‘Europe’s last dictator’ raises stakes from West

For most of his 27 years as authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko’s repression and harsh statements often angered the West. This year, that belligerence is directly affecting Europe.

His government forcefully diverted a plane flying between Greece and Lithuania that was carrying a political rival. As the EU imposed sanctions for that action, Belarus responded by easing its border controls for migrants from the Middle East and Africa, allowing them to cross the EU border.

This has forced Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to declare a state of emergency to prevent illegal crossings in their border areas. Warsaw has sent thousands of riot police and soldiers to beef up security, leading to a tense confrontation.

Lukashenko has since raised the stakes by threatening to cut natural gas shipments from Russia that cross Belarus – a potentially serious blow to Europe as winter settles in.

The move is a dramatic escalation for Lukashenko, who became president in 1994 when Belarus was an obscure country that had existed for less than three years.

His disdain for democratic norms and the country’s dismal human rights record have made Belarus an untouchable in the West, earning him the name of “Europe’s last dictator”.

Lukashenko, 67, prefers to be styled as “Batka” – “father” or “dad” – a stern but intelligent patriarch.

Although he has made occasional strides toward reconciliation with the West, Lukashenko abandoned reconciliation after his election to a sixth term as president in 2020 following massive demonstrations against him. Many in the opposition and in the West dismissed the results as rigged.

Thousands of protesters were arrested, many of them beaten up by the police; Main opposition figures either fled the country or were imprisoned; Foreign journalists were fired; And ordinary citizens were arrested for allegedly “unauthorized mass gatherings”, including birthday parties.

By suppressing the opposition through such drastic actions, as well as keeping most of the economy under state control, Belarus has become a neo-Soviet outsider, wary of its affluent NATO and EU neighbours. He alternately quarreled with Russia and cohabited.

He is noted for business actions and provocative statements, which a leaked US diplomatic cable assessed as outright “bizarre”.

In 2006, he threatened protesters by saying that he would “twist their necks like a duck.” He also attracted uncomfortable notice in a Christmas season TV interview this year when he let his fluffy little dog walk across the table amidst festive dishes.

His harsh theatrics escalated in May, when he ordered a Lithuania-bound Ryanair jetliner to be diverted to Minsk and arrested self-exiled opposition journalist Raman Pratsevich, who was aboard. Belarusian officials said the action was taken after a bomb threat against the plane, but Western officials dismissed it as a foolish attempt to hide an act of piracy.

Strapping Lukashenko often portrays a tough-guy guy playing ice hockey, including a Spring 2020 outing where he made out coronavirus Asking a TV reporter if he saw any viruses “flying around” in the arena. He advised Belarusians to “kill the virus with vodka”, go to the sauna and work in the fields to avoid infection, adding that “the tractor will heal everyone!”

Once well known by his countrymen as an anti-corruption leader, Lukashenko lost his faith through decades of jailing opponents, suppressing free media, and holding elections that gave him a term in power. .

The protest had erupted after some voting, but was not large enough or long enough to face club-swinging police and mass detention. His opponents exploit dissent only after the 2020 vote: the economic fallout and Lukashenko’s refusal to act against the cavalry COVID-19 Added to their long-term disappointment.

The protests lasted for months, only to end when winter came. But the authorities did not give up, allegedly arresting people for no apparent reason or pretending to be wearing red and white clothes from the opposition.

Lukashenko was born in a Belarusian village and followed a traditional path for an ambitious provincial Soviet. After graduating from an agricultural academy, he became a political instructor in the border guard service and eventually emerged as the director of a collective farm. In 1990, he became a member of the Parliament of the Republic, the Belarusian Supreme Soviet.

He was the only member to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. When he won the new country’s first presidential election three years later, he appeared in many ways to be trapped in time, keeping Belarus as a formidable and useless Soviet relic.

While neighboring former Soviet republics adapted to capitalism, Lukashenko placed the Belarusian economy under state control. This initially supported him because Belarusians did not suffer the pain of “shock healing” economic restructuring.

But the ossified state control of industries could not keep up with the energy and flexibility of the market; The Belarusian ruble was repeatedly forced into devaluation, and as of 2020, the average monthly salary was $480.

The country’s main security agency has retained the symbolically harmful acronym of the KGB. He also pushed for a referendum that made the new national flag almost identical to that of Belarus used as a Soviet republic.

Belarus still carries the death penalty, unlike every other country in Europe, even echoing a Soviet show-trial execution that takes about two minutes: the prisoner is allegedly brought into a room. Is said to have dismissed all appeals, was forced to kneel and then shot in the back of the head.

When Lukashenko became president, Belarus had little experience of being an independent country; As a Soviet republic, it was a fragment of the other empires with only a brief attempt at sovereignty after World War I. Sandwiched between Russia to the east and reformist, western-looking Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus was in a strategic position.

Lukashenko leaned firmly to the east. In 1997, they signed an agreement with Russia to create a “federal state” of close economic, military and political ties, but fell short of a full merger.

The agreement strengthened the economy in Belarus, which relies heavily on Russian oil at below-market prices. But Lukashenko retained the belief that Russia’s goal was eventually to completely capture Belarus, and he was more vocal about them.

As protests rocked the country in 2020 and Western pressure mounted, Lukashenko had nowhere but Moscow to turn for help. Putin said he would be willing to send police to Belarus if the protests turned violent, but he never took such a step.

This year, Lukashenko and Putin announced broad agreements to strengthen the State of the Union, including a joint military doctrine. Although the agreements substantially increase Russia’s influence in Belarus, Lukashenko is also assured of support.