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Inside The Mind Of Belarus's Lukashenka

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- "Europe's last dictator"
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- "Europe's last dictator"
In early June, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka offered a substantive interview to members of the Russian press.

The talk came at a low point in relations between Moscow and Minsk: Belarus had angered Russia by joining the EU's Eastern Partnership, and Russia responded in kind by imposing a costly ban on Belarusian dairy imports.

Throughout it all, Lukashenka retained the pugnacious, didactic stance that has fascinated Belarus-watchers throughout his 15-year presidency.

So what's going on in Lukashenka's mind? For help in drafting a psychological portrait of "Europe's last dictator," Yury Drakahrust of RFE/RL's Belarus Service spoke to two political analysts -- Uladzimir Padhol in Minsk and Leonid Radzikhovsky in Moscow.

RFE/RL: Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently spent three hours speaking to members of the Russian press. Excerpts from the interview were published in "Izvestia" and "Zavtra," as well as the Belarusian state newspaper "Sovietskaya Belarusia." Although "Zavtra" is perhaps the least relevant of these publications, it is the one that offers the most revealing view of the psychological attributes of the Belarusian leader, and it's the one we'll look at today.

Lukashenka is legendary for slips of the tongue -- saying, for example, "the Belarusian people will live poorly, but not for long." There seemed to be a number of similar slips in the "Zavtra" piece. So what did we learn about Lukashenka in this interview?

Uladzimir Padhol:
I don't agree that there were slips of the tongue. In my view, everything he said was well thought-out. In this interview, Lukashenka admits for the first time that he began to believe in God when he became president. When he first became president, he saw it as some sort of accident of fate. But here, he says for the first time that he came to believe in God and that his power comes from God.

He also says that he's ready to help [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and [President Dmitry] Medvedev govern Russia. This is no slip of the tongue. He sees himself as the ruler of Russia.

Then there's his moral face -- the fact that he's a father, that he loves his children. What's interesting about this is that Belarusians themselves have never heard, read, or seen anything about this.

He goes on to declare that he's a self-sacrificing son of the Belarusian nation, that his children live in state housing, that he never even built them their own apartments, never took anything from the state coffers for his own family. He said a lot of interesting things, and none of them were slips of the tongue.

One Big Happy Family

RFE/RL: Asked about ties between Russia and Belarus, Lukashenka appeared to make another inadvertently funny remark, saying, "We're one nation -- but that doesn't mean our relations are all bad." Was this a slip?

Leonid Radzikhovsky:
I don't know if this was a slip. It truly does sound funny, but if you take it literally, what he's saying is that the toughest battle between the two nations is an internal one. In other words, if things aren't automatically all bad between close family members, that's already something good!

Dostoyevsky has a pet phrase: "neumestnoye sobraniye," or an indecorous gathering. In almost all of his novels, he includes a scene where members of a family gather, and what ensues are attacks, abuses, beatings -- slinging dirt at one another. So there's a certain sadomasochistic element to Belarusian-Russian relations. The more the two sides converse, the more they detest each other and the tighter their bond.

RFE/RL: Lukashenka also relates a conversation he had with Putin while he was still president regarding the stalled negotiations on the Belarus-Russia union-state. According to him, Putin contradicted him on some point, and he immediately shot back -- using the informal "ty" instead of "vy" -- "Don't you ask me questions like that. I'll take care of matters in Belarus, and you worry about Russia." How do you interpret this remark?

It's all about overcompensating for his wounded pride. It's like the remark he made once about Boris Yeltsin -- "He's 90 years old, and I'm only 40" -- even though in reality, Lukashenka was not 40 and Yeltsin was far from 90.

He's attempting to underscore his importance in relation to Russia's leaders. The personal worth of an individual needn't be proportional to the size of his country. For example, Chechnya isn't such a large region of Russia, but its leader is far more politically important than, say, the governors of St. Petersburg or Rostov, or the president of North Ossetia.

RFE/RL: By that measure, is Lukashenka a more powerful person than the leaders of Russia?

That depends on your criteria. Of course, if you're going strictly by who has more absolute power, there's no question. But if your criteria is how canny the person is at exploiting the possibilities of his country, then undoubtedly Lukashenka is more adept at exploiting the small possibilities of his country than Russia's leaders are at exploiting the large possibilities of their own.

RFE/RL: Uladzimir, what's your take on the alleged "ty-vy" exchange between Lukashenka and Putin?

