Alexander Lukashenko must be familiar by now with the sound of people who disagree with him. The Belarusian capital of Minsk was thronged with massive protests before and after the disputed presidential election in August 2020, which was marred by fraud. Lukashenko says he won anyway, but the US, EU and Belarusian opposition challenge that.
But when CNN sat down for a rare interview with the man responsible for a brutal crackdown over the last year, he was defiant, alternately denying facts or claiming things were worse in the United States or Britain.
Challenged on 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 European Union calls the “weaponization” of migrants, Lukashenko tried to deflect anything negative.
“This is madness,” he said of Polish government claims that Belarus was dumping migrants on their border.
“Are you taking me for a madman?” he said when asked if his country was transporting migrants to the edge of the European Union as revenge for EU sanctions and the EU sheltering dissidents.
But the tension between Belarus and the EU is real.
So is the fact that most airlines are no longer overflying Belarusian territory. That action was triggered when a vocal critic of Lukashenko’s regime was taken into custody in May from a Ryanair plane heading from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania.
A Belarusian fighter jet intercepted the passenger plane in Belarus airspace as it was told to make an emergency landing in Minsk by local air traffic controllers who said they feared there was a bomb on board. Once on the ground, Belarusian authorities arrested exiled dissident journalist Roman Protasevich alongside his Russian girlfriend, before allowing the aircraft to depart.
A Belarusian official claimed the Palestinian militant group Hamas had sent an email saying there was a bomb aboard the flight. A Hamas spokesman denied the allegation as “fake news.” Protasevich’s supporters said it was a fantastical ruse to get the plane on the ground in Minsk.
Pressed by CNN on whether there was a genuine bomb threat or whether it had been manufactured as an excuse to arrest a critic, Lukashenko merely insisted his country followed international laws.
“If you are afraid to fly over our territory, I can personally guarantee your safety and that of your company, your country or any other country when flying over Belarus, just as ever before,” Lukashenko told CNN.
“If you choose not to fly, that’s fine, OK, fly over the North Pole or the South Pole, that is your right, I cannot force you. I’m not as powerful as Great Britain, let alone the United States, to dictate any terms. If you don’t fly, others will, as you’ve just said. That’s fine, we’ll get by.”
Lukashenko, a temperamental former collective farm boss, has been president of Belarus since 1994, its first and only leader since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Called “Europe’s last dictator,” his iron grip on his country has become increasingly forceful, especially since last year’s vote.
His public appearances are tightly controlled and he is generally surrounded by fawning countrymen.
At the CNN interview in the Palace of Independence, he weaved and ducked, attempting to turn the issues onto the West.
Confronted with details of some of the victims of the harsh, even deadly, treatment of those against him, he said he had nothing to apologize for.
“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 in dirt while being assaulted.
Lukashenko responded: “You know, we don’t 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 regards our own detention centers, where we keep those accused or those under investigation, they are no worse than in Britain or the United States. I can guarantee you that.”
He brought up the death of Ashli Babbitt, shot and killed as she tried to crawl through a broken window leading to the Speaker’s Lobby during the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, falsely saying CNN and others “keep quiet about it.”
He first seemed reluctant to even say the name of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who left Belarus after the election that was widely seen as fraudulent.
Then he said Tikhanovskaya had not had to flee. “I swear by my children that Tikhanovskaya was not fleeing anywhere,” he said.
Tikhanovskaya is regarded by Europe and the United States as having had the election stolen from her. She was granted a White House meeting in July with President Joe Biden, who tweeted he had been “honored” to meet her, adding the US “stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights.”
Lukashenko paints a rosy picture of life in Belarus, saying families are safe to go out.
On the streets of Minsk, the people we met did seem afraid of something though. Most did not stop to speak to CNN and quickly hurried away.
One young man who did talk gave a blunt assessment of why people were scared. “This is Belarus,” he said. “The police can arrest you and me.”
Back in Independence Palace, Lukashenko said his people understood him. That he was joking when he said coronavirus could be warded off with a shot of vodka and a sauna.
He cultivates an image as a man of the people, a strong leader and a maverick on the world stage.
But still, he watches what he says.
“I am not going to admit to anything in front of you. I am not under investigation. So please choose your words carefully,” he said In one answer.
He veered between not being a “weakling” who would care about having revenge against the EU for sanctions, to threatening reprisals should relations with the West deteriorate further.
But it is weakness that his critics say is pushing Lukashenko ever closer to another strongman next door, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid – Kremlin support that is likely to come with strings.
The closer economic, political, and military integration has fueled speculation that Lukashenko will be the last as well as the first Belarusian President, effectively merging his country with Russia.
In one breath, he denies this.
“Putin and I are intelligent enough to create a union of two independent states that would be stronger together than separate. Sovereignty is not for sale,” he said.
In the next breath, he suggests what could happen if there’s provocation.
“If we need to, Belarus will turn into one military base for Russia and Belarus in order to withstand your aggression, if you decide, or if any one country decides to attack. And you should be clear on this, I have never made any secret of it.”
CNN’s Katharina Krebs contributed to this story.