Alexander Lukashenko: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – Transcript

John Oliver discusses the longtime leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and the many reasons his country’s citizens have not to like him.
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Alexander Lukashenko: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 8 Episode 23
Aired on September 12, 2021

Main segment: Alexander Lukashenko
Other segment: Texas Heartbeat Act

* * *

♪ ♪

[Cheers and applause]

John: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “last week tonight!” I’m John Oliver. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re back — both in a studio for the first time in 18 months, and with a new set and a small, vaccinated, masked audience, one of whom, and I’m not saying who, has a breakthrough case. Not of Covid, though! Relax! Of smallpox. So it’s completely fine. And we’re going to dive straight in tonight with Texas, a state so big it has three official state mammals, two of which can go fuck themselves, and exactly one of which is the armadillo. Which is the perfect animal. For starters, it looks like a possum who works at medieval times. Plus, armadillos can roll up in a ball when they’re scared. Plus, they sleep for 16 hours a day which, relatable, and some scream like this to scare off predators. [Screaming] good boy, you tell them. Sadly, though, tonight can’t be all fun armadillo facts, because Texas is currently reeling from an incredibly draconian new abortion law.

Abortion providers in Texas have started turning away patients as the state’s new abortion law took effect at midnight.

The Texas law bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy when a so-called “fetal heartbeat” is detected. A controversial term because of how undeveloped the embryo is at that stage. The law makes no exception for rape or incest.

The new Texas law does not allow state officials to enforce the ban. Instead, it lets private citizens sue anyone who helped a woman violate the law for $10,000.

John: Yeah, it’s true. Private citizens can now sue others for aiding in an abortion, whether they’re a doctor, a clinic worker, or even an Uber driver who took someone to the clinic. Meaning this law has somehow managed to do the impossible, and make being an Uber driver even worse. “Hey, you don’t get health insurance, people are gonna be assholes to you, and now you might also have a cash bounty on your head. Now get out there and beg for stars.” After the law went into effect last week, the supreme court, in a major step, took a pass on intervening — something that was such a huge piece of news, even TMZ had to weigh in.

The supreme court could have blocked this. Because if any law seems counter to roe vs wade, it would seem to be this. The fact that they were completely silent on this just speaks volumes.

It speaks volumes, and the real world impact of this in Texas is 85-90% of abortions in Texas happen at the six week or later mark.

Most women don’t even know they’re pregnant within the six week period.

Right, and the way that, you know, roe worked was, it was about the viability of the fetus. It was 20 to 24 weeks. That’s a massive period of time in which women were having legal abortions. Now in Texas, if you get sued under this law, and you lose, they can shut down your clinic.

They shut down the clinic.

They shut the clinic down.

John: What the fuck? Congratulations, Texas, you just broke TMZ. They shouldn’t be covering this story. They should be doing what they do best, gathering round in a circle of America’s worst bachelor and bachelorette party attendants while Harvey hydrates from a large container, and they all dissect something like, whether or not Katherine Heigl’s dog got butt implants. You know, what they’re good at. That guy in shorts shouldn’t be having to talk about fetal viability. Though I guess if he’s doing my job, I get to do his, and spend the rest of tonight asking you which hot Hollywood hunk has these summer-ready abs? Guys? Guys? It’s Wallace Shawn. Do you know what? This is better. It’s a better show. This law will have catastrophic effects. Providers say it would have prevented at least 85% of the procedures previously completed in the state. And when governor Abbott was pressed on why he signed a bill that would essentially force someone who’d experienced rape or incest to carry a pregnancy to term, his response… Was something.

Let’s make something very clear. Rape is a crime. And Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.

John: Oh, fuck off. Just fuck right off. Set aside you’re announcing “we’ll arrest rapists,” like it’s a brand-new idea and you’re Tim Cook unveiling a new iPhone, we could talk about how Abbott clearly doesn’t understand that it’s not just scary, faceless criminals on the streets perpetrating rapes, but most often, it’s actually someone known to the victim. We could talk about how arresting rapists doesn’t actually fix the problem of women needing legal, safe abortions. We could talk about the myriad of reasons women get abortions, and how framing the issue around the most horrific situations further demonizes the procedure. But honestly, it might just be quicker just to say fuck off, Greg, as shorthand for the other stuff we don’t have time to get into. Now, thankfully, people are pushing back hard. On Thursday, the DOJ announced it was suing Texas, calling the law an “unprecedented scheme to evade judicial review,” which it is. And when a pro-life group set up a website where people could report violations of the new law, people started quickly flooding it with tips like claiming the fictional characters in marvel’s avengers were apparently seeking abortions, which at the very least is a hell of a pitch for an episode of “what if?” And some went with an even blunter approach.