You can't really ascertain anything about their relationship based on this quote. Allow me to give a more colorful example.

Lukashenka met with Medvedev and Putin in Sochi and then gave a press conference at which he said, "Putin and I have such friendly relations, we might as well hang wallpaper together. I tell him, 'get me some tea,' and he gets it; he tells me, 'get me some tea,' and I get it."

Lukashenka has this inappropriately rude manner. For him to "ty" someone is an attempt at closeness. It's a vestigial collective-farm mentality.

As a talented actor and intuitive psychologist, Lukashenka stages performances as the situation requires. One of the main conclusions we can draw is that he thinks he's better: he's better than Putin, better than Medvedev, better than all these democratic politicians.

There's another quote from the interview: "We're on a knife's edge -- on the left side, to the West, democrats; on the right side, in Russia, democrats." His totalitarianism is the best form of governing. He actually says this. And with this "ty-vy" stuff, he is in fact underscoring that Putin acknowledges his greatness.

'Russia's Man'

RFE/RL: Defending his decision for Belarus to join the EU's Eastern Partnership program, Lukashenka told the Russian journalists, "Is it really so bad that you'll have your ally, your man, in the Western camp?" He also attempted to explain why Belarus has yet to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Is this convincing for Russians?

Padhol: Russians don't give a damn about the Eastern Partnership or Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Their factories are idle. People are storming municipal offices because they have nothing to eat. The Eastern Partnership and Abkhazia and South Ossetia have nothing to do with this.

The "milk war" is a different story. Lukashenka said in his interview: "Russia's government told me: 'Give us your dairies. Then you'll be able to sell your milk.' And I said: 'We'd be better off pouring it on the ground, we'd be better off dying. We won't agree to that.' Just conjure up an image of Lukashenka directing rivers of milk to Russia to feed the Russian people -- and then Putin and his team damming the rivers up.

Lukashenka is a classic imperial politician -- better than Putin, better than Medvedev. The situation with the "dam" built by Putin and [public health chief] Gennady Onishchenko to stop the river of milk from flowing to Russia has created an excellent image for Lukashenka. The father wants to feed Russia, but they don't let him.

Radzikhovsky: I don't believe most Russian citizens are particularly interested in whether Lukashenka recognizes this godforsaken Abkhazia or not. I think that for Russians, this has long ceased to have any significance.

There aren't that many crazy people among the Russians. Perhaps more than in other countries, but proportionately, not that many. And for normal people, what difference does it make whether Belarus recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia? These two countries will never achieve international recognition of their status. The only result of their recognition by Belarus would be to further aggravate Lukashenka's relations with the West and show that he's forced to do the Kremlin's bidding. That isn't all that interesting to most Russians.

As for his statement about Russians having "their" person in the Western camp -- this is very typical for Lukashenka. It's a completely nonsensical collection of words. What does that mean, anyway -- "your person"? What is he? An executor of the Kremlin's wishes? A secret agent?

Two Personas

RFE/RL: Lukashenka seems to enjoy acting as though he is bringing his interviewers in on a big secret -- real or imagined. "Did you know that it was thanks to me that there was no blockade of Abkhazia under [former Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze?" "Did you know that Russian [Finance] Minister Aleksei Kudrin's dire forecast about the Belarusian economy was meant to create panic?" Is this a tactic, or a philosophy?

This is not only a philosophy but a self-preservation instinct as a politician. Being a supra-authoritarian dictator, he is constantly making mistakes in the course of governing. For instance, trade with Russia resulted in the construction of over 100 new dairy plants. And what's to be done with them now?

He constantly has to conceal the fact that he's the one who's the source of these mistakes. And he's constantly inventing these conspiracy theories to create a picture of the world in which he is always the infallible one, the one who made the best decisions. This secrecy thing allows him to constantly perform his "I am the best" shtick. Why's he waging such a battle with the independent media? Because they immediately expose him: "There you said one thing, here you say another."

Radzikhovsky: Like all grandiose dictators -- and Lukashenka certainly is that, albeit of a small country -- he combines two personas. On the one hand, he is the clear, rational, straight-thinking guy, and on the other, the hyperemotional one. These personas somehow become fused together, and he is adept at alternating from one mode to the other.

You could never make it as a grandiose, charismatic dictator if you're lacking in this skill. Like any great actor, you have to make yourself believe the play is real; otherwise, your audience won't believe it either.

translation by Jan Maksymiuk and Bohdan Andrusyshyn

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