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Lukashenko says Belarus is ‘authoritarian’

#Lukashenko #Belarus #authoritarian

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday admitted he had run an authoritarian state but claimed there were no political prisoners in his isolated country.

“Yes, our power system is tougher. I don’t even rule out the word ‘authoritarian’,” Lukashenko told AFP in an exclusive interview in the capital, Minsk.

Belarusian rights group Viasna says the country currently has 1,259 political prisoners.

But Lukashenko dismissed the “talk of hundreds” of detainees and claimed that “nobody from the opposition” is currently in prison.

The former Soviet state farm director, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has attempted to portray any opposition to his rule as a Western-backed conspiracy.

He slammed Belarusians who had taken part in historic protests against his contested re-election in 2020.

“These people spoke out against the state. Not against the authorities — against the state and their own nation,” he said.

The 67-year-old leader crushed the demonstrations with the help of Russian ally President Vladimir Putin.

Key protest leaders are now either imprisoned or in exile.

“I’m not a dictator,” Lukashenko insisted, while admitting that Belarus has “elements of authoritarianism.”

“I’m not as wild as you think,” he said.

Lukashenko claimed he didn’t know how many of his critics were behind bars.

“I don’t even remember if those prominent bandits who instigated this mutiny are in jail,” he said.

“Maybe one or two have been convicted,” he added.

Since the crackdown on the protests, the Belarusian authorities – led by the powerful KGB security service – have launched a sweeping crackdown on any remaining dissent.

Many Belarusians have been tried behind closed doors with virtually no independent media left to report on them.

Last week Katerina Bakhvalova, a 28-year-old journalist who covered anti-Lukashenko protests and who was serving a two-year prison sentence, was sentenced to an additional eight years in prison for “treason.”

– “Hard Discipline” –

When asked if he had plans to resign after 28 years, the Belarusian president did not give a clear answer.

Instead, Lukashenko claimed that if he had left power in 2020, “it would have been worse in Belarus than in Ukraine today”.

He also struggled to portray himself as a good-natured leader, saying that while Belarus has “tough discipline,” it only has people’s interests in mind.

Information in Belarus is strictly controlled and the authorities promote an exclusively positive image of Lukashenko.

The strongman leader said he acted to protect Belarus’ “sovereignty” in the face of the protests.

“And what, you wanted me to just sit there?” he said.

He claimed the demonstrations were designed by Poland to “break” Belarus.

Among those who fled Belarus in 2020 is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who ran in place of her imprisoned husband against Lukashenko in the August 2020 elections.

She now leads the Belarusian opposition from exile in neighboring Lithuania while her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky is serving 18 years in prison on politically motivated charges.

– ‘Where is Protasevich?’ –

Lukashenko has largely kept his landlocked country wedged between Russia and EU member Poland in a Soviet time warp.

A quarter century after the collapse of the USSR, the tightly controlled Eastern European nation still clings to a command economy and looks to former champion Moscow as its key ally, creditor and energy supplier.

Belarus shocked the world last year when it forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk to arrest a dissident journalist on board, Roman Protasevich.

Minsk claimed a bomb threat, but the United Nations Aviation Authority blamed Belarusian officials for the “unlawful” diversion.

Protasevich was arrested and later confessed to planning anti-government protests, with both the opposition and his relatives saying he was coerced into doing so.

Protasevich, 27, is currently under house arrest awaiting trial.

“Protasevich? Where is he? He lives quietly in his own country. He doesn’t want to go to the West,” Lukashenko said.

“He has matured and realized that this country is his country.”

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#Lukashenko #Belarus #authoritarian

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