Visitor from a parallel world

  • 2009-09-23
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

STRANGERS: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in his first visit to Lithuania since 1997, with President Dalia Grybauskaite.

VILNIUS - On Sept. 16, Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko made his historic trip to Vilnius, where he met with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. It was his second visit to the European Union after the EU foreign ministers agreed in October 2008 to lift a ban for Belarusian top officials to enter the EU. In April, Lukashenko went to Rome to meet with Pope Benedict XVI and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but since then he has kept a much lower profile until this trip to Vilnius, where he spoke in public.

There was no joint press conference after the Grybauskaite and Lukashenko meeting. Since that meeting, until now, Grybauskaite hasn't made any press conference or briefing, probably to avoid commenting on Lukashenko's visit. Only her spokesman, Linas Balsys, held a press conference at the presidential palace after the meeting.
"Ms. Grybauskaite spoke openly and clearly about the position of the European Union and Lithuania regarding human rights in Belarus, freedom for the press and political organizations," Balsys said adding that Grybauskaite thanked Lukashenko for preserving Lithuanian-speaking villages and Lithuanian cultural heritage in Belarus.

On Sept. 16, in front of the Lithuanian president's palace, several dozen mostly young Lithuanians demonstrated, calling for democracy in Belarus and an explanation on the disappearance of the Belarusian regime's critics. The posters in English stated: "Democratic elections for Belarus!," "Where is Gonchar?," "Where is Zavadski?"
After leaving Grybauskaite in her presidential office, Lukashenko visited the exhibition Belarus Expo 2009, where he spoke, and later held an improvised press conference. During his speech he expressed his interest in economic ties with the EU, but rejected the possibility of changing the interior policy inside Belarus.

"I want to say it here, in the EU. I want the Europeans to understand: you cannot force us to do what you want. We are an educated people. We know what to do and how to do it. Belarus has normal links with Russia, why should we have to abandon them?" Lukashenko said.
He spoke in the emotional style of his friend Hugo Chavez. Sometimes it was difficult to understand for a sober man. Answering to a question about Vytautas Pociunas, the Lithuanian state security officer who worked in the Lithuanian consulate in Grodno, and in 2006 died in mysterious circumstances by falling from a window of a hotel in Brest, Lukashenko said, "Officers often fall."

Answering a Lithuanian journalist's question about human rights in Belarus, Lukashenko repeated exactly the same words he said to an identical question by the author of this article, back in 1997. "The main human rights are a right to life and work," Lukashenko said.
He also accused journalists of double standards. "Why you, Lithuanian and Polish journalists, do not protest when demonstrations are dispersed using tear-gas and water cannons in France and Germany. We never use tear-gas or water cannons," Lukashenko said. As he spoke in Vilnius, Belarusian militia were arresting some 30 persons in Minsk who were trying to demonstrate, in solidarity of those regime critics who mysteriously vanished 10 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1999.

In his speech, Lukashenko complained about expensive Schengen visas for Belarusians who want to visit Lithuania and Latvia. However, his delegation refused to sign an agreement with Lithuania which would allow for people living in a radius of 50 kilometers of both sides of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border to cross the border during five years with a special card costing 20 euros.
According to one of the most influential world human rights organizations, Freedom House, Belarus occupies 188th place, out of 195 listed countries, in terms of freedom of press. Russia, China, Iran and Zimbabwe are ahead of Belarus in the list for 2009. According to Transparency International, Belarus is 151 out of 180 listed countries in this anti-corruption watchdog's corruption perceptions index, the same place occupied by Laos, Papua New Guinea, Tajikistan and Central African Republic, for example. Syria, Bangladesh, Russia and Kenya all share the 147th spot.

Lukashenko praised the current economic relations with Lithuania, saying that 200 Belarusian companies made investments in Lithuania. The number of companies is just 59, according to Lithuanian daily Lietuvos Rytas. In the first half of 2009, Lithuanian exports to Belarus were just five percent of total Lithuanian exports, while Belarus is not even among the top 15 countries which export to Lithuania - one percent of Lithuanian imports. In the Belarus Expo 2009, which was opened on Lukashenko's visiting day, Belarusian companies advertised their dairy and meat products, though it would be illegal to sell them in the EU because they don't have the necessary quality certificate.
Lukashenko arrived in Vilnius having been invited by Lithuanian businessmen, not the government. He has recently liberalized his economy while preserving the status quo in politics, though all major business activity remains under the personal control of Lukashenko. "Our people like it this way," Lukashenko said in the interview with Lithuanian public TV.

According to Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorski, who arrived together with Lukashenko, some 60 percent of Belarusian GDP is produced by private companies though major businesses are still owned by the state.
The main initiator of Lukashenko's visit, whom the Belarusian president mentioned during his press conference, was Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov. He is majority shareholder of the Ukio Bankas Investment Group. Romanov is also a majority shareholder of the Scottish league's Edinburgh Hearts football club.

Romanov was present at the meeting with Lukashenko at the Belarus Expo 2009 in Vilnius. Now his company is renovating Traktor Stadium and constructing a huge shopping and amusement center near the stadium in the Belarusian capital Minsk. In a short briefing at the Litexpo exhibition center, Romanov told journalists that he enjoys the Belarusian business situation, where all economics are under the control of one man.

"It is positive because I know whom to address. It feels that during 20 years [actually, Lukashenko is in power for 15 years since 1994] there is a boss who is a unique man and who loves his country and knows its economy and manages it, according to his own understanding," Romanov said.
On Sept. 14, leaders of the Belarusian opposition met with Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius and Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas. Belarusian opposition leaders expressed their fear that Lukashenko's visit legitimizes Lukashenko's power. Belarusian opposition leaders gave their press conference in Vilnius.

"If Belarusian opposition would be strong enough to be a parliamentary opposition, then Western leaders could allow themselves not to meet Lukashenko. However, people who call themselves opposition in Belarus are a marginal force in that society. Any contacts that show to the president that he is a leader of a country with a European future, not a satellite country, are good," said Vitaly Portnikov, Ukrainian political analyst, commenting on Lukashenko's visit.
Andrei Piontkovsky, Russian dissident political analyst, speaking to, said that there is a sense, that he hopes finally, after some years, Lukashenko, who has done a lot to preserve his country's independence from Russia, will be forced to step down, after some deal with the West, which would allow him and his son Kolya, to live somewhere in Switzerland, far away from a new democracy in Belarus.

On Sept. 17, Usackas participated in the seminar "Eastern Partnership - Opportunities and Challenges for Enhanced Cooperation between the EU and its Eastern Neighbors" at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.

"Yesterday, Prime Minister Kubilius stated to President Lukashenko, a full-fledged partnership with the EU, which is based on the principles of the rule of law, democratic political systems, respect for human rights and guaranteed freedoms of expression and press, is possible only when our Belarusian neighbors embrace the values and principles that represent the core of the EU. I wish that Belarus proves in the immediate future that it can deliver on its commitment as regards one of the most fundamental principles of Eastern Partnership, namely the respect for territorial integrity of other countries, and in particular of Georgia. This is of key importance for the successful future participation within the Eastern Partnership and relations with Europe as a whole," Usackas said.