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19 November 2023, 23:00

Transportation rules, corrupt dairy business, Gaza evacuation, weapons, diamonds in President's Week

The work schedule of the Belarus president is always full of events. Aleksandr Lukashenko holds conferences and working meetings on the most topical matters concerning the country's development, regularly visits the regions, goes on foreign trips and welcomes foreign guests, talks to reporters, signs decrees and laws. And even if there are no public events, it does not mean that the head of state does not work. It must be said that even when he relaxes, for instance, by playing ice hockey or chopping firewood, Aleksandr Lukashenko happens to find the time to give yet another instruction. All the decisions must be prompted by life, he likes to say.

The President's Week project is intended for those, who want to keep up with the head of state, be up-to-date on the latest statements and decisions of the Belarusian leader.

How did Aleksandr Lukashenko support hunters although he is not a fan of hunting? What is Belarus' Big Seven?

Operation of jitneys and taxis in Belarus. What prompted the discussion of this issue at the highest level? What innovations are expected in this sphere soon?

What Belarusian dairy producers have been caught red-handed? What can the greed of some executives and businessmen result in? Details of a high-profile criminal case investigation.

The road of life from the Gaza Strip to Belarus. How was the president's instruction fulfilled and what did the KGB have to do with it?

Details of Aleksandr Lukashenko's working trip to Gomel. How are weapons stored and repaired? Why did the president praise the army? Where are diamonds polished in Belarus? Where are ingots of precious metals cast? What is more beautiful than the rarest diamonds? All of that and more than that in the new episode of BelTA's special project President's Week.

BIG SEVEN. What issues did the top Belarusian hunter raise during his report to the president?

On 13 November Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko heard out a report on the operation of the Belarusian Society of Hunters and Fishermen. The society's Chairman Igor Shunevich and Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Zayats were invited to meet with the head of state.

“As far as I understand, you've initiated this conversation because the decision taken by the government is not exactly what the Society wants,” Aleksandr Lukashenko told Igor Shunevich. “You must understand that there are state interests, personal interests, the interests of the Society but we should approach these matters smartly, in the best interests of the state and members of this organization.”

The society's charter was one of the issues raised during the meeting. “What is wrong with it? Why did you fail to come to terms with the government?” the president wondered.

The list of issues also included the production of ammunition for smoothbore weapons. “I don't see any problem with it. Let's think of the best way to do it,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

Another issue dealt with adjustments to laws regulating the circulation of weapons and ammunition.

Regulating the number of animals and birds in Belarus' Red Book of Endangered Species was also on the agenda. “This matter is of paramount importance for the state. It is also crucial for the image of our country,” Aleksandr Lukashenko remarked.

Igor Shunevich informed Aleksandr Lukashenko about the operation of the Belarusian Society of Hunters and Fishermen and its continued reformation. He said: “I mentioned a proposal on reforming the Society 1.5 years ago. The reform is in progress. The main decisions have been made. Since then the Society has made considerable steps to improve not only its operation but, as you've correctly noted, the country's hunting industry as a whole bearing state interests in mind.”

Igor Shunevich stressed that hunting is a traditional Belarusian pastime and an industry, in which the state invests huge material resources and respectively should get the appropriate returns.

Trophy hunting

Igor Shunevich also mentioned that the Society had established Belarus' Big Five and Belarus' Big Seven trophy hunting badges. He handed over the first trophy badge to Aleksandr Lukashenko during the meeting.

Aleksandr Lukashenko remarked he was no hunter, this is why the badge will be transferred to the statehood museum.

According to the head of the Belarusian Society of Hunters and Fishermen, similar ratings exist in other countries, and when developing the domestic badges, specialists drew on the experience of Africa. In particular, Africa's Big Five is well known among hunters. It includes elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, lion and buffalo.

The Belarusian trophy hunting badges are made by jewelers using precious metals such as gold and silver. The Seven is designed for men and the Five for women. Hunters have five years to get the trophies of so-called golden quality that are specified in a special document. It is traditionally thought that Belarus' Big Five includes elk, deer, roe deer, wolf and wild boar. It was used as the basis for the men's badge. So, to win Belarus' Big Seven, a man has to hunt elk, deer, roe deer, wolf, and wild boar in addition to a bison and a wood grouse. Women do not have to hunt for a bison and a wolf.