I found this website for like, anonymously snitching on people who break the Texas heartbeat act. You can attach any file you want to it, so I just sent them a bunch of Shrek porn.

John: Yeah. “Tiktok users bombard anti-abortion website with Shrek porn” is one of those sentences I never thought I’d have to say like, “everyone needs to stop talking about Kim Jong Un’s sexy bod,” and “Ben Affleck looks so happy right now!” Look, fucking with pro-lifers on TikTok is clearly funny, but it’s not going to roll back this law. And Texas seems to be facing few consequences for what it’s done. When Greg Abbott was asked whether he worried the law would deter investment in the state, he said, “you need to understand that there’s a lot of businesses and a lot of Americans who like the social positions that the state of Texas is taking.” And the thing is, so far, much of corporate America has decided to not weigh in on this, a stark contrast with their recent willingness to speak out on voting rights, racial justice, and other social issues. And it’s not just silence here. A major donor to the sponsors and cosponsors of this bill is a political action committee belonging to AT&T, who — pending approval of our sale to discovery — are still technically our business daddy. So we asked them to comment on this, and they told us, “AT&T has never taken a stance on abortion,” an amazing sentence, and “employee PAC contributions to Texas legislators went to both supporters and opponents of the Texas legislation.” And listen, not taking a stance on this issue, right now, is taking a stance. And both-sides’ing abortion isn’t really the PR slam dunk they think it is. Although it’s certainly on brand. AT&T clearly likes their public statements the same way they like their cell signal: hilariously fucking weak. And look, the fight to undermine the constitutional right to an abortion is not just happening in Texas. The supreme court will hear arguments about a Mississippi anti-abortion law later this year that’s a direct challenge to roe v wade. This is not a hypothetical debate, but the latest escalation in the ongoing attack on reproductive rights. And I don’t really have the words to express how infuriating that is, but maybe this sums things up best. [Screaming] well said, buddy. And now this.

* * *

And now, yet again, it’s this time of year.

A fan favorite at Starbucks is back whether you like it or not. Bringing back its pumpkin spice latte.

Grows longer with each year.

Of pumpkins are just coming into season now, what is being used of that pumpkin spice flavor for the last three or for weeks? And my response to him is I don’t care.

Shut up, Eric. Nobody cares! Eric, you fucking nerd!

I like it. I don’t care.

I would have them together but don’t stick them in each other.

Get the coffee and the pumpkin, jam the pumpkin in the mill, shove it all until so I might live religiously.

Now bud light is rolling out of pumpkin spice hard seltzer.

Wait, what? Actually, can we cut for a second? Bud light? Bud light seltzer? Why would you do that? I don’t understand. This isn’t fun anymore. You ruined it. It was perfect and you ruined I it.

[Cheers and applause]

* * *

John: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns Belarus. And I know you might be expecting me to play that game where I tell you that’s not actually Belarus, it’s somewhere else. But here’s the thing, that game was supposed to encourage you to learn some basic geography. And I started to get the sense that some of you just grew to enjoy being humiliated by it. Which is why those particular people will be happy to know that that’s not actually Belarus. That’s Belarus. Happy now, you freaks? Specifically, we’d like to talk about Belarus’ president and autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who has had quite a year. In fact, you might have noticed stories about Belarus popping up with increasing regularity. Especially since last august, when they had a highly contested election which made international headlines.

Thousands of people unleashing their fury in the capital city of Minsk and elsewhere also around the country. Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled for nearly three decades, has faced a wave of anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy. Despite that, official state-approved exit polls gave him an overwhelming majority of 80%.

John: It’s true. They claimed Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote. Which was immediately fishy for a couple of reasons. One, the massive protests that followed. And two, the idea that any man could still be popular after nearly three decades in the public eye. I’ve only had this show for eight years, and even I can barely stand the sight of me. And Belarusians aren’t just furious at Lukashenko for his handling of the coronavirus — although, from the beginning, his management of it was incredibly reckless.

