SPECIAL EDITIONRFE/RL has prepared a special package of reports taking a closer look at Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Lukashenka Wants To Go His Own WayFebruary 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It's rare for Belarus's authoritarian president to speak to Western media. But recently Alyaksandr Lukashenka has opened up.
Lukashenka, a popular figure nowhere but home, has lately found himself in an especially lonely place -- wedged between an uncompromising Russia and an unsympathetic Europe.
But in a February 6 interview with Reuters, an undaunted Lukashenka emphasized that his country will go its own way.
Belarus, he said, will survive Russia's recent doubling of gas prices -- but ties between the countries can never be the same.
"Our economy can withstand this," Lukashenka said. "Psychologically, if you will, what is most disconcerting for us is the position of our ally. Most of all we are upset that it was an ally country that used such barbaric methods -- a country that is closest to us and home to a people closest to us.
'Practically The Same'
'Belarusians and Russians are practically the same people. They are the same people. It's hard to distinguish between them."
In turn, Lukashenka said, Belarus would also apply market principles to Russia, charging for Russian troops stationed on its soil and for goods transiting the country.
The union state with Russia was still on the agenda, he said. But relations from now on would be on Belarus's terms.
"Russia is trying to disregard the former Soviet republics, thinking they won't go anywhere and they will remain hooked to the Russian Federation," Lukashenka said. "This is a misguided position."
Will Minsk Look West?
Since a New Year's energy spat between Moscow and Minsk briefly shut down oil shipments to the European Union, Lukashenka has made a number of comments calling for a new dialogue with the EU.
"As a result of this [gas] crisis, Europe has suddenly turned its attention to Belarus and understood that without Belarus it is difficult to ensure Europe's energy security," Lukashenka told Reuters. "It has turned out that Belarus also wants to be a sovereign and independent country, and this came as a surprise to the European Union."
And in a January interview with the German daily "Die Welt," the Belarusian president described himself as a "willing pupil" ready to learn from the West, and said he wanted Belarus to one day look like Germany or Sweden.
But Brussels remains skeptical. The EU has accused Lukashenka of falsifying elections and clamping down on independent media, and has placed a visa ban and asset freeze on the country's top officials.
In November 2006, the bloc demanded that Lukashenka accept 12 conditions before dialogue between Minsk and Brussels could be restored. The most pressing of those was the release of political prisoners.
The European Commission's external relations spokeswoman, Emma Udwin, told RFE/RL that the EU needs to see political reform before relations with Belarus can be normalized. The ball, she said, is in Belarus's court.
"I see that in the interview with Reuters, Mr. Lukashenka has referred to our suggestions as impossible demands. So I hope that we will see some movement in the future, but I don't think there's anything very substantial yet," Udwin said.
Lukashenka has not given any indication that Belarus is prepared for political reform. Instead, he chastised the West for working with Belarus's political opposition.
Lukashenka said that the opposition in Belarus was a "group of renegades" who had been unsuccessful members of his team.
United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka dismissed Lukashenka's criticism in comments to RFE/RL's Belarus Service: "Lukashenka is not able to forget that there is a group [the opposition] that draws a sizable part of [international] contacts and communications [to its side]. It is simply a feeling of envy by a politician whose time is coming to an end."
But would the West be willing to work with Lukashenka?
In an interview with RFE/RL, Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) who recently visited Belarus, said he didn't object to working with the Belarusian government.
"I don't reject cooperation with the government. On the contrary, if they are prepared to go in the right direction and make the first steps, I am prepared to cooperate and to assist, and to be helpful in this [democratization] process," van der Linden said.
Lukashenka also told Reuters that, health permitting, he has no intention of abandoning politics.
That has prompted a new wave of speculation on whether he will run for a fourth term in 2011.
Belarusian political commentator Vyachaslau Orhish thinks that, whatever Lukashenka's desire, there are sociopolitical circumstances that will force him to quit.
"This time is not far away," Orhish says.
The Lonely Life Of 'Europe's Last Dictator'
Some prognosticators may be predicting the imminent demise of Belarus's beleagured leader. But Alyaksandr Lukashenka begs to differ. In an interview this week, he suggested rumors of the death of his political career have been greatly exaggerated.
"If God gives me strength to fulfill all that I have promised to the Belarusian people, if health permits me and I achieve my goals, if I am still as active as you say I am, then I will tell you honestly, I will not abandon political struggle," Lukashenka told Reuters.