Decisions prompted by life itself

One of the matters raised during the meeting was regulating the number of hunted animals and animals in Belarus' Red Book of Endangered Species. “Everyone knows about brown bears. Lynxes are less known,” the chairman of the Belarusian Society of Hunters and Fishermen told reporters. “We presented our proposals in this regard without suggesting extreme things that would be certainly unpopular but decisions that are prompted by life itself.”

The number of brown bears and lynxes has increased in Belarus recently. Biodiversity has increased in the country as a whole, too. “We've suggested wisely using these species by regulating their numbers without hunting them. If the number of brown bears is excessive in an area and they interfere with human lives, we suggest extracting a certain number of the animals in order to balance interests of humans and animals,” the chairman of the Belarusian Society of Hunters and Fishermen said.

Asked to clarify how exactly the animals will be extracted, Igor Shunevich noted: “The number of bears in our country is off the charts. It is already past 700 although it was 150 about 20 years ago. Our task is to get clear understanding from our scientific community of what the optimal number of bears in our territory is. A number that would allow us to hunt them. Since the optimal number has not been calculated yet, we say: let's regulate the number where it is excessive, extremely excessive, where bears interfere with our lives.”

The official stressed that only regulating the number of animals is the idea now: “It doesn't mean we will go hunting for them. Those are endangered species. But if there is an excessive number, we need to put down a certain number, especially troublesome animals that enter population centers, go to honey farms, and maul people already,” Igor Shunevich is convinced.

HOUSE FOR FACTORY WORKERS! How did the president help MZKT workers resolve the housing shortage problem?

Aleksandr Lukashenko has backed the proposal to transfer the ownership of a 40-apartment tenement building located in Plekhanova Street in Minsk to OAO Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) free of charge. The news was released on 13 November.

It may seem like a minor matter but the president often looks into and makes decisions on such things that matter to people. He has recently looked into the problem of an unfair increase in real estate prices for participants of a Minsk shared-equity construction project. This time he helped out factory workers.

This building previously housed a hall of residence. MZKT was allowed to use it free of charge in 2013. The company financed redecoration and reconstruction of the building, converted it into a tenement house, and rented the apartments to employees.

MZKT Deputy Director General Pavel Oger told BelTA: “In 2018 the house was commissioned and our workers moved in. The four-storey house has 40 apartments: 32 two-room apartments and 8 one-room ones. They are available for rent. It was previously owned by the state but used by the MZKT.”

Nevertheless, MZKT workers were unhappy about the rather high rent prices. The rent prices were calculated according to the standard norms and coefficients taking into account all the factors, including the location of the house. MZKT could not reduce rent prices for individual categories of its workers, including low-income ones.

Since the president authorized the transfer of the apartments into the ownership of MZKT, the company will be able to set its own rent prices, reduce them and offer other preferences to large families.

“A number of complaints about the cost of this rental houses were filed. As a way out we thought about asking the state to transfer the ownership to us. This is why we've invested the company's money in this housing,” Pavel Oger noted.

MZKT expects that this measure will allow dealing with the problem of housing shortage for highly qualified specialists more flexibly. It is one of the components in the efforts to improve housing conditions for MZKT personnel. Renting one of the apartments still keeps families on the housing register and they will be able to build housing of their own in the future.

UNIFIED RULES. What is wrong with passenger transportation and how does Aleksandr Lukashenko want it fixed?

On 14 November Aleksandr Lukashenko hosted a government conference to discuss passenger transportation. “We are considering this issue today not only because there have been a number of road accidents. But also because there are many areas and issues in our everyday life that happen to be in disorder. Since it is a matter of people's safety, our citizens' safety (I am not talking about taxes, there is enough wrongdoing there), this issue should be thoroughly looked into,” the Belarusian leader said.

“Today we need to consider and establish uniform rules for all in the sector. The rules need to be strict, transparent and clear. No one should be pressured, fired, or something. The rules must be the same for everyone! For legal and illegal transporters, for regular and irregular ones. Uniform rules. Not a step to the left, not a step to the right… It is necessary to determine what functions the state will assume as a regulator: how total control will be exercised in the sector, what additional responsibilities carriers will have,” the president said.

Two simple requirements

The problem of passenger transportation by road primarily concerns shuttle buses that operate in cities and between population centers, and taxis.

