Challenges over human rights abuses including attacks on protesters, a bomb threat that forced a plane to land, allowing Belarusian authorities to arrest dissidents on board, and what the EU calls the “weaponization” of migrants, Lukashenko tried to do anything negative.
“This is madness,” he said of the Polish government’s claims that Belarus was dumping migrants at their border.
But the tension between Belarus and the European Union is real.
So is the fact that most airlines are no longer flying in Belarusian territory. The crackdown began when an outspoken critic of Lukashenko’s regime was detained in May on a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania.
A Belarus official claimed that the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas had sent an email saying there was a bomb on the plane. A Hamas spokesman called the allegation “fake news”. Protasevich’s supporters said it was an imaginary ploy to land the plane in Minsk.
Pressed by CNN as to whether there was an actual bomb threat or whether it was a pretext to arrest a critic, Lukashenko only insisted that his country abides by international law.
“If you are afraid to fly over our territory, I can personally guarantee the safety of you and your company, your country or any other country, as never before,” Lukashenko told CNN.
“If you choose not to fly, well, well, fly to the North Pole or the South Pole, it’s your right, I can’t force you. I’m not as powerful as Great Britain, leave the United States, Set any bet. If you don’t fly, others will, as you just said. It’s okay, we’ll move on.”
Lukashenko, a temperamental former collective farm owner, has been President of Belarus since 1994, its first and only leader since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Called “Europe’s last dictator”, his iron grip on his country has become increasingly strong, especially since last year’s vote.
His public appearance is strictly controlled and he is usually surrounded by countrymen.
In a CNN interview at the Palace of Independence, he weaved and ducked, attempting to turn the issues west.
“I don’t think it’s even a relevant question, and in principle, I have nothing to apologize for,” he said.
CNN, citing evidence from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, said some detainees reported injuries, including broken bones and burns, while others said they were forced to lie naked in the dirt when 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 built in Eastern Europe… As for our own detention centers, where we keep those accused or those under investigation, they are no worse than the UK or the United States. I can guarantee you that.”
He was at first reluctant to even name opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had left Belarus after the election, which was widely seen as a fraud.
Then they said that Tikhanovskaya did not have to run away. “I swear to my children that Tikhanovskaya was not running anywhere,” he said.
Lukashenko painted a rosy picture of life in Belarus, saying families were safe to go out.
On the streets of Minsk, the people we met were, however, afraid of something. Most did not stop to speak to CNN and left as quickly as possible.
A young man talking gave people a blunt assessment of their fear. “This is Belarus,” he said. “The police can arrest you and me.”
Back at the Independence Palace, Lukashenko said that his people understood him. He was joking when he said that a shot of vodka and a sauna can cure the coronavirus.
He develops an image on the world stage as a strong leader of the people and a vagabond.
But still, he sees what he says.
“I’m not going to accept anything in front of you. I’m not being investigated. So please choose your words carefully,” he said in a reply.
He was in the midst of not being a “weak” one who would care to take revenge against the EU for sanctions, further worsening relations with the West for threatening retaliation.
But it is this weakness that his critics say is pushing Lukashenko closer to another strongman next door, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid — Kremlin support that is likely to come with strings attached. is likely to.
Close economic, political and military integration has fueled speculation that Lukashenko would be the last as well as the first Belarusian president, effectively merging his country with Russia.
In one breath, he denies it.
“Putin and I are wise enough to form a federation of two independent states that will be stronger together by separation. Sovereignty is not for sale,” he said.
In the next breath, he suggests what might happen if there was a provocation.
“If we need to, Belarus will turn into a military base for Russia and Belarus so that you can face your aggression, if you decide to, or if one of the countries decides to attack. And you have to To be clear, I’ve never made any secret of it.”
CNN’s Katharina Krebs contributed to this story.