At first, he called the virus a psychosis, and said it was treatable with vodka and saunas. And at a crowded hockey game, he denied its existence.

I don’t understand. There are no viruses here. Did you see any of them flying around?

John: “Yeah, that makes sense! Just look around — you don’t see any Covid viruses, do you? Do you hear any Ebola? Smell any measles? Taste any aids in the air? No! Of course not. That’s how you know they’re not here! What is here is your fearless leader, who’s about to go and score a hat trick for the Minsk midlife crises.” But Lukashenko’s terrible handling of Covid is just the beginning here. Lukashenko has described himself as “the last and only dictator in Europe.” Which is, in itself, an amazing thing to say. Bragging about being “the last dictator” is like bragging about being the last radio shack, or the last person to make a movie with Harvey Weinstein. That’s not an enviable title. And sadly, for some Belarusians, he’s the only leader they’ve ever known.

How old are you?

I am 22.

You’re 22?

Yeah.

So, your whole life, lived under one president. How does that feel for you?

Well, it feels like shit.

John: Yeah, I bet it does. Especially since the person who’s been in charge for that man’s entire life is a hard boiled egg with a mustache who calls himself a dictator and thinks Covid only exists if he can see it zooming around in a tiny little jet. That protest was from last September, and things have only escalated since then. You may remember a Belarusian athlete refusing to return home during the Tokyo Olympics. And back in may, this happened.

This morning, Belarus is facing growing international protests and condemnation after the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko sent a fighter jet to ground a commercial plane flying between, two European capitals. And with it, 26-year-old dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend.

One passenger says roman pleaded, “don’t do this. They’ll kill me.” The Ryanair crew replied, “we have no choice.”

John: Yeah, a journalist who was critical of the government briefly passed through Belarusian airspace on a commercial flight, so Lukashenko personally ordered a fighter jet to intercept it and force it to land. Now, Belarusian authorities originally claimed they did that because of an emailed bomb threat from Hamas, but records show that email was sent 24 minutes after they informed the pilot about the bomb threat. Not to mention it was sent from ahmedyurlanov1988@protonmail.com with the subject line “Allahu Akbar.” Which is just impossibly lazy. It’s one step above emailing from badguys6969@yahoo.com with the subject line “terrorist stuff parentheses like 9/11.” So given how much things seem to be spiraling in Belarus, we thought tonight, it’d be worth giving you some context for what’s happening over there, and taking a look at exactly who Alexander Lukashenko is. And let’s start with the fact that he is the greatest president in the history of Belarus, specifically because he is the only president in the history of Belarus. Lukashenko won the country’s first free and fair election in 1994, three years after the fall of the soviet union, when he, a former manager of a state-owned farm, vowed to raise taxes on the rich and defeat corruption. He was genuinely popular at the time. Just listen to a former aide-turned-critic recall how people reacted to him at his rallies.

3,000 People who were listening to him instead of leaving the stadium moved towards him like an avalanche. I remember as if it happened yesterday. They were reaching out to him like believers to a relic praying for god’s grace. Women were lifting up their children for Lukashenko to touch them. Others were reaching out with books, newspapers, or even banknotes just to get his autograph. Well, Lukashenko was no Michael Jackson, but this is what really happened.

John: Well, hold on. Was he no Michael Jackson? Think about it. Lukashenko was immensely popular in the ’90s, diehard fans packed stadiums to see him, and he eventually torpedoed his reputation because it turns out he was an absolute monster. To be honest, I think Lukashenko fully earned that comparison. And he still very much plays up his humble farm background through photo ops, like this one, where he’s harvesting potatoes while dressed like chef Boyardee at an orgy. He once gave four bags of potatoes and a tub of lard to Vladimir Putin as a Christmas gift, and when Steven Seagal visited Belarus, Lukashenko also gifted him produce, with “The Washington Post” poetically writing at the time, “there was no hesitation on Steven Seagal’s face as he took a raw, freshly peeled carrot from the hands of the Belarusan president Alexander Lukashenko and bit into it with a satisfying chomp.” Which is just a tapestry of words. You don’t even need a video to imagine what it was like to Steven Seagal using his mouth bones to break off the tip of that rabbit hot dog. But we are going to show it to you anyway.