“The state has two simple requirements for this sector. The first is the safety of people. This transport is used by many of our people and guests of the country. The second requirement is legal operation of carriers. Because they understate and hide their proceeds, pay backdoor salaries, and fail to pay crazy amounts in taxes. Law enforcement agencies are looking into it. I would like [Belarusian Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan] Kubrakov and [Chairman of the State Security Committee Ivan] Tertel to report to me before the year end in order to make appropriate decisions. There is nothing to talk about with those who violate the law. If you do not pay the tax, off you go [to face justice in accordance with the law],” the head of state said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko stated that not all the market players observe the rather clear and fair rules: “Inspections by the State Control Committee reveal a lot of unscrupulous businessmen”. As a result, the state budget loses tens of millions of Belarusian rubles while conscientious carriers are forced to close their businesses and let their workers go.

In January-September 2023, slightly more than 10,000 automobiles were checked, and about 9,000 violations were revealed. The most dreadful thing is that illegal carriers deliberately violate the safety requirements that carriers operating regular routes are supposed to observe. This kind of attitude may sooner or later result in a tragedy such as the traffic accident in Smolevichi District that killed a dozen people and a half.

As for fiscal violations, the government was instructed to think about ways to step up punishment for genuine violations as the president formulated them: “If you disaggregate your business, then you face the punishment. If you don't pay taxes… Look, who will reproach us? In the United States, which is a democratic country, you can get life imprisonment for tax evasion.”

A draft presidential decree on passenger transportation by road

With assistance of the State Control Committee and the KGB the government has prepared a draft presidential decree to regulate passenger transportation by road. Possible innovations in this sphere were discussed during the government conference hosted by the president.

Setting up a register of carriers, dispatchers and other market players has been suggested. “In other words, if you are allowed to transport people by taxi and minibuses, if you are on the register - go ahead and work. Rules will also be established. If you are not on this register but you still run a transportation business, off you go to [Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan] Kubrakov and [Chairman of the State Security Committee Ivan] Tertel. Tough measures will teach them a lesson. Yet I reiterate: do not give them a reason to say that we are suppressing someone or stamping out someone, and so on. Everyone, who can, who is allowed to run a transportation business, can go ahead with it. Everyone gets equal terms,” the Belarusian leader explained.

Transportation aggregators will also have to comply with certain requirements. “It is obvious that everyone who wants to work in Belarus needs to place their information systems in our territory. No Polish, German, Dutch companies. This is a must, as the government should be able to guarantee security and protection of personal data, prevention of illegal actions,” Aleksandr Lukashenko stated.

As a result, essential provisions of the decree were reconciled during the meeting. The president gave instructions to once again weigh everything, hold a meeting of the government with all the government agencies concerned, and submit the final draft for his approval.

Once the decree is signed, the government will have to polish individual norms in Q1 2024 by passing regulations in furtherance of the approved norms. The decree is expected to come into effect as from H2 2024, Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Sivak said.

People's complaints about passenger transportation were also discussed during the conference. The head of state instructed the oblast governors to find answers to all the questions. If necessary, they will have to work out new schemes or possibly add more vehicles to routes.

Anatoly Sivak pointed out that there is no antagonism between state and private carriers as the problem is often presented. Private carriers, which operate according to established rules, also suffer due to actions of unfair market players.

The draft presidential decree provides for creating a register of carriers that provide irregular passenger transportation by road (regular service carriers will comply with the current licensing procedure). The register is supposed to include information about carriers, drivers, dispatchers, and vehicles. For instance, at present irregular service carriers provide regular transportation under the guise of catering to weddings or corporate parties. Some carriers try to work totally outside the law.

Once the decree is passed, punishments for these violations will become even harsher. The inclusion of vehicles into the register will prevent carriers from simply registering another legal person if some violations are uncovered and continue doing business under a different name.

If Internet applications are used to call a cab, then only registered carriers can be connected to the system. Apart from that, such Internet aggregation services will have to set up a legal person in Belarus' territory.

Carriers will also have to share information about the orders they have fulfilled with government agencies.

In order to increase the level of safety, passenger carriers will be asked to install cameras inside their vehicles.

DAIRY INDUSTRY INVESTIGATION. What criminal schemes did the president reveal?

At the beginning of the government conference on passenger transportation by road Aleksandr Lukashenko deviated from the agenda in order to publicly reveal criminal schemes in the dairy industry. The president said: “Since petitioners have started bringing some grievances to me, I would like to publicly identify the problem. Since the case is still being investigated, I cannot disclose many facts. But those, who are trying to reach me, will hear it and will understand what I mean.”