Is "Europe's last dictator" that dedicated to his job, or simply loathe to consider the alternative?
In fact, autocratic leaders like Alyaksandr Lukashenka, irrespective of political philosophy, all share a key instinct -- keeping themselves in power.
That's according to U.S. journalist David Wallachinsky, the author of "Tyrant: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators," a detailed account of presidents, kings, and princes who rule their countries with an iron fist.
Wallachinsky divides dictators into three categories.
There are those who inherit their power from a family member, like Syria's Bashir al-Assad. There are those, like Cuba's Fidel Castro, who take over the country by force.
And then, Wallachinsky says, there are those who simply rise up through the political ranks to take power -- as is the case with Lukashenka and other post-Soviet autocrats.
"In the case of Lukashenka, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, [Saparmurat] Niyazov of Turkmenistan, et cetera -- these gentlemen were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, when communism collapsed in the Soviet Union," Wallachinsky says.
"They were able to transform themselves into the symbol of a new, independent country while retaining quite a bit of the old Soviet system."
Wallachinsky, who refreshes his list each year, ranks his subjects from one to 20, one being the worst.
The ranking is based on criteria such as violations of free speech and religion, rigged elections, an corrupt judiciary, and the inability to stage public protests or criticize the government without punishment.
In this year's list -- due to be published February 11, Lukashenka ranks 14th, the same position he held in 2006.
This puts the Belarusian leader slightly ahead of Karimov at No. 8, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at No. 5.
But it leaves him below a newcomer to the list, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who enters the ranking at No. 20 -- nudged in, perhaps, thanks to the space vacated by Niyazov, last year's No. 8, who died in December.
The absolute worst living dictator, according to Wallachinsky, is President Omar Hasan Ahmad Al-Bashir of Sudan, who has been accused of orchestrating the murder and displacement of hundreds of thousands in his country's Darfur region.
Other world leaders on Wallachinsky's list are North Korea's Kim Jong-il (No. 2), Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (No. 3), China's Hu Jintao (No. 4), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (No. 7), and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan (No. 15).
Of all the figures on Wallachinsky's list, Lukashenka is the only leader whom the journalist has had occasion to observe up close and in person.
At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Wallachinsky witnessed the Belarusian leader several nights in a row in a section of the ice hockey arena reserved for elite guests.
His overwhelming impression, Wallachinsky says, was that Lukashenka looked and acted like a "gangster."
"On the first couple of evenings, he showed up dressed in a suit and tie, as befits a world leader. And his bodyguards were dressed similarly," he says. "And then suddenly they started showing up in sports outfits -- you know, track suits. [But] in no way did it change their appearance. They still appeared to be a political mafia."
In his research on dictators, Wallachinsky looks not only at the oppressive policies they impose on their citizens. He also examines details from their personal lives.
He says he does this to remind readers of the disturbing fact that these are real people, not invented monsters.
While researching Lukashenka's private life, Wallachinsky hit a dead end trying to find a picture of the president's wife. When he asked a group of Belarusian sports journalists at the Olympics, they said they had never seen her, or even a picture of her.
Wallachinsky found this missing link bizarre. He now says it helped him develop a theory about Lukashenka's personal demons.
"I got the impression that he was kind of ashamed of his background, that he wanted to be the sophisticated world leader, and if you met his wife, you'd know where he really came from," he says.
In fact, Lukashenka's wife, Halina, has never officially served as first lady. She lives alone in the small Belarusian city of Shklou, where Lukashenka held a job at the beginning of his career.
Lukashenka is now believed to live with a mistress, with whom he has a young child. But this side of his life is kept under wraps as well.
No Easy Out
So what does the future hold for the 53-year old Lukashenka?
Tyranny expert Wallachinsky says this is a difficult time for the Belarusian leader, as he struggles to find a balance between the country's almost crippling economic dependency on Russia and growing pressure from the West to end its self-imposed isolation.
But Lukashenka's autocratic style is going to be a problem if he tries to forge new friendships, Wallachinsky predicts.
"Lukashenka's in a difficult situation, because this is not an era in which the European powers are willing to overlook human rights violations," he says. "He just stands out like a sore thumb in Europe. To be a dictator like he is is to be part of times gone by, from a European point of view."
So where does it leave Lukashenka if he is rejected by both his traditional ally, Russia, and a Europe that refuses to do business with a politician of his ilk?
