When challenged for human rights abuses, including attacks on protesters, a bomb threat that forced a plane to land that allowed Belarusian authorities to arrest dissidents on board, and what the European Union calls the “militarization” of migrants, Lukashenko tried to deflect anything negative.
“This is crazy,” he said of the Polish government’s claims that Belarus was dropping off immigrants on its border.
But the tension between Belarus and the EU is real.
So is the fact that most airlines no longer fly over Belarusian territory. That action was sparked when a vocal critic of the Lukashenko regime was detained in May from a Ryanair plane headed from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania.
A Belarusian official claimed that the Palestinian militant group Hamas had sent an email saying there was a bomb on board the flight. A Hamas spokesman denied the accusation as “fake news.” Protasevich’s supporters said it was a fantastic ploy to get the plane to land in Minsk.
Pressed by CNN on whether there was a genuine bomb threat or whether it had been fabricated as an excuse to arrest a critic, Lukashenko simply insisted that his country followed international law.
“If you are afraid of flying over our territory, I can personally guarantee your safety and that of your company, your country or any other country by flying over Belarus, as always,” Lukashenko told CNN.
“If you choose not to fly, okay, okay, fly over the North Pole or the South Pole, it’s your right, I can’t force you. I’m not as powerful as Britain, let alone the United States, to dictate terms. Yes you don’t fly, others will, as you just said. Okay, we’ll handle it. ”
Lukashenko, a temperamental former head of collective farms, has been Belarus’ president since 1994, its first and only leader since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Called “the last dictator of Europe”, his iron grip on his country has become increasingly forceful, especially since last year’s vote.
His public appearances are strictly controlled and he is generally surrounded by sycophantic compatriots.
In the CNN interview at the Independence Palace, he moved and dodged, trying to turn the problems in the West.
“I don’t think this is even a relevant question and, in principle, I have nothing to apologize for,” he said.
CNN cited evidence from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of some detainees reporting injuries, including broken bones and burns, while others said they were forced to lie naked on the ground while attacking them.
Lukashenko replied: “You know, we do not have a single detention center, as you say, like Guantanamo, or those bases that the United States and your country created in Eastern Europe … As for our own detention centers, where we keep the Defendants or those under investigation are no worse than in Britain or America. I guarantee it. “
At first he seemed reluctant to even say the name of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who left Belarus after elections that were widely viewed as fraudulent.
He then said that Tikhanovskaya had not had to flee. “I swear on my children that Tikhanovskaya was not running away anywhere,” he said.
Lukashenko paints an optimistic picture of life in Belarus, saying that families are safe to leave.
However, on the streets of Minsk, the people we met seemed to be afraid of something. Most did not stop to speak to CNN and rushed to leave.
One young man who did speak made a strong assessment of why people were scared. “This is Belarus,” he said. “The police can arrest you and me.”
Back at the Independence Palace, Lukashenko said that his people understood him. That he was joking when he said that the coronavirus could be prevented with a shot of vodka and a sauna.
Cultivate an image of a man of the people, a strong and rebellious leader on the world stage.
But still, watch what it says.
“I will not admit anything in front of you. I am not under investigation. So please choose your words carefully,” he said in a reply.
He went from not being a “wimp” who would care to take revenge on the EU for sanctions, to threatening retaliation if relations with the West deteriorate further.
But it’s a weakness that his critics say is pushing Lukashenko ever closer to another strongman next door, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid: support. to the Kremlin which will probably come with conditions.
Closer economic, political and military integration has fueled speculation that Lukashenko will be the last and the first Belarusian president, effectively merging his country with Russia.
In a whisper, he denies it.
“Putin and I are smart enough to create a union of two independent states that would be stronger together than apart. Sovereignty is not for sale,” he said.
In the next breath, suggest what might happen if there is provocation.
“If necessary, Belarus will become a military base for Russia and Belarus in order to resist their aggression, if it so decides, or if any country decides to attack. And you must be clear about this, I have never made any secret about it.”
CNN’s Katharina Krebs contributed to this story.