The head of state used the Mogilev-based enterprise Babushkina Krynka as an example to describe the corruption scheme that had been cracked open by law enforcement agencies. A new head of the company was appointed several years ago. He hired his own “team” made up of friends and relatives and launched “a new sales policy”.

“Mr. Skitov was appointed the company's director in September 2019. He hired his own team of managers. Many like to talk about team spirit and so on. I have always cautioned you against that: no teams, you need a managerial structure and the rest. He launched a new sales policy and took complete control of the financial flows. He appointed a driver into an executive position. And relatives: a cousin once removed, a first cousin, and a son naturally,” the president said.

“As a result of investigative measures eight commercial groups have been uncovered, which have established control over the export of products of a number of Belarusian milk-processing enterprises to Russia on the terms that benefit these groups. Some may start wailing and shouting about biased investigations into medics, into someone else's actions and now into dairy industry. I am saying it specifically in the presence of oblast governors because it is typical of you. I've only looked at Babushkina Krynka. But all of you will be made answerable. And harshly,” the head of state warned.

“A distinguishing trait in operations of owners of Belarusian companies was the existence of commercial entities operating in Russia and controlled by these owners. As part of the scheme merchandise was sold [to these commercial entities] at minimal markups. Then the products were sold to end consumers at higher prices while the tax base was reduced. Reports indicate that the scheme would not have been possible without the involvement of officials and executives of enterprises and government agencies. Roman Aleksandrovich [Golovchenko, Prime Minister of Belarus], you will be made answerable as well if it turns out that your people were involved. There are reasons to believe that members of the government may be involved. I am not going to specify names while the investigation is in progress,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

In exchange for bribes individual commercial entities received dairy products (butter, cheese, and other dairy products) on a priority basis and could buy them below recommended prices.

The head of state stressed that this criminal case had become possible because the government has not worked out a product sale system. It is a matter of state importance.

“I've instructed the chairman of the [State Security] Committee to inventory all the properties. And there are plenty of those. Everything must be seized. We see the damage. Multiply it by three or possibly by five since we haven't seen everything. All the properties must be seized by the state. Extreme impudence,” Aleksandr Lukashenko was indignant.

Later on the KGB revealed that 26 people are now persons of interest in a number of relevant criminal cases. Of them 15 people have been detained. Criminal revenues from unjustified mediation of all participants of the criminal activity in the dairy industry totaled at least $10 million per annum taking into account differences in prices in Belarus and Russia.

Aleksandr Lukashenko mentioned the counteraction of thievery and corruption during a working trip to Gomel on Friday, 17 November. While talking to workers of the industrial group Kristall, the head of state said: “We will push for it. Next year, the Year of Quality we will force everyone to do quality work. Including those, who want it, and those, who don't. Well, if you are a thief, a fraud, a trickster, then we will treat you like those corrupt dairy industry executives. You will not be handled with kid gloves. And we will publicly name and shame bribe takers.”

“Although I am often told that the situation in Belarus is satisfactory. But I don't want to see corruption at all. It is unacceptable to steal, sell someone else's stuff in exchange for bribes, and pocket the profits. Starting with retailers and ending with those frauds,” the Belarusian leader added.

BASIS FOR DEVELOPMENT. What document of crucial importance for Belarus-China relations did the president approve?

On 16 November the head of state signed decree No.356 to approve a draft agreement between the government of the Republic of Belarus and the government of the People's Republic of China on trade in services and on making investments as the basis for negotiations.

The step solidifies the legal foundation for stable and dynamic advancement of trade and investment relations between Belarus and China. Setting up a zone of free trade in services between Belarus and China in addition to enabling a transparent, liberal, and favorable investment regime for raising investments is the idea.

The agreement lays the groundwork for advancing cooperation in new spheres while observing (protecting) interests of both sides in the most sensitive segments of the economies.

The Economy Ministry has been authorized to conduct the negotiations and sign the agreement once the parties come to terms within limits of the approved draft.

Cooperation within the framework of the agreement is expected to dynamically increase the export of Belarusian services to China and increase investment flows from China.

BY ORDER OF THE PRESIDENT. How were Belarusian citizens and their families rescued from the Gaza Strip?