In such a scenario, Wallachinsky believes, Lukashenka will do what many besieged dictators do when they need help -- look to others who are just like him.
"If he's having trouble with the Europeans, and he's having trouble with the Russians, he'll do what a lot of other dictators do – he'll turn to the Chinese, he'll turn to the Iranians, he'll turn to that whole world of dictators who try to help each other. And he'll increase trade with China, with Pakistan, with Iran, with certain African nations if they have anything that he can use."
Lukashenka, in fact, has already forged ties with the leadership of countries likes of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. It's unclear, however, if those alliances will be enough to sustain his reign as "Europe's last dictator."
Lukashenka: A Psychological Portrait
Anybody seeking to understand Lukashenka's political behavior could get a good start by reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterful 1975 novel, "The Autumn Of The Patriarch." Although Garcia Marquez based his fictional hero on a number of real-life autocrats from Latin America, the resulting picture is that of an archetypical dictator and patriarchal nation suffering the consequences of concentrating all possible power in a single man.
Lukashenka's life and career appear to emulate those of Garcia Marquez's protagonist in a number of ways -- some deeply fearsome and some irresistibly comic. By a strange twist of fate, the only Russian-language translation of "The Autumn Of The Patriarch" was made by two Belarusian writers in 1978. It was as if fate decided that, of all the Soviet nationalities, it was Belarusians who needed most to look into the mind-set of people living under dictatorial oppression.
The similarities between Garcia Marquez's creation and the real-life Lukashenka begin, fittingly, with their fathers -- or lack thereof. Lukashenka's official website (http://www.president.gov.by) is laconic on the topic, saying only that the president "grew and was brought up without a father."
In fact, the identity of Lukashenka's father has never been disclosed. The president's patronymic, Ryhoravich, indicates his father was called Ryhor, or Grigory in Russian. One somewhat questionable account maintains the mysterious Ryhor may have been a one-eyed married man who saw his son as a small boy just a handful of times.
Details about Lukashenka's mother, Katsyaryna Trafimauna Lukashenka, have been somewhat easier to uncover. Journalists in the 1990s reported that Katsyaryna spent the early 1950s working in a flax-processing factory in the city of Orsha. She then returned to her native village of Aleksandria in eastern Mahilyou Oblast, her 2-year-old son, Sasha, in tow.
Lukashenka would later refer to Aleksandria as his birthplace. His official biographers have since offered a third version, saying he was born in nearby Kopys, in Vitsebsk Oblast.
No Fairytale Childhood
Young Sasha -- the boy destined to become Belarus's first president -- was reported to have had a difficult childhood. He was deeply disliked by his peers in the village, who tormented and mocked him as an extramarital scion and a bastard. Sasha repeatedly pledged to take revenge on all of them as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
In his early years, Lukashenka dreamed of becoming a tractor driver. His thoughts later turned to a musical career after his mother bought him an accordion. In a propaganda film meant to boost his image in Russia in the second half of the 1990s -- when he still nurtured dreams that a Russian-Belarus union would propel him to the post of Russian president -- Lukashenka is shown in casual dress, amateurishly playing an accordion and singing a sentimental tune.
Man Of The People
In 1971-75, Lukashenka studied history at the Pedagogical Institute in Mahilyou. After graduating, he married Halina Zhaunerovich, a childhood acquaintance, and fathered two sons, Viktar and Dzmitry. His wife, who has never served in the capacity of first lady, was eventually dispatched to a lonely home in the country. Lukashenka is believed to have spent his recent years living with a mistress, with whom he reputedly has a child. "I'm not a family man," he has confessed, "because I've devoted my life to my work."
Despite his teaching diploma, Lukashenka never pursued a teaching career. He went on to graduate from the Belarusian Agricultural Academy and from there took up a number of low-profile, politically flavored jobs in the provinces. He alternately worked as a Komsomol instructor; a "politruk," or political propaganda officer in Belarus's KGB border-troop unit; deputy director of a construction-materials factory; and deputy director and party secretary of a series of collective farms.
A point of contention on Lukashenka's resume is whether he ever worked as a prison warden. Opponents are fond of the theory, perhaps because of the president's appetite for incarcerating political opponents. Lukashenka, however, vigorously denies he ever held such a post.
In sum, the early, provincial years of Lukashenka's career gave the future president invaluable insight into the character of ordinary Belarusians -- collective-farm laborers and industrial workers -- who now form the backbone of his support. He mastered their natural idiom, a plebian version of Russian mixed with Belarusian syntax and pronunciation.