John: Magnificent. No disrespect to Seagal classics like “Under Siege,” “Hard to Kill,” “Above the Law,” and probably something called “Hunting the Fire” or whatever, but that is the greatest film Steven Seagal has ever made. But for all Lukashenko’s common-man posturing, his promises to combat corruption quickly fell apart. Just five months into his presidency, a deputy compiled an investigation into corruption in parliament, which was said to have contained charges against various high-ranking officials. But the government banned all press coverage of the report, to the point where local newspapers that had planned to publish the results of it, instead ended up publishing blank pages like these. And that was just the beginning of a decades-long assault on the press. Shortly afterward, Lukashenko replaced the editors-in-chief of four leading newspapers, and took the national radio and television under strict control, creating an environment so hostile to independent journalism, Belarus is now considered the most dangerous country in Europe for members of the media — with members constantly subjected to violence, arbitrary detentions, interrogations, raids and more. And the control Lukashenko exerts over even small, petty details is incredible.

Is it true that you cannot film the back of Lukashenko’s head?

Yes, it’s true.

Is it because he has a bald patch?

Yeah, it’s kind of very weird haircut. So it’s growing from one side.

John: Wait a minute, you’re telling me this guy is bald? This guy? This guy? This man right here? You’re telling me that this guy is bald? Bald, you say? You know, I think you might be right. It looks like he grew his left sideburn into a rattail and then shellacked it onto his bare scalp. The answer to the question, “is Lukashenko bald,” at this point is a resounding, “I wish.” But Lukashenko’s bizarre behavior goes well beyond censoring the media and force-feeding Steven Seagal raw vegetables. Over the years, he’s made statements like, better to be a dictator than gay, and, “not everything connected in Germany with the well-known Adolf Hitler was bad,” taking the phrase “playing devil’s advocate” a bit too literally. And if you’re thinking, “okay, but who didn’t accidentally praise Hitler in the ’90s?” First, why are you thinking that? And second, just this summer he said the entire world “grovels to the Jews.” Which is obviously awful. Lukashenko treats anti-semitism the way fashion treats low-rise bell bottoms. He keeps bringing it back even when it was never acceptable at any point in history. Overall, Lukashenko operates from the standard authoritarian playbook. And he’s repeatedly worked to codify his power using a controversial referendum in 1996 to extend his first term and dramatically increase his powers and weaken those of the legislature, and then using a second referendum to completely remove term limits in 2004. At this point, outside observer groups have reported that none of his last five election victories have been legitimate. And throughout his time as president, Lukashenko has clamped down hard on the slightest signs of dissent. In 2012, two men staged “toy protests,” with stuffed animals holding anti-Lukashenko slogans, objectively the cutest display of civil disobedience I’ve ever seen. But that wound up getting both those men sentenced to ten days in jail, a sentence that, in itself, actually inspired a follow-up protest.

In July, hundreds of teddy bears rained down on Belarus. They wore parachutes and carried pro-democracy messages. The man behind the prank is a marketing executive with a Swedish firm. He took off from Lithuania in this tiny plane. For 90 minutes, he let the fur fly.

John: Perfect. I love it. Ten out of ten. We should be dropping parachuting teddy bears from the sky here all the time. Not even as an act of protest. It should just be a thing we do. “Oh, it’s 1:00 p.m., Everyone! It’s daily parachuting teddy bear time.” Why did we even invent planes if we’re not going to use them to drop teddy bears out of the sky and instantly improve everyone’s day? I don’t understand the society we’ve built for ourselves. We’re fucking idiots. [Cheers and applause] now, unsurprisingly, Lukashenko tried to cover that incident up, which proved to be impossible, due to, you know, the internet. So instead, he tried to save face by firing two generals — the head of the border service and the head of the air force. But the thing is, even though protests like those can be whimsical, what happens to dissidents in Belarus is horrific. Opposition figures have disappeared over the years, and some are suspected to have been murdered by the state. And there have been numerous allegations of political detainees being tortured, as this BBC journalist once tried to demonstrate, in a pretty bold manner.

The opposition in Belarus say they were tortured by being forced to strip naked in freezing conditions.

