Professor Interviews President of Belarus for New Book
Grigory Ioffe made a bold move in Belarus.
As part of an invited group of eight American analysts visiting Minsk to talk with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka and members of his administration, the Radford University professor of geospatial science was eager to ask a question of Lukashenka.
Sitting with the group around a huge table, Ioffe and the group heard remarks from the president before a question-and-answer session. Ioffe, with a microphone in front of him, waited for his turn, but his patience began to wane as time ran out.
Ioffe, who is writing a book about Lukashenka, knew there was only one thing he could do. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to be arrested,’ and I pressed the button after they said time was up. I said, ‘Mr. President, I am writing a book about you.’ (Actually I wasn’t writing anything yet.) ‘Would you agree to give me an interview?’”
Lukashenka’s chief of staff passed a paper to him. “Apparently each of us was characterized somehow,” Ioffe said, smiling. After reviewing the paper, the president looked at Ioffe and said, “With a title like this, how can I say no?” Lukashenka was referring to the professor’s 2008 book, “Understanding Belarus and How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark,” which contains a chapter about Lukashenka.
Less than a week later, Ioffe’s joy turned to disappointment when the president was proclaimed the victor in what many international monitors say was a flawed and fraudulent election. A protest in downtown Minsk was dispersed by police, with many protestors arrested. Lukashenka’s January inauguration was boycotted by Western countries.
“I thought, ‘Well, it’s over,’” Ioffe said.
However, the persistent professor later made a call to Minsk to repeat his request for an interview. He was pleasantly surprised by the answer he received. “Well, he did promise you,” Ioffe said, recalling the reply from the other end of the phone conversation.
From there, Ioffe, a native of Moscow whose mother was born in Belarus, journeyed to Minsk twice for interviews with the man who has been president since 1994.
Capitalizing on the opportunities, Ioffe tossed some tough questions to Lukashenka during their two meetings this summer, asking him about the Dec. 19 elections, the disappearance of four people from Belarus in 1999 and 2000, and about his relationships with other leaders, including a particular incident in which Lukashenka called José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, a goat.
That happened after Lukashenka, whose country received 70 percent of the 1986 Chernobyl radioactive fallout, was snubbed by Barroso, who vowed not to participate in the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl incident if Lukashenka would be there as well.
“I extracted all of the controversies in different stages of Lukashenka’s political career,” Ioffe said. “There have been quite a few dark spots, situations that have never been highlighted and explained.”
Lukashenka was forthcoming, never refusing to answer a question, Ioffe said. However, there were several times when Lukashenka asked Ioffe, “Why all the muckraking?”
“I said, ‘If I dug it, then the spade is this small,’” Ioffe said, holding up his hands only inches apart. Ioffe reminded Lukashenka that he needed to ask the tough questions so he could deliver new material to the readers. “He agreed to that,” Ioffe said.
In addition to interviewing Lukashenka, Ioffe talked with the president’s chief of staff and his deputy chief of staff, as well as Belarus’s foreign minister, deputy foreign minister, economics minister and state property minister. He also interviewed several people who oppose Lukashenka and met with Michael Scanlan, the top U. S. diplomat in Minsk.
Numerous books have been written about Lukashenka, but Ioffe’s will be the first in English. The professor said the focus of the book is on the president, but much of it will be about Belarus.
“You have to understand his country if you really want to assess him as a leader,” Ioffe said.