All this made it easy, when the time came, for him to appeal directly to the people's hearts, without bothering himself much about their minds. No other politician in Belarus -- in either the elite or the opposition -- has ever had such a forceful, almost hypnotizing, grip on an audience as Lukashenka.
Sasha Has His Revenge
Lukashenka also shared two more traits with those on the low end of the Soviet social spectrum: he was ashamed of his rural origins, and, as a result, loathed everything that was traditionally associated with them. In Belarus, this meant the native Belarusian language and indigenous culture. At the same time, however, he felt a deep-seated resentment toward the Russian-speaking urban nomenklatura, whose ranks were firmly off-limits to ambitious but insignificant country bumpkins like himself.
When he became president in 1994, the Belarusian language and the local nomenklatura both fell victim to his sense of vengeance. "The people who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speaking the Belarusian language, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian," Lukashenka famously declared -- in Russian -- in 1994. "There are only two great languages in the world -- Russian and English."
The country's post-Soviet nomenklatura, meanwhile, proved indispensable -- or, more accurately, highly dispensable -- to Lukashenka during his first term. He routinely staged public humiliations of cabinet ministers and other officials, settling scores during televised conferences that showed him berating his victims for perceived economic and political errors. Often he pinned blame on them for his own fallacious decisions. At one such public display of opprobrium, Lukashenka went so far as to stage a minister's "spontaneous" dismissal, complete with handcuffs and immediate arrest.
Ordinary Belarusians watched such live programs with tremendous excitement. Lukashenka came over as a fantastic hero-leader, brandishing a sword of retribution over the heads of those they saw as their real oppressors. It was during this period that Belarusians first began to refer to their president as Batska, or "father" in Belarusian. His tough-guy approach to politics had strong appeal for a society craving authority and a firm hand -- the same society that had been overwhelmingly rural and patriarchal only a half-century ago.
Losing His Way?
In the 1950s and 1960s, Belarusians were subjected to a merciless social and cultural uprooting through the dual forces of industrialization and urbanization -- accompanied by forced Sovietization and Russification. Lukashenka lacked qualified expertise in the social manipulation of people, but he compensated with keen political instinct and a deep understanding of the national psyche. He assumed the role of father figure to a people who had lost their orientation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has been that genuine popular support, reinforced by generous Russian energy subsidies, that has allowed Lukashenka to avoid any major economic or social upheaval during the past 12 years.
Now that the subsidies seem to be over, Lukashenka's Soviet-style leadership techniques may become worthless. His recent flurry of contradictory political ideas and statements -- including a union with Ukraine and other energy-transit countries to balance Russia's increasing assertiveness in energy policies -- may be a sign that his political instinct has begun to fail him as well.
Another factor that bodes ill for Lukashenka's future is his isolation from the ruling class in Belarus. In January, at the height of his energy-pricing dispute with Russia, Lukashenka appointed his 31-year-old son, Viktar, to the Security Council, granting the politically inexperienced young man a status equal to that of the KGB chief or the interior minister.
Some analysts have speculated that Lukashenka may be priming his son to serve as his successor. But the reason for the appointment actually seems to be much simpler -- the solitary president lacks qualified and trustworthy candidates to fill senior state positions and replace the battered and exhausted political veterans who have managed to remain in government.
Lukashenka is famous among state leaders for his idiosyncratic pronouncements and verbal meltdowns. Many of his sayings -- like "I will not lead my nation after the civilized world" -- have earned a place in the pages of post-Soviet political folklore. Hardly one among them can be commended for its wisdom or wit. But many are inadvertently funny because of their bizarreness, silliness, or even unintended obscenity.
Some of them, taken at face value, are terrifying -- such as the one in which Lukashenka, in a 1995 interview with Germany's "Handelsblatt" newspaper, praises Hitler's Third Reich as an example worthy of emulation for other nation builders.
Not everything connected with Germany and a certain Adolf Hitler was bad," he said. "The German order had been formed throughout centuries. Under Hitler this formation reached its peak. This is what conforms to our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of a president in it."
"Handelsblatt" prudently opted to remove this passage from the published text of the interview. But Belarusian Radio twice broadcast the recorded conversation in its entirety, raising a cry of indignation in some domestic and international media for the extreme callousness of his remark.
