and invited the Afghans in. Take a look at this information; it has happened only recently. But if you invited them, do take them along no matter where they came from: after all, they have worked for you all this time. There are hundreds of thousand Afghans, who spent 20 years working for those who have fled to their holes. What complaints can there be here against me, or Belarusians, let alone Russia? But it must be understood that some Afghans and Iraqis – they have also ruined Iraq, as you know, it was not us or Russia, – they are fleeing from Lebanon and Syria and other countries they invaded. These people are fleeing via Russia, via Belarus, or directly to Belarus. This concerns Russia and Belarus most directly. We have not invited them and they are not heading for Belarus: they are crossing via Belarus to countries that have invited them. So, take them, they are your problem. This is our position. And then, what are you urging us to do? Every day, you introduce new sanctions against us. In terms of sanctions, we are ahead of the Russian Federation by an order of magnitude. Over the past six months they have imposed a lot of sanctions on us. So, is it my duty or that of the Belarusian people to defend them on the border? No! They have wound down all programmes, leaving just a readmission agreement. You know about this. Well now, enjoy the fruit of your policies. Look at the face they present. I won’t speak straight from the shoulder, although I could. Look at the democratic face they present: they fire at people, they set the dogs on them, they catch migrants in Poland and Lithuania, marshal them into groups and march them across the border to Belarus, shooting above their heads. Thank God, so far they are firing into the air, although there are victims. There are dead bodies that they chuck across the border for us to pick up. This is their democratic face. This is why I don’t see any reasons for grievances against us. We honestly carried out our mission until they started turning the situation upside down by force and toppling the government. It is up to the Belarusian people to decide whether the government is legitimate or not. We did not meddle in the US elections, when they were shooting people point-blank during the ballot and afterwards. Therefore, they better sort out things at home. What we have to do as a reliable partner, we will do under all circumstances. If Europe wants to have normal relations with us, we are ready to talk at their earliest opportunity. And we will ask Russia to support us, if necessary, and we will operate jointly. But so far, there is no such need – thank God. If need be, we will join hands in no time and will counteract all the negative trends in the interests of Russians and Belarusians. Question: Good afternoon. My question is for both leaders. Today you said a lot about important allied programmes, but the Treaty on the Creation of the Union State was signed over 20 years ago, and as we know, most of those decisions have not been implemented yet. Proceeding from today’s decisions, in your opinion, at what integration stage are Russia and Belarus? And how much closer – if at all – have they come to the implementation of these agreements reached 20 years ago? Thank you. Vladimir Putin: I believe that we should have started with what we agreed upon today. We need to create an economic base, as I said, the foundation of our relations, and everything else is a political superstructure, as it was said back in the old days. So we are doing what we have agreed upon today, and then we will be ready to take the next steps. But it is work for the future; we need to monitor the rapidly changing situation. We will see what will happen after the implementation of the programme I have just mentioned. I am sure that we are on the right track. Alexander Lukashenko: I totally agree with the President of Russia, nothing to add here. That was a short and clear answer to the question. If you want to dig into the previous agreements, and I am not sure which agreements you mean, we can return to this matter in some other format and see what those agreements were and which of them we did not implement. The President is right, we have created a base for further progress, and we cannot fail. It could take two hours for both of us to tell you about the mistakes the European Union has made, and we used to model ourselves on it. And look at it now, there are numerous trends leading to destruction. They are openly ctiticising each other already. We do not want to make the same mistakes and the mistakes that were made in our union state, the Soviet Union. We draw conclusions. Time has passed and we could have missed something, and we can dwell on that, but we have returned to the creation of a base. As the President said, without the foundation, it is impossible to build the integration house. We have long abandoned the idea of starting building the house from the roof. Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much. Alexander Lukashenko: Thank you.