"India is top priority for Belarus"

Vladimir Radyuhin

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on his country's ties with India, the relevance of NAM, the future of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and other issues. Excerpts from an interview:

Denounced by the United States as "Europe's last dictator" and targeted by the west for the next "orange revolution" in the former Soviet Union, Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been confidently steering his small republic of 10 million along its own course for the past 13 years, relying on close alliance with Russia. But when last year Moscow, weary of supporting Belarus with cheap oil and gas supplies, told Minsk either to merge with Russia or pay market prices, Mr. Lukashenka chose independence. "We will not sell our sovereignty for cheap gas," the defiant Belarus leader said. Last week Mr. Lukashenka talked to The Hindu in Minsk ahead of his visit to India on April 16-17.

Belarus is far away from India. What place does India take in your foreign policy priorities?

India is a top priority for us, along with Russia and China. What isolation of Belarus are they talking about in the west when we have such excellent relations with these three major nuclear powers? We take pride in our relations with India that go back to centuries ago. India had fraternal relations with the Soviet Union and Belarus played a vanguard role in those relations, primarily in science and technologies, making a weighty contribution to India's breathtaking rise to a global power.

The break-up of the Soviet Union affected negatively our ties with India, but we have now overcome the decline and surpassed the Soviet-era level of our cooperation. Belarus has world-class technologies in electronics, microelectronics, optics, space and other areas. Our technological potential, which catered to the whole of the Soviet Union, far exceeds our current needs, and during my first visit to India 10 years ago I offered to share it with India. The response was positive, and today science and technology are the thrust areas of our cooperation with India.

We are cooperating in microelectronics, sensors, alternative energy sources, laser and optical equipment, new materials, nano technologies, medical biotechnologies, IT and communications. Belarus is setting up a laser optics centre in Delhi, while India is about to open an IT training centre in Minsk.

What are your expectations of the visit?

I am sure the visit will pave the way to bilateral trade growth. I am taking with me not only ministers but also heads of major state-owned and private companies, and we will sign contracts worth millions of dollars. We will sign a Joint Declaration outlining main directions of our cooperation and setting forth our views on global issues, and a number of intergovernmental agreements.

What is Belarus' stand on India's bid for a U.N. Security Council seat and do you think India should have veto power?

Without India the Security Council cannot be a fully representative body today. It is not fair that India, a nuclear power like China, with a billion-odd population and advanced economy, does not sit on the Security Council. We declared this from the U.N. rostrum as far back as 1989, and we will vote for India to be a permanent member of the Security Council with the same veto powers as the P-5 nations.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia Belarus is the only European country to be a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Do you think NAM is still relevant in the post-Cold War scenario? Will NAM be on the agenda of your talks in Delhi?

The role and importance of the Non-Aligned Movement is growing as the Havana summit demonstrated. Belarus has recently become more actively involved in NAM, and we would like India to play a more active role in the movement. I think we will discuss this issue during our talks with the Indian leadership. India, with its enormous economic potential and millennium-old culture, can be instrumental in revitalising NAM. There is a pressing need to strengthen economic cooperation within NAM. India could take the lead in forming a core of economically strong NAM members, such as Malaysia, Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, Venezuela, and other nations. This core could promote economic growth in less developed nations and transform NAM into a major centre of economic and political power in the world. Europe and the United States, of course, resent this prospect, but it is their problem.

Belarus is seeking membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which India joined last year as an observer. How do you see the future of this organisation?

Belarus indeed is keen to join SCO first as observer and later as a full member as soon as SCO adopts procedures for the admission of new members. We see great prospects for SCO provided it can harmonise interests and overcome certain mistrust among its members, for example between Russia and China, or India and China. There is also a strong potential for cooperation in the sphere of security between SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), where Belarus currently holds rotating presidency. [CSTO comprises Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan - which are also members of SCO, as well as Belarus and Armenia.] The two organisations are bound to interact as both operate in a region pockmarked by hotbeds of tension. I think such cooperation will begin in the near future.

Belarus has close economic and technological links with Russia and China. Do you see possibilities for multisided cooperation with these countries involving India?

We have many joint projects involving Belarus, Russia, and India in high technologies, space, and defence. This is only natural since Belarus and Russia very closely cooperate in these areas between them and with India. I would not rule out that this triangular format could become quadrangular, for example, in space technologies where Belarus is actively interacting with China.

Belarus has been spared the scourge of terrorism. Still, are you concerned about the global rise of terrorism?

We have never shied away from international anti-terrorist efforts because we know that no country is safe from this evil. Our security services have been closely studying India's painful, but extremely useful experience of fighting terrorism, which you generously share with us.

How painful for Belarus was the collapse of the Soviet Union and how is your economy doing today?

We suffered an appalling fall in production, losing half of our economy. But we were the first country in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to bounce back to the level of 1990, that is, before the Soviet Union broke up. Today we have surpassed that level by about 20 per cent.

It is often asserted in Russia and in the West that you have preserved an unreformed state-run Soviet economy in Belarus...

It is not true that we have not pursued reforms. But our reforms have been different from those in Russia. We did not go for a sweeping sell-out of state assets, which had catastrophic consequences for the Russian industry. Russian recovery in recent years has been fuelled by sky-high prices for its oil and natural gas. We do not have oil or any other natural resources. But we have advanced high-end technologies and manufacturing industries and their collapse would have spelled doom for Belarus as an independent state. When I was elected President [in 1994] I threw out all plans for indiscriminate privatisation in Belarus and stopped the so-called "conversion" of defence factories to the production of kitchenware. This saved our industrial potential. Average wages in Belarus were as low as $20-30 a month in the 1990s, and are set to grow to $500 in the current five-year plan period. We have privatised only those public sector undertakings that the state cannot manage efficiently. Why should we sell our refineries, petrochemical or potash industries if they are doing very well and making good profit? But it is a lie that we have an unreformed economy: non-government entities today account for more than 50 per cent of the country's GDP.

Do you think the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has a future? What trends are prevailing in the group - towards disintegration or re-integration?

The fate of CIS largely depends on Russia. I would like Russia to stop treating CIS as an instrument for divorce of the former Soviet republics. It is a useful platform for meeting and thrashing out problems, and Russia seems to be coming round to this view. But the efficiency of CIS is very low, especially in the economic sphere, and some member-states have set up groups within CIS to promote closer economic integration.

Until recently integration and disintegration processes in the former Soviet Union balanced each other, but the recent crisis in Russia-Belarus relations [Russia doubled gas prices for Belarus in January] has tipped the scales towards disintegration. Russia used to account for 85 per cent of Belarus' trade, but today its share has come down to less than 50 per cent, same as trade between Belarus and the European Union. We are being squeezed from the Russian market. Russia lacks a coherent policy and is only concerned with getting maximum profits from oil and gas exports. But we have not turned our back on Russia. In these trying times when the U.S. is about to deploy missile interceptors near our borders directed against Russia, we stand by Russia and will not shirk our defence responsibilities under our bilateral union treaty.