Lally Weymouth interviews Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011

In December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was elected to his fourth term, and pro-democracy opponents took to the streets, charging fraud.

Police rounded up some 700 people and charged 42, many with organizing a riot, an offense carrying a prison term of five to 15 years. The crackdown prompted the European Union and the United States to impose travel restrictions on Lukashenko and other top Belarusan officials and to freeze their assets.

On Wednesday, Belarus sentenced three men to up to four years in a top-security prison. In a three-hour interview with Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth on Monday in his Minsk office, Lukashenko ranged from combative to plaintive.

The taped interview was conducted in English, with a Lukashenko aide interpreting, then transcribed. Following are excerpts.

The U.S. and E.U. have imposed travel sanctions on you and officials in your government. Has this made you think twice?

If it were to happen again tomorrow, I would do the same thing I did at that time. I would protect the house of government as it has to be done according to the constitution.

Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton met with you only weeks before this happened. The United States was hoping you would open up, as you had been doing in a minor way. You had allowed opposition candidates to run, so people were surprised when you completely changed course. Why did you do that?

We hoped that Americans and Europeans were interested in this country being independent and sovereign and in developing their relations in a good way. Unfortunately, after the events of the 19th of December, we were sure that you didn't want that.

The U.S. was always clear on its terms. It wants democracy and transparency; Washington hasn't changed its terms.

We told you clearly that there is no less democracy in Belarus than there is in the United States.

If you hold an election and seven out of the nine candidates running against you end up in jail, it is not a very good signal to the West that this is an open and democratic place. Plus, there were limits on the amount of money the candidates could raise and how much time they could spend on television. There was only one debate, and you did not participate.

The question is not about the time limit the candidates [had] in the media. The question is what these candidates said. They were saying that Lukashenko needs to be hanged. Belarus is a wayward country. So, the Americans decided to treat the results of the elections in a very negative way.

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