Belarus’s authoritarian leader has told the BBC it is “absolutely possible” his forces helped migrants cross into Poland but denies they were invited.
Thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, have been trying to get into the EU via Belarus for months.
In an exclusive interview, Alexander Lukashenko told me: “We’re Slavs. We have hearts. Our troops know the migrants are going to Germany.”
“Maybe someone helped them. I won’t even look into this,” he added.
The EU, Nato and the US have accused the Belarus leader of luring migrants to the border with the false promise of easy entry to the EU. Something he has denied.
“I told them [the EU] I’m not going to detain migrants on the border, hold them at the border, and if they keep coming from now on I still won’t stop them, because they’re not coming to my country, they’re going to yours,” he told me.
“But I didn’t invite them here. And to be honest, I don’t want them to go through Belarus.”
Mr Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 but his re-election as president last year was widely discredited by the West and not recognised by the EU.
Opposition supporters hold a flag in opposition to the governmentImage source, Getty Images
Mass protests over the discredited election led to a government crackdown, with people sent to prison or exiled
Thousands of protesters and opposition activists were detained and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced out of Belarus after claiming victory. Her team criticised the BBC for conducting Friday’s interview, which they described as “giving the floor to a dictator”.
Ms Tikhanovskaya later told the BBC the interview provided Mr Lukashenko with “a platform for lies and propaganda”.
In our interview at the presidential palace, I asked the Belarus leader about peaceful protesters being beaten and then tried to hand him a video showing people emerging from a notorious detention centre in Minsk with injuries they had sustained through torture.
“OK, OK, I admit it, I admit it,” he said. “People were beaten in the Okrestina detention centre. But there were police beaten up too and you didn’t show this.”
Doctors provide medical treatment to people, who were reportedly tortured and beaten by the policeImage source, EPA
Released detainees showed their bruising outside the Minsk detention centre in August 2020
I then asked him about how he had gone about destroying civil society, including the closure of 270 non-government organisations since July.
“We’ll massacre all the scum that you [the West] have been financing. Oh, you’re upset we’ve destroyed all your structures! Your NGOs, whatever they are, that you’ve been paying for,” he responded.
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The EU claims Mr Lukashenko has been orchestrating the border crisis with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in recent months in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Belarus for its brutal crackdown on opponents who took part in mass protests after the August 2020 election.
Ms Tikhanovskaya said sanctions provided the EU and US with “powerful leverage” against Mr Lukashenko. “He understands only the language of power,” she said.
She accused his regime of blackmailing European countries over their “support for the Belarusian democratic movement”.
The EU earlier accused Mr Lukashenko of taking an “inhuman, gangster-style approach” to the migrant issue.
At least 2,000 migrants were stranded in camps next to Belarus’s border with Poland until they were eventually moved this week to a logistics warehouse nearby.
An estimated 5,000 migrants remain in Belarus, although hundreds flew back to Kurdish northern Iraq on a repatriation flight on Thursday.