An aircraft carrying Belarusians and their families, who had been rescued from the Gaza Strip, landed in Minsk late in the evening on 16 November. For a month they had had to live without water and electricity. The state could not stay indifferent to the plight of its citizens, who became victims of the Palestine-Israel conflict that erupted in early October. The president gave instructions to evacuate them and their families, including children, to Belarus.

Belarus in contact with colleagues from Israel and Egypt and with assistance of Russia and Qatar organized the evacuation of Belarusian citizens and members of their families from the Gaza Strip. They crossed the border via the border crossing Rafah into Egypt.

At the Gaza Strip border they were met by officers of the State Security Committee (KGB), who had been instructed by the Belarus president to evacuate the refugees.

One of the officers told the evacuees: “As our head of state said, bread is the most expensive thing while people are the most valuable thing.”

“Hold on! This nightmare is already over!” the Belarusians and their families were told to cheer them up. “All the other details are not important. Everything can be fixed. All the problems will be fixed as you tackle them one by one.”

Several hours later the Belarusian flag carrier Belavia dispatched a flight to pick them up. It had medics and psychologists from the Emergencies Ministry's special operations unit Zubr on board. Upon arrival they provided the necessary aid both to adults and children. The Belarusians and their families boarded the aircraft and left Egypt.

All the evacuees were hospitably welcomed in Belarus, offered accommodation in various regions and the necessary aid and support.

One of the participants of the mission to save Belarusians and their families from the Gaza Strip is an officer of the State Security Committee (KGB) of Belarus. The officer talked to reporters and revealed details of how the mission had been organized and proceeded: “The head of state gave instructions to organize the evacuation of Belarusians and their families from the Gaza Strip. We gathered all the necessary information about the Belarusians and their relatives, who were in Gaza and wanted to evacuate. On the basis of this information we made a list, which included not only Belarusian citizens but also members of their families, who were not Belarusian citizens. We were instructed to extract all of them, including children and even grandchildren.”

Participants of the mission prepared for various scenarios. A KGB taskforce worked together with government agencies concerned and in contact with Russian colleagues. The extraction of Belarusian citizens to Cairo and the flight to Belarus were planned.

PRAISEWORTHY ARMY! Why did Aleksandr Lukashenko visit an ordnance depot in Gomel?

On 17 November the president went to Gomel on a working trip. He was made familiar with the operation of the 1868th artillery ordnance depot.

All kinds of weapons and military hardware are stored and repaired at this facility. The head of state was informed about the purpose of the artillery ordnance depot and its structure.

The depot chief Yevgeny Maslyukov said that the weapon depot was established in 1941 and was heavily involved in World War Two. It has been located in Gomel since 1945. The territory has a section dedicated to storing small arms, shops to repair weapons and hardware, and outdoor sites for weapon storage. “The depot is designed for repairs and maintenance of missile and artillery weapon systems, for keeping the relevant ordnance, and for providing materiel support to the army and territorial defense forces,” the officer said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko wondered whether all the small arms are repaired, whether they are stored properly, and are ready for combat.

“Affirmative,” Yevgeny Maslyukov responded.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin told the president that all the small arms in storage of the Belarusian army are properly inventoried and are in good order.

The head of state personally examined the storage conditions. “It is a major accomplishment. Well done! It should be done just like that,” he appreciated what he saw. “If you have done it, if you have sorted out everything properly, then well done.”

For instance, among other things an assault rifle was demonstrated to Aleksandr Lukashenko. The president wondered whether it was a new one or whether it had been refurbished. The depot chief noted that it is difficult to guess from how the weapon looks because used assault rifles get refurbished to mint condition at the artillery ordnance depot and they are impossible to tell apart visually.

Then the head of state examined the shop where artillery weapon systems get repaired. For instance, the shop fixes Gvozdika and Akatsiya self-propelled howitzers as well as the Giatsint cannon and Vasilek automatic mortars.

“We definitely have to take care of import substitution. Importing these things costs too much. Put pressure on the manufacturing sector!” Aleksandr Lukashenko noted.

After that the president went on a tour of the shops that repair military optics and small arms.

After the tour of the artillery ordnance depot Aleksandr Lukashenko praised the army for properly storing weapons and military hardware. He said: “It is a good facility. Sensible. It is already not the future but the present. It is the way we've been following while improving, modernizing, and preserving our weapons. Today I made sure that our military are great people. We pay a huge amount of attention to keeping our military fed, clothed, well-rested and training in good barracks. As a military man I can say that it is nothing if you don't have weapons and ammunition.”

