Europe’s ‘last dictator’: Who is Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko?

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A brief history of the country’s first and only president accused of masterminding a new migration crisis.

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With a brown comb-over hairstyle, chevron-shaped mustache and a strong rural accent, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective agriculture manager-turned-minor communist official, went to Soviet Belarus in 1991 to vote against his country’s independence from Russia. He was the only MLA. ,

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Three years later, he came to power by promising to “reunify” the two nations – but only on his own terms.

Lukashenko was only 39 when he won the election – an inexperienced yet determined reformer who had a high approval rating.

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The mid-1990s was dark and desperate, with criminal gangs, galloping inflation and a crippled economy; Lukashenko offered Belarusians “stability” in protesting the chaotic, crime-ridden transition to capitalism in neighboring Russia and Ukraine.

“each [plant and factory] were closed, shops had empty shelves and people were rallying in city squares. I remember how once a day the price of bread increased 18 times, ”he told a Russian daily in 2009.

The average Belarusian still remembers their heyday—and the vows that were never fulfilled.

“I thought he saved us from the ‘wild capitalism’ of the 1990s, and I voted for him twice,” said 57-year-old Belarusian Vladislav, who led a team of construction workers in a Moscow suburb.

“But the Russians survived it and compared to the 1990s – and are much better than us. And we are 30 years behind,” Vladislav, who withdrew his surname because he feared persecution at home, told Al Jazeera .

Lukashenko was the first Belarusian president, an office that no one else has yet held.

He won a sixth term last year in a disputed election that affected Minsk’s ties with Western governments.

a tipping point

Following that vote, Belarusian police and intelligence services attacked, arrested and tortured thousands of protesters who had rallied for weeks against the August 20, 2020 election victory, according to witnesses, opposition figures and rights groups.

Like the opposition, West said the election was rigged.

The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom no longer recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president and have imposed sanctions that stifled the economy and isolated the longtime ruler whose only international supporter was Russian President is Vladimir Putin.

But even when he was cornered and excommunicated, Lukashenko magnified his bad boy image by openly defying the West.

“I don’t mind what you think about the Belarusian president in the European Union. It was not the European Union that elected me,” he told the BBC network on 22 November – adding that US President Joe Biden “Illegally” was selected.

In recent weeks, the West has accused him of masterminding a migration crisis by allowing thousands of refugees – mainly from the Middle East – to come to Belarus to cross borders with Poland or Lithuania.

“His behavior over the past year has shown that political isolation has turned him into a delusional, paranoid and petty man,” said Ivar Dale, policy adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, which monitors human rights.

He told Al Jazeera, “What you see is an unstable and dangerous man who is completely attached to power, a power he is convinced can only be held by him personally.”

a mini-ussr

But this isn’t the first time Lukashenko has tried to stay in political hot water.

Dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” 20 years ago, at a time when Putin was seen as a pro-Western political newcomer, Lukashenko is used to facing Western criticism and sanctions.

“He’s a genius tactician – in any adversity he can either back off a bit or play for a period of time until the outside pressure is gone,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany, told Al Jazeera.

Lukashenko’s critics have been silenced through years of beatings and arrests, rights groups have documented. Some were imprisoned, some fled, and some disappeared without a trace.

Mitrokhin said that what helped him fight large-scale urban dissidents were groups of police and intelligence officers recruited mainly from villagers, who enjoy above-average salaries.

“He created a modus operandi of his governance that is based on the energy of large ex-farmers who passed through the military and intelligence service, who hate ‘city slickers’ and are therefore unable to fulfill every order given by Lukashenko. No problem,” she said.

Observers say that under Lukashenko, Belarus remained a mini-USSR protected in amber, and his rule rested on three corners.

First, they controlled the economy by preserving Soviet-era collective farms, state-run plants for processing subsidized Russian crude, manufacturing machinery, and fertilizer. Control prevented the emergence of billionaire oligarchs whose wealth and connections played a large part in Russia and Ukraine.

Secondly, he tried his best to slow down the formation of the middle class – the affluent, pro-Western and some of his greatest critics.

When this nascent middle class turned against him during last year’s protests, it forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Ukraine and the European Union.

Third, he formed a symbiotic political alliance with the Kremlin.

Back in 1997, Lukashenko signed an agreement with Russia to create a “federal state” with a single government, law and currency. He hoped to replace the ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin – and stalled the merger after Putin came to power in 2000.

Lukashenko used pro-Western uprisings in neighboring Ukraine in 2005 and 2014 as an excuse to milk the Kremlin for countless billions of dollars in loans, trade concessions and political support.

‘No depth in his maneuver’

These days, Lukashenko’s political stock has fallen lower than ever as the three corners of his regime are shaking.

“Lukashenko’s crisis is due to the debilitation of these factors – he still controls” [economic] wealth, but there is no depth in their maneuvering, while the creative middle class is emerging,” Alexey Kush, an analyst based in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, told Al Jazeera.

The migration crisis and the forced landing of a Ryan Air passenger plane in the Belarusian capital, Minsk this May, hastened Lukashenko’s transformation into an international bogeyman.

“A year ago, Lukashenko was seen as a usurer who seized power and waged war on his people,” said Alexander Opekkin, who had avoided participating in last year’s protests and becoming a wanted fugitive. Previously led a successful handball club in Minsk.

“Now, it is clear that Lukashenko is a threat to regional security, a person who, based on his actions, could be called an international terrorist,” Opekin, who fled to Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.

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