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Lukashenko says Belarus is ‘authoritarian’

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Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko admitted on Thursday that he ran an authoritarian state but claimed there were no political prisoners in his isolated country.

“Yes, our system of power is tougher. I even do not rule out the word ‘authoritarian’,” Lukashenko told AFP in an exclusive interview in the capital Minsk.

Belarus rights group Viasna says the country currently has 1,259 political prisoners.

But Lukashenko dismissed “talk of hundreds” of imprisoned people and claimed that “no one from the opposition” was currently being held in prison.

Referring to people who took part in historic protests against Lukashenko’s controversial re-election in 2020, he said: “These people spoke out against the state. Not against the authorities — against the state and their own nation.”

The 67-year-old leader crushed the demonstrations with the help of Russian ally President Vladimir Putin.

Key protest leaders are now either imprisoned or in exile.

“I am no dictator,” Lukashenko insisted, while admitting that Belarus had “elements of authoritarianism.”

“I do not even remember if those prominent bandits, who fomented this mutiny, if they are in prison,” he said.

“Perhaps one or two have been convicted,” he added.

Among those who fled Belarus in 2020 is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who ran against Lukashenko in the August 2020 polls in place of her jailed husband.

She now leads the Belarusian opposition from exile in Lithuania, while her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky is serving 18 years in prison on what supporters say are politically motivated charges.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has kept his landlocked homeland, wedged between Russia and EU member Poland, largely stuck in a Soviet time warp.

A quarter of a century after the collapse of the USSR the tightly controlled eastern European nation still has a security service called the KGB, adheres to a command economy and looks to former master Moscow as its main ally, creditor and energy provider.

Lukashenko reiterated that his political opponents were financed from abroad, mainly from Poland.

“What, did you want me to sit quietly?” he said, claiming that the protests were a Warsaw-sponsored plot to “break Belarus.”