The president remarked that instructions had been given earlier to inventory weapons in storage, sort them out, and lick into shape everything that had been preserved since the Soviet times. “The military did great. Mostly within five years they have tidied up everything,” he noted.

At the end of the tour of the artillery ordnance depot in Gomel Aleksandr Lukashenko received a grenade launcher as a gift to be added to the personal arsenal. It was an RPG-7 bundled with the optical sight PGO-7V.

A LOT OF WORK TO DO. Why is Aleksandr Lukashenko unhappy about the work of farmers in the country's east?

Although the head of state's helicopter landed at a military base upon reaching Gomel, Aleksandr Lukashenko started the working trip by giving instructions concerning agriculture. Moreover, he could have clearly seen poor workmanship from the helicopter.

The completion of corn harvesting was mentioned. The head of state emphasized that in the current weather conditions it is necessary to spare equipment, because there is a high risk of damaging it in the fields. “As soon as the land dries out a little, we will finish corn harvesting smartly,” he said.

Another task concerned plowing. Not all of these works have been completed.

Land reclamation is a bigger task meant for a long term. Reclamation works are very important for Gomel Oblast.

“Your task is to thrash out plans for spring during winter. Huge areas remain unplowed. Just like in Mogilev Oblast. I think the situation is the same in Vitebsk Oblast. I specifically flew through the eastern regions yesterday and today. Compared to the west - Grodno Oblast, Brest Oblast and even partially Minsk Oblast - there is no end in sight. We need to put the land in order, restore livestock farming and forge ahead,” the president told Gomel Oblast Governor Ivan Krupko.

Aleksandr Lukashenko voiced a number of critical remarks about what he had seen from the helicopter. For example, the president drew attention to inappropriate forage storing conditions not far from Chechersk. “Everything is flooded with water. Are you really going to feed this to the cattle?” the head of state asked.

The president also emphasized the importance of taking good care of modern expensive agricultural equipment. It should be operated by qualified personnel. “This equipment requires trained personnel. This is like an aircraft,” he noted.

GIRL'S BEST FRIENDS. How is jewelry business developed in Belarus?

The Gomel-based industrial group Kristall, the managing company of the holding company Kristall was the next item on Aleksandr Lukashenko's itinerary.

Kristall Director General Ruslan Sorokovoi reported to the head of state on the progress made as part of the effort to modernize diamond processing production and measures being taken to improve the efficiency of the enterprise. The Gomel jewelry plant Kristall was established in 1972 as one of the seven Kristall plants in the Soviet Union. Today only two Kristall enterprises continue operating in Belarus' Gomel and Russia's Smolensk.

“In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union we faced the problem of keeping the manufacturing division busy. The fact that diamond processing still exists somewhere outside India (today more than 90% of all the diamond processing happens in India), including Belarus, is solely thanks to the decisions taken at your level. By preserving diamond processing, we managed to develop jewelry production in the country, which enables us to make products with a higher profit margin. Today diamond processing accounts for 20% of our production, jewelry accounts for 80%,” Ruslan Sorokovoi said.

Both the enterprise and the holding company hit all performance targets, the director general said. In his words, the plant buys raw materials mainly in Russia. The plant is also starting to cooperate with Zimbabwe as well.

“We will support and encourage you in this respect. They are meeting us halfway. One should not put eggs in one basket,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

A new line of business for Kristall is the production of minted gold bars for the Finance Ministry. The ministry sells them to economic entities, banks and other credit and financial organizations of Belarus. This is a serious contribution to import substitution, because previously the bars were supplied to Belarus from Western European countries.

The president instructed to take these issues under special control in order to replace the import of these products in full. “Can we do everything for the National Bank? Then we should import nothing from Switzerland starting next year. And this year as well,” he emphasized.

Aleksandr Lukashenko got familiar with the stages of jewelry production and diamond processing at the plant.

While on a tour of the jewelry plant the president also talked to Kristall workers. “I've been planning to come here for a long time. This is not because you make such beautiful things. I guess no one else in the world can craft such beautiful synthetic things. I think the most beautiful thing in the world is the woman. And a woman looks even prettier if she wears diamonds, gold and so on (I don't think so personally, but women themselves do). I am calm about such things. I have never had them. For me this is a raw material and a finished product. Yet, I am happy if these products can help our women look even prettier,” noted Aleksandr Lukashenko.

