Crans-Montana, Switzerland; 27 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has indignantly denied that human rights and press freedoms are restricted, and said media reports about conditions in Belarus are often incorrect. Lukashenka made his comments today as he was questioned by two Swiss journalists in a television link-up to an international business conference in the Swiss mountain resort of Crans-Montana. About 600 people in the audience heard him refer to some of the questions as "absurd," and not relative to the purpose of the conference. At the end of the television interview, the Swiss chairman of the conference told Lukashenka it was possible that that some of the questions had been misunderstood by the interpreter.
In an opening statement before the questions began, Lukashenka defended the constitutional referendum last November, which has been denounced as illegal by many international critics. Lukashenka began his statement by saying that Belarus was a "young democratic state - at the heart of Europe - about which the world received little objective information." He said it was gradually overcoming its economic crisis, and should be considered favorably by international investors. He argued that the new union with Russia benefitted investors because it offered a wider market.
He said Belarus suffered from a negative image abroad and declared "Belarus is not a dictatorship, as some people claim." He said Belarus was politically stable. "Last year's referendum led to a constituational reform. It was approved by more than 90 percent of the population, and guarantees that Belarus remains a stable, democratic country," Lukashenka said.
Lukashenko returned to the subject later in the television hook-up and said he did not understand why Belarus was criticised for doing the same things as other countries. He said that in France a few weeks ago parliament had been dissolved without any criticism. But France had accused him of acting undemocratically in regard to the Belarus parliament. In another case, he cited, Poland had adopted a new constitution without the criticism faced by Belarus.
"We are criticised for doing the same thing as they are doing," he said. "If mistakes were made in Belarus, then the same mistakes were made in other countries." He said critics should analyse developments in Belarus "on the same basis as developments in their own countries." There should be no "double standards," he said.
Lukashenka was visibly irritated by the questions of the two Swiss journalists selected by the conference organisers. Andre Delaloye from the journal "Le Nouveau Quotidien" said Lukashenko described Belarus as a democracy, but only recently the authorities had suppressed a demonstration against the union with Russia. Delaloye said that it was also the case that the opposition was allowed only very limited rights in Belarus. In another move cited, a Russian journalist had been expelled. "How do you envisage the development of freedom of expression in Belarus," he asked.
Lukashenko replied abruptly: "You are misinformed. No Russian journalist was expelled. An Israeli was expelled. He had engaged in tendentious activities and falsified the situation."
Appearing to become more irritated, Lukashenko added: "We will not tolerate falsification of the situation in our country." He said journalists had to be accurate in their reporting and "act in accordance with the laws of our state. Journalists everywhere are expected to do this."
He said there was "total independence of the ownership of the media and its operations in Belarus." He said one could see "at any newspaper kiosk in the country how the newspapers openly criticise the president." He said there had to be restrictions when some of the mass media called for an armed uprising and an attack on the President. He said it was not true that press freedom was endangered, but there had to be respect for the law as there was in France and Germany.
The other questioner, television journalist Christian Malar agreed with Lukashenka's statement in his opening remarks that Belarus had a negative image. The journalist suggested that Lukashenka had contributed to this with statements which appeared to take a favorable view of Stalin.
An angry Lukashenko said: "I do not wish to respond to this criticism. This is absurd, it is not relative." He said Belarus was "not still trapped in Communism." He said that "what was good from those days is still there. What was bad has been got rid of." There was no cult of Brezhnev or Gorbachev. He said the journalist's comments were colored by the fact that he had "preconceived ideas" about Belarus.
The Swiss journalists also asked Lukashenka for his reaction to the probable inclusion of Poland in an expanded NATO, and the possibility of American troops being stationed there. A related question asked his reaction to the possibility of Ukraine or the Baltic states joining NATO in the future. Lukashenka said he was sure the questioners were aware of his Government's opposition to the expansion of NATO.
"Unfortunately we have no veto on the decisions of others," he said. He said it was the business of the individual countries to make their own decisions. However, he added, that Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma had never said anything to him about the possibility of joining NATO. At the same time, Lukashenko said, Belarus was interested in maintaining an active dialogue with NATO on peace and security issues.