So we go to a cold store in north London where the temperature is -24 Celsius. So the guards forced the prisoners to strip naked and stand in this position, spread-eagled. At -20, there was snow outside. In the jargon of torture, this is a stress position. [Laughter]

John: Quick question, and it has nothing to do with the prisoner torture, why did you do that? You could have just told us the prisoners were forced to stand in the cold naked. We’d have believed you. And we’d have been able to imagine what that looked like. We really didn’t need to see you standing there, cakes out, to get your very basic point. And the thing is, that brutality has only escalated. Recently, Lukashenko has increased the number of arrests of human rights activists and journalists, and police have raided their offices and homes. Just this week, an opposition leader was sentenced by the state to 11 years in prison. And even when dissidents manage to escape Belarus, they may not be safe. A few weeks ago, an activist who’d fled to Ukraine went out for a run and was found hanged in a park. And while that hasn’t been officially confirmed as murder officially confirmed as murder, come on. I’m not sure which species of trees are native to Ukraine, but I don’t think any of them naturally have Belarusian dissidents hanging from them. The point is, for nearly three decades now, Belarus has experienced a brutal cycle of oppression in which Lukashenko wins elections that are neither free nor fair, locks up his political opponents, people take to the streets in protest, and he violently cracks down. It’s no wonder the Belarusian people seem to have had enough. A leaked poll showed that only about a third of the population trusts Lukashenko. Which is impressively low, considering, remember, he controls the national media. And even there, his grip is slipping. Last year, presenters on a state-tv morning show walked off and resigned, leaving viewers watching this. ♪ ♪ Wow. That’s both a brave act of protest by Belarusian broadcasters, and also everyone’s dream panel on “the view.” And you do get the sense Lukashenko may be feeling some pressure. When marchers likened him to a cockroach and online polls showed him having only 3% support from his people, instead of simply ignoring it, this was how he responded.

Do you really believe that the serving president has just 3% support? Stop harassing and insulting us, calling me “a mustached cockroach,” etcetera. I am still the president of this country. In no country in the world are you allowed to insult people.

John: Uh, yes, you are. Yeah, you definitely are. I’ll prove it. Your suit’s too big, you suck at hockey, and whatever it is you’re doing with your hair isn’t fucking working. See? Not in jail. [Cheers and applause] I’m not in jail. So things are clearly bleak in Belarus. And Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — the woman widely believed to be the real winner of last year’s election, and who, by the way, only ran after her husband, Lukashenko’s initial opponent, was imprisoned — has fled the country. But she’s still leading the country’s pro-democracy movement from exile. She’s asked world leaders to demand the release of what’s thought to be over 650 political prisoners. And I will say, the E.U., the U.S., the U.K. and Canada have imposed sanctions on Belarus targeting everything from close associates of Lukashenko to the Belarusian economy. And the Biden administration has just recently imposed more. But the truth is, sanctions can only do so much. And Lukashenko doesn’t seem keen to end his reign. In fact, many think that he’s groomed his youngest son Kolya to take his place, because since he was young, he’s been dragging him along everywhere he goes on state business. Here he is. Here he is again. Here he is again. He’s in all of these photos. I don’t know when European “bring your kid to work day” is, but it can’t be “always.” So at this point, it looks like the only thing that will really improve things in Belarus is if the people there somehow manage to reform their constitution and ensure that free and fair elections are finally held. And as we’ve seen tonight, fighting for those changes is going to be incredibly risky. But there may be one extremely small way that we can help here, or, if not help, at least annoy the shit out of Lukashenko. Because if there’s one thing we know he hates — other than gay people, Jews, his own bald head, and anyone who disagrees with him — it’s teddy bears. And why wouldn’t he? I mean, look at them! They’re everything he’s not — cute, lovable, and covered in thick, natural, hair all the way around. So we decided to make our own special teddy bear in his honor. As you can see, he’s wearing a shirt with farmer Lukashenko’s favorite vegetables in a totally random configuration. If you think they look like something else, what does that say about you? And instead of dropping them from a plane over Belarus, we’re offering them to you at this website, Belarusbearforce.com for the price of $19.99. We’ve partnered with global giving to give 100 percent of sales to organizations fighting for freedom of the press and human rights for the people of Belarus. So please, buy one of these bears. And not just for the people of Belarus, but for me. We bought 10,000 of these things, and if we don’t get rid of them all, I am in real trouble. Go to Belarusbearforce.com. Buy one for yourself, your parents, your least politically informed coworker, or your friend’s new baby who you have no idea what to get because it’s not like you’ve ever hung out with it before. So be sure to order your teddy bear today and support the people of Belarus! I promise you, they are flight ready.

That’s our show, thank you so much for watching. It’s great to be back. Good night!

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