Faced with human rights abuses, including attacks on protesters, a bomb threat that forced a plane to land, which enabled the Belarusian authorities to arrest dissidents on board, and the European Union’s so-called “gun education” of migrants, Lukashenko tried to deflect all negative.
“This is insane,” he said of allegations by the Polish government that Belarus was dumping migrants at its border.
But the tensions between Belarus and the EU are real.
Likewise the fact that most of the airlines no longer fly over Belarusian territory. The trigger for this action was that in May a loud critic of Lukashenko’s regime was taken into custody by a Ryanair plane en route from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania.
A Belarusian official alleged that the Palestinian militant group Hamas had sent an email saying there was a bomb on board the plane. A Hamas spokesman dismissed the allegation as “fake news”. Protasevich’s supporters said it was a fantastic ruse to get the plane on the ground in Minsk.
Urged by CNN whether there was a real bomb threat or whether it was invented as an excuse to arrest a critic, Lukashenko merely insisted that his country obey international laws.
“If you are afraid of flying over our territory, I can personally guarantee the safety of you and that of your company, your country or any other country when you fly over Belarus, just as I always do,” Lukashenko told CNN.
“If you choose not to fly, that’s fine, OK, fly over the North Pole or the South Pole, that’s your right, I can’t force you. I’m not as powerful as Britain, let alone the United States , dictate some conditions, if you don’t fly, as you just said, others will.
Lukashenko, a spirited former collective farm boss, has been President of Belarus since 1994, its first and only leader since the fall of the Soviet Union.
As “Europe’s last dictator”, his iron grip on his country is getting stronger, especially since the vote last year.
His public appearances are tightly controlled and he is generally surrounded by obscure compatriots.
During the CNN interview at the Palace of Independence, he squirmed and ducked to direct the subject to the West.
“I don’t think this is a relevant question and in principle I have nothing to excuse,” he said.
CNN cited evidence from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that some inmates reported injuries such as broken bones and burns, while others said they were forced to lie naked in the dirt while being attacked.
Lukashenko replied, “You know, we don’t have a single detention center, as you say, like Guantanamo or the bases that the United States and your country have set up in Eastern Europe … As for our own detention centers, where do we keep the accused or The investigation is no worse than the UK or the United States. I can guarantee you that. “
At first he seemed hesitant to even mention the name of opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya, who left Belarus after what was widely regarded as a fraudulent election.
Then he said that Tichanovskaya did not have to flee. “I swear by my children that Tikhanovskaya has not fled anywhere,” he said.
Lukashenko paints a rosy picture of life in Belarus and says that families can go out safely.
However, on the streets of Minsk, the people we met seemed afraid of something. Most didn’t stop to speak to CNN and hurried off.
One young man who spoke made a blunt assessment of why people were afraid. “This is Belarus,” he said. “The police can arrest you and me.”
Back at the Independence Palace, Lukashenko said his people understood him. That he was joking when he said the coronavirus could be fended off with a shot of vodka and a sauna.
He maintains an image as a man of the people, as a strong leader and loner on the world stage.
Even so, he pays attention to what he says.
“I will not admit anything in front of you. I will not be investigated. So please choose your words carefully,” he said in a reply.
He fluctuated between not weakening, which would take revenge for sanctions on the EU, to threatening reprisals should relations with the West deteriorate further.
But it’s a weakness that, according to his critics, brings Lukashenko closer to another strong man next door, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid – support for the Kremlin that is likely conditional.
Closer economic, political and military integration has fueled speculation that Lukashenko will be both the last and first Belarusian presidents and that his country will effectively merge with Russia.
In one breath he denies this.
“Putin and I are intelligent enough to create a union of two independent states that would be stronger together than apart. Sovereignty cannot be bought,” he said.
In the next breath he suggests what could happen if a provocation occurs.
“If need be, Belarus will become a military base for Russia and Belarus to withstand your aggression if you choose or want to attack a country. And you should be aware, I’ve never done one.” Secret of it. ”
CNN’s Katharina Krebs contributed to this story.