According to the president, in the past he would receive many proposals to privatize the enterprise. Yet, it was decided to keep it state-owned. “I flatly refused. This is a state-run enterprise and will remain so. At least as long as I am the president. Our people have learned to make this beauty and it is not for sale. It was not about diamonds and gold for me. It was about losing competencies, specialists, which would be a catastrophe. These are really world-class specialists,” the head of state said.

“We have not just preserved and turned your enterprise around. We will grow it. We will invest in it. We will buy cutting-edge equipment. I have got this mind-blowing thought: we should not just reach a world-class level, but we should outdo other companies. We can do it. We will invest money in your company. Yet, naturally, we will also expect you to make products above the world level,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

The holding company Kristall also includes a chain of Beluvelirtorg stores. There are more than 70 of them across the country. The president believes that the chain should be expanded.

“Now you hold a solid share of the domestic market and produce things for foreign markets. The short-term task for the minister and the company chief is to rely on the country's own resources and competencies. We should not ban other companies. You should outcompete them instead. We will do everything for this. It's not because there's a shortage of jewelry. We have enough. The thing is if you disappear, these jewelry and other things in Belarus will cost three times more. I wouldn't like it to happen,” the president noted. “At the same time, we should not lose highly qualified, talented people and traditions. This is our enterprise. It will always be ours. Not a single president would want to get rid of such an enterprise,” the head of state concluded.

PERSEVERANCE. Why did Aleksandr Lukashenko forbid the government to even talk about sanctions?

While talking to Kristall workers, Aleksandr Lukashenko remarked that Belarus had persevered in the face of the sanctions-fuelled pressure.

The head if state is convinced that if there is a seller and there is a buyer, then no sanctions will prevent them from doing business. “Sanctions are one thing but business is another,” he remarked.

Aleksandr Lukashenko reminded that he had forbidden the government to even talk about sanctions. “It would relax people and they could blame sanctions for everything then. It would slacken the country,” he said. “No, things are not easy. They are difficult. But we have persevered. We have markets to sell our products on. It is the most important thing.”

The president also reminded about instructions concerning import substitution. It is necessary to make Belarusian products and close attention will be paid to it during the Year of Quality (2024).

Belarus pays close attention to penetrating new markets. For instance, to cooperation with countries on the African continent. Good relations have been established with Zimbabwe. A return visit of the head of state to Equatorial Guinea is expected.

Aleksandr Lukashenko emphasized great prospects for advancing cooperation with these countries and the region as a whole. It is also important for the operation of enterprises like the industrial group Kristall. There are large deposits of precious metals and diamonds in Africa. But interaction proceeds in agriculture, for example. Zimbabwe has received a good harvest thanks to Belarusian machines and vehicles. “Today they have received a record-high harvest of cereals. For the first time in history they have fed their people with bread thanks to our machines and aid. An exceedingly rich country. Naturally, we cooperate with them on profitable terms. They like the fact that we didn't approach them as colonizers would,” he noted.

A MATTER OF NECESSITY. What tasks does Aleksandr Lukashenko want Belkoopsoyuz to accomplish?

As he talked to Kristall workers, the head of state was asked about how the situation in the rural areas can be rectified: the range of products in villages and even agrotowns is much worse than that in the Belarusian capital and even in a district capital while Belkoopsoyuz is giving up its positions to private businesses, who think only about their own profit.

“As a villager (all of us came from the countryside, some are second-generation descendants, some are third-generation ones) I have always supported village development, that is why we have preserved our villages. Let us take a village of some 10-20 residents who of course need food supplies. Food transportation there means expenses. This is not cheap. This includes people's salaries, and a need to purchase vehicles and fuel. We did everything we could to support [Belkoopsoyuz]. I approved loans to buy vehicles and other things. But I see that we need tough military discipline there as it has been done in Brest and Grodno. At the start of next year we will convene a meeting at [the Belarusian National Union of Consumer Societies] Belkoopsoyuz (it will have a new director, the previous one has been dismissed) and set the toughest goals for this company,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

According to the president, Belkoopsoyuz will reach at least agrotowns and major villages for sure.

The private trade in rural areas will also be taken under the control of the authorities. Businessmen are not prohibited from opening their stores in villages and agrotowns, but there is one condition. The head of state pointed out that they cannot profiteer from the people.

