Orthodox summit: Belarus ideal venue for Catholic

MINSK, May 5 (Reuters) - President Alexander Lukashenko proposed ex-Soviet Belarus as an "ideal" place for an historic meeting to smooth out longstanding differences between the ?????ut sometimes choices have to be made as in the instance of recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. What decision will be taken by Belarus?

A: No formal decision has been taken, but it is under discussion where it needs to be discussed.

If the answer is 'no', we will be honest in telling people so. And we will be equally honest if the answer is 'yes'. It is up to me as president to decide on this issue. But I want to decide it in such a way that it does not hurt our people.

Q: What are the consequences of the economic crisis in Belarus. What prospects do you see for the country?

A: The economy had growth of 1.5 percent in the first quarter ... It is not really growth. The crisis coming from the West has struck Belarus. We have no problem with production or resources. It is our exports that have been hit hard.

And the way out of this is diversifying our foreign trade ... So we are looking for new markets and doing quite well at it.

Q: So there will be no great rise in unemployment as there was in Russia?

A: No, there will be no great unemployment as in previous years ... in as much as internal demand is picking up and we are expanding our construction capacity. We are building more housing.

Q: It would seem to me that the consequences of the crisis are less acute in Belarus than in Russia. Why is that?

A: I wouldn't say that things are better than in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter ... Russia is being hit because it is a producer of raw materials. Perhaps it is because of the greater control in our country, the fact that the state has remained in every sector of the economy. We have maintained state control. You started to liberalise excessively, turned the economy into a casino and believed it would go on like that for a long time.

Q: How do you see the future of the "union state" with Russia?

A: We see it as a union of equal republics. Without such equality, there can be no such union. But if we instill such a principle, then the union can develop. To be frank, we do not have a union with equal rights.

Q: In the long-term, Belarus cannot be involved in a union with Russia and be a member of the European Union. Which do you think is better for the country?

A: We have signed a treaty with Russia on building a union state. We will not move away from this treaty even if Russia has a tendency to back away from what has been agreed.

As for EU membership, this issue has not even been discussed. I believe it is important for both Russia and Europe that Belarus is a sovereign, independent state where Europeans can feel at home.

We have to destroy stereotypes in peoples' minds that Belarus can be isolated or taught a lesson. The EU is unlikely to gain from anything from an iron curtain being erected.

Q: The EU has suspended sanctions against Belarus and proposes their final removal in return for further moves on reforms. How do you feel about that?

A: We have a constitution and laws. Our constitution was adopted by referendum. Our people support what is happening. They like our Belarussian model. Our legislation is perfectly good, no worse than in some EU countries.

We are criticised for taking tough measures against demonstrators, but Lukashenko has never, not once, used tear gas or water cannon, against demonstrators.

And that is what we have seen periodically in democratic Europe or in the United States, the very hotbed of democracy.

Q: But the Europeans are still calling for change of some sort.

A: Not long ago, the Europeans wanted what was written down for them by the opposition. We have evidence of this. Those changes were sought by people who did not want better relations between Belarus and the EU. They therefore made demands they knew to be unacceptable. To tear down our election law and legislation on the media. Our legislation on those matters is to our benefit. It offers stability. It was our legislation, our authorities and the people that created this stability.

So why destroy it? Why should I destroy it with my very own hands? If someone starts nudging me towards this, I will take a good look. If a given step causes no harm to the political and economic situation, I will do it.

I have already made quite a few concessions to Europe. But we should not be doing this today -- and I mean today -- if it will lead to the collapse of the economy, of public activity, to negative consequences, to destabilisation, as it did in Ukraine, why do it?

Q: Why does the West have what you term double standards towards different countries?

A: If I had resources like Russia or Kazakhstan, our relations would be completely different.

Q: Would you be prepared to accept some members of the opposition in, say, the government?

A: With great pleasure. If citizens are willing to work for the benefit of the people, we are also ready publicly to bring them in ... Our hiring policies do not involve taking on opposition members for the sake of their being opposition members.

We propose that they start working in their area of specialisation. We will offer no restrictions and they can climb the professional ladder quickly.

Q: Do you see, for instance, (opposition figure Alexander) Milinkevich working as a minister?

A: I hardly know Milinkevich. We've never met. He's never had a government job. He was apparently a teacher and that's something I value. He was nominated as an opponent to Lukashenko in the last election. My understanding is that in the disparate forces of the opposition, he pursues a pragmatic, well-considered policy.

Q: What about relations with the United States? When will the U.S. ambassador return to Belarus?

A: That depends on the United States. If he comes back to press forward with sanctions, then why do we need an ambassador and an embassy? If the United States sees us as its partner and wants to cooperate with us, it is welcome.

Q: Have you noticed, since Obama came to power, a trend to improve relations?

A: You can't do a great deal in 100 days. It won't be easy to overturn inertia in a country like the United States. If that's the path he takes, there will be movement. He is a reasonable man. I believe good relations with the United States lie ahead. I believe the time has come.

Q: Could Belarus become a site for a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church?

A: It was not for nothing that I said this was the place where cultures and two confessions, Orthodox and Catholic mix ... Belarus is a holy place because there are no differences between Orthodox and Catholics.

(Russian Orthodox) Patriarch Kirill is an enlightened, surprising man, young and energetic. You can speak to him about anything.

I also met the Pope and he made a very special impression on me. I have met many politicians, but I have yet to meet anyone so devoted, so ardent, so enlightened. I felt no barriers.

I do go to church. And what of it? I've gone to church from the first day I took office. And not because I became a believer straight away or am a believer now ... I go to church because my people are there.



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