Did Lukashenka really mean what he said? Did he want to build a fascist state in Belarus? Many journalists were quick to say yes. But another explanation, odd as it may seem, is more plausible: Lukashenka, wanting to please his interviewers, had thought it right to praise German "order." Through the simplicity of his soul or lack of exposure to the West, it may be the Belarusian president simply did not realize that Hitler's contributions to that "order" were beyond mention, in Germany and elsewhere.
Even more disturbing is the fact that Lukashenka afterward flatly denied ever making such a statement. The Belarusian president does not like to admit his mistakes. This denial, along with the Hitler quote, was recalled by Russia's Channel One television in a January program portraying Lukashenka as a brazen liar.
Another odd move came in November 2006. While giving an interview to a group of Ukrainian journalists in Minsk, Lukashenka suddenly floated the idea of creating a Ukraine-Belarus union -- adding that such a project had a better chance of success than the languishing Russia-Belarus Union State.
Lukashenka clearly sensed trouble ahead. Anticipating problems with energy deliveries from Russia, he was eager to send a signal to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko -- himself no stranger to the strong arm of Russian energy politics -- that it was time for the two of them to get together for a talk. Chances are, however, that the pro-Western Yushchenko was as stupefied by the proposal as the journalists in Minsk.
More recently, in a January interview with the German daily "Die Welt," Lukashenka suggested Belarus was ready to be an "eager pupil" of the West and that he personally envisioned his country someday following the model of Germany or Sweden. His comments appeared to be a fleeting overture to the West. A week later, meeting with Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Lukashenka was back in traditional form -- pledging that Belarus will continue to serve as Russia's "outpost" in the West.
His most recent foreign interview, to the Reuters news agency, finds him not trying to make friends with anyone in particular. Neither Russia nor Europe are essential to Belarus's survival, he said in classically bullish mode.
The erratic nature of Lukashenka's public pronouncements defy literal interpretation. Building any hopes on his words is a senseless task. As long as Lukashenka eludes the pinch of an acute economic necessity, he'll stay in one place and won't lead his nation anywhere -- neither to Sweden, nor to Russia.
'Festival' Of Democracy
It is his narrow-mindedness, and not his shrewdness, that presents the biggest obstacle to easing Lukashenka onto a more democratic path. The president has a clear vision of his role in Belarus -- he is a provider who carefully attends to the concerns of the common people, and severely punishes those who do them harm. It is hard for him to envision a Belarus without Lukashenka. It is hard for him to envision a world in which other people feel differently.
The stagecraft behind Belarusian elections -- routinely criticized by observers -- is an exercise in simulated democracy that Lukashenka appears convinced is precisely what the people need. He drove this point home in comments following the March 2006 presidential vote handing him an unprecedented third term.
"How can a normal, reasonable, good, decent man -- I've told this to [election] observers -- say that this [election] process was undemocratic? We have made a festival out of this election," he said. "Do you know why I did this? [Because] polling stations were visited by my people, who some time ago supported me so stunningly and unexpectedly, when I was [a novice in politics], you remember, 10 years ago. And I will do everything possible to make more festivals of this sort for my people."
Lukashenka may be right when he asserts that for "his people" nationwide elections and referendums have so far been "festivals." On election day, many polling stations offer vodka, sausages, and other commodities at discounted prices, and most people rightfully enjoy taking advantage of such opportunities. As long as such discount prices are possible, the festival may go on.
But some of the perks -- including substantial oil and gas subsidies -- have already begun to dry up. The festival atmosphere may come to a sudden end once Belarusians are made to pay in full for everything they now buy at discount rates.
The reality is that Lukashenka has failed to build a self-sustaining economy or functional state institutions. Belarus under his rule looks like a failed state. Lukashenka's bizarre public boast that he falsified the 2006 presidential vote in order to give the opposition at least some of the votes only underscores his profound political failure.
"Yes, we falsified the last election. I have already told the Westerners about this," he told Ukrainian journalists in Minsk on November 23. "As much as 93.5 percent voted for President Lukashenka. But they say this is not a European figure. So we made it 86 [percent]. That was true. If we were to start recounting ballots now, I don't know what we would do with them. The Europeans told us before the election that if there were approximately European figures in the election, they would recognize our election. [So] we tried to make European figures."
Making election figures look more "European" appears to be an easy task for Lukashenka. Making Belarus look more "European" seems to be totally beyond his ability.