“With a large network and smart approaches, they do not keep prices high. On the contrary, Belkoopsoyuz loses to them and has to cover its expenses, which can be crazy high, with higher prices. In the near future we will take a very serious look at the activity of Belkoopsoyuz. If they can work, let them work. If they cannot, we will close them down and decide on each store separately, where they will work and how they will sell their products. However, we will let no one profit at the expense of those who live in small villages. This is a very serious issue, and we will return to it in January,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

SEAL OF QUALITY. What Soviet tradition does the president want to revive?

One of the workers of the industrial group Kristall suggested instituting a uniform state quality mark like the one that existed back in the Soviet Union. Consumers will see the mark and will be confident that they buy a quality product and that the quality is guaranteed by the state.

Aleksandr Lukashenko backed the idea. “We will declare next year the Year of Quality. I have already spoken about this. We produce a lot. We make high-quality products. But we should take the quality to a new level in order to be competitive. Because we have an open economy. We need to improve the quality further in order to stay competitive,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

The president mentioned that, for instance, not only Germany makes top quality products. China is also making substantial progress in this direction. Belarus is currently working with China on launching its own car production in the country, and Aleksandr Lukashenko intends to bring up this topic again during his next meeting with the president of the People's Republic of China. “They gave us samples of these cars. An electric car and a regular gasoline car. Drivers say they are top notch. Indeed, everyone strives to achieve high quality,” the president said.

The head of state suggested using the Soviet quality mark as the basis for the modern Belarusian one, as he liked the look of the Soviet mark. He gave corresponding instructions to the government.

The USSR State Quality Mark was used to mark serial products, which were made by enterprises of the Soviet Union for civilian use and met high quality standards (consumer goods and engineering products). The five edges of the mark were associated with a five-pointed star and with quality elements: reliability, affordability, safety, aesthetics, and innovation.

EVERYTHING HINGES ON PEOPLE. How can Belarusians live well?

At the end of his conversation with Kristall workers in Gomel, the president stressed that if everyone keeps doing their jobs just a little bit better, then the country as a whole and people in Belarus will live well. Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “As for the future, you know that I have no other care but to make things good for you. And if every one of you does things a little bit better, by a millimeter, then we will live well. If you add two millimeters, then we will be rich. Everything depends only on our people. We have everything.”

The president reminded about his appeal that it is better to toil in the field than to fight on the frontline. “I am a peaceful man and I will do everything to prevent a war. It is very relevant for you. You know that this war is going on just over the fence. And I will need to work hard to prevent the war from crossing the border into our country,” he said.

The head of state mentioned that he had seen a lot of failures and poorly worked fields in the country's east while flying on a helicopter. “There is still a lot of work to do on the ground. There is so much hideousness and negligence! We have a lot of work to do,” he remarked.

Aleksandr Lukashenko mentioned that last year the country earned $8 billion by exporting food. “It is a huge amount of money. Similar countries don't earn as much by exporting oil. But we can be richer if we act responsibly,” he said.

The country's south and Gomel Oblast recovered from consequences of the Chernobyl disaster with assistance of the president back in the day. These regions were saved. “You are great people. I cannot say that you don't work well but there is still room for improvement. But we have yet a lot of problems that need to be addressed. It is bad that last year Gomel Oblast was the leader in terms of the loss of cattle,” the Belarusian leader remarked.

“We will never be at war if we have a good economy. Things went downhill in Ukraine when they started privatizing the rich country and cutting it into pieces,” Aleksandr Lukashenko remarked. “You have to be honest. You have to work hard. Neither you nor your kids will have a different country. Some people have fled from Gomel Oblast to foreign countries and now they are begging to go back. Feel free to contact the commission and prove you haven't killed, you haven't stolen, you haven't participated in street riots, you haven't destroyed and crushed things. Then we will take you back. There were all kinds of people. Stray souls. But excuse me if you threatened our people and still do it. You'd better stay abroad and don't go to Belarus.”

After the tour of the enterprise Aleksandr Lukashenko was gifted Belarus' map that had been made using vermeil and natural diamonds. Diamonds of different sizes were used to designate Minsk, oblast capitals and district capitals on the map. The head of state also received a pen made of bog oak that is about 4,050 years old. The oak was caught in the Sozh River near the village of Karpovka, Loyev District.

Gomel Oblast Governor Ivan Krupko handed over a loaf of bread from Gomel Oblast to the head of state. But Aleksandr Lukashenko immediately passed it to the staff of the Kristall company, telling them to eat it with tea.

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