Staunton, October 7 – Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says that his country does not need a Russian airbase and that the idea has never even been discussed, a statement that directly contradicts Vladimir Putin and that some Belarusian opposition figures view as a pre-election ploy.
But even if the Belarusian opposition is correct that such talks have taken place and that Lukashenka will reach an agreement with Moscow after the presidential vote, the fact that the Mensk leader feels compelled to say this now shows the strength of the opposition and provides a potential opening to the West as well.
On the one hand, the opposition has made its objections to any Russian base the centerpiece of its campaign. And on the other, Lukashenka’s statement continues a trend in which the Belarusian leader in pursuit of better ties with Europe and the West has been distancing himself from Moscow over Ukraine and other issues.
Yesterday, Lukashenka said in Mensk that “Our opposition has been wailing about the deployment of a Russian airbase in Belarus lately. I know nothing about such plans. I am the man in charge of making such decisions and I know nothing about such plans … We don't need a base these days” (eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-the-deployment-of-a-russian-airbase-in-belarus-has-never-been-discussed-85948-2015/
“We don’t need military air forces either,” he continued. “We need certain weapons. It is what I’ve been saying to Putin and earlier to Medvedev. At the same time, however, Lukashenka stressed that “Belarus is allied with the Russian Federation. We bear a responsibility, both Russia and Belarus bear a responsibility. We have signed an agreement.”
“As part of the agreement we and they are responsible for the western direction. We don't stand up to NATO on our own. We stand up together with the Russian Federation. We have a response plan even in case of a war. Naturally we are not going to publish the document, it is absolutely secret but the Belarusian army is the key force in this direction.”
“If a conflict happens, Russia will support us with personnel. Specific armies, aircraft, helicopters and so on have been designated in case of a conflict,” he continued, adding “We need aircraft instead of bases these days. We have excellent pilots, we have fine military and civil piloting traditions. Why would we need to set up a base? Why would we want to bring foreign aircraft and pilots here? What would ours do then?”
And Lukashenka concluded: “I've never discussed the matter with anyone. I am surprised and even offended to some degree. Why would Russians have to leak it to mass media now? Are they concerned we are going to ally with the West? Are they trying to get the West to question us and doubt our intentions to normalize relations with the West?”
“Various kinds of provocations, from any side will happen,” the Belarusian president said, urging his countrymen to be “Be very careful and stay alert.”
Lukashenka’s remarks have attracted widespread comment in the Russian media -- see, for example, echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/1635922-echo/, slon.ru/posts/57577, tvrain.ru/articles/lukashenko_rossijskoj_aviabazy_v_belorussii_ne_budet-395791/ and newsru.com/world/06oct2015/baza.html, as well as a “no comment” from the Kremlin (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5614BBA9738BC).
But perhaps more importantly, they have sparked discussion among the leaders of the Belarusian opposition. Mikalai Statkevich, a former opposition presidential candidate, dismissed Lukashenka’s words as a lie (svaboda.org/content/article/27291508.html). Others suggested the key parts of Lukashenka’s remarks were his warnings about provocations (charter97.org/ru/news/2015/10/6/172212/).
The most widespread view among the Belarusian opposition, however, is that the key words in Lukashenka’s statement are those suggesting there is no need for a Russian base now – an indication, his opponents say, means that after the presidential elections, the Belarusian president may take a different line (belaruspartisan.org/politic/320043/).