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Lukashenka's Longevity Recipe: Belarus Ruler Uses Force, Guile To Maintain Grip

Since Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power in 1994, he has defanged parliament, muted the media, and pushed political foes to the margins or driven them into exile.
Since Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power in 1994, he has defanged parliament, muted the media, and pushed political foes to the margins or driven them into exile.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka may be despised in the West and tolerated through gritted teeth by Russia, but his authoritarian regime seems safe at home as he heads into an October 11 presidential election.

Over more than two decades in power, the 61-year-old former Soviet collective-farm director has used a mixture of wile and brute force to maintain his grip on Belarus, a small country stuck in a turbulent neighborhood between East and West.

Since Lukashenka came to power in 1994, he has defanged parliament, muted the media, and pushed political foes to the margins or driven them into exile.

Official media portray the burly, loud-voiced Lukashenka as a stern but caring father -- "Batka" -- an energetic man equally at ease touring factories and farms, harvesting potatoes, or playing ice hockey.

On the foreign front, Lukashenka has adroitly played the West off of Moscow, which has largely bankrolled his country's Soviet-style command economy in order to keep Belarus -- which borders three NATO members and Russia -- in its orbit.

But for the bulk of Belarusians, Lukashenka represents stability, according to Aleh Manayev, a co-founder of one of Belarus's first independent political parties and the founder of its first independent think tank, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS).

"He has provided for that majority some things, some stability in return for loyalty, while marginalizing to the maximum those who oppose him," Manayev told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

Lukashenka's Staying Power (click to expand)

Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian author who was declared the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature on October 8, put it a little differently.

"For people in the village, freedom means sausage," Alexievich, whose works have not been published in Belarus since Lukashenka came to power, said in a 2011 interview with the Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung. "He's a political animal," she added. "He does what they want."

A Strong Hand

In the early 1990s, Lukashenka vowed to fight corruption and crime and provide jobs. He refused to implement so-called "shock therapy" reforms advocated by Western economists as the medicine needed to treat moribund ex-communist economies, but widely loathed by the public in former Soviet states.

At the same time, he swiftly began silencing opponents -- and is accused by foes of being behind the disappearance of four of critics in 1999-2000.

To a degree, the Lukashenka economic model has worked.

Between 2001 and 2011, the Belarusian economy was humming, growing at an average of about 8 percent per year. That growth slashed the absolute poverty rate, which World Bank data show declining from 30 percent in 2002 to about 11 percent in 2006. By 2010, it halved to just 5.2 percent.

But since the global economic crisis in 2008-09, the economy has slowed to a crawl, with the World Bank predicting recession in 2015 and 2016. Falling oil prices are also threatening the country's main source of income: the refining and reselling of Russian oil.

Russia, the key market for Belarus, is facing its own economic troubles due to depressed global energy prices and Western sanctions over its interference in Ukraine. Belarus ships mainly trucks, tractors, industrial machinery, and food products to Russia.

The Teflon Dictator

Despite the grim economic news, Lukashenka continues to enjoy strong public support, according to recent IISEPS opinion polls.

In part that's due to Lukashenka's ability to deflect any blame for the country's economic woes, pointing the finger at others. In December 2014, he carried out his biggest government reshuffle since 2010, dismissing the country's prime minister, central bank head, and other top officials.

Official media -- including the main newspaper, Sovietskaya Belorussia, which belongs to the presidential administration -- invariably portray Lukashenka in a positive light.

What independent media exist are hounded by the authorities, including the main domestic security agency, which is still called the KGB.

Ahead of the presidential election, authorities have gone after journalists who seek to circumvent state censorship by broadcasting from outside Belarus, including the independent Belsat television station.

This year, 28 journalists in Belarus have been fined, in some cases after interrogation by the KGB.

"We destroy the myths of the official Belarusian propaganda, and in an election year this is especially dangerous for the government," Belsat journalist Olga Chaichits told the AP news agency.

Safe From Chaos in Russia, Ukraine

With the help of the state media, Lukashenka has harnessed fears of war and violence spilling over from Russia, plagued by conflicts in Chechnya and bombings by Islamist militants -- to burnish his image as a leader who keeps his people safe.

He was even buoyed by Ukraine's Maidan protest movement, which led to the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. "The majority of Belarusians perceived the Maidan as chaos, as a breakdown of the social structure, and most importantly a threat to their own security," Manayev said.

Fears of such mayhem in Belarus created "a real demand for stability, a firm hand," according to the Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbavelich.

The conflict in Ukraine was a godsend for Lukashenka in other ways as well. Lukashenka hosted peace talks that brought the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia to Minsk, allowing him to portray himself to his people as a respected statesman.

Lukashenka has declined to take sides in the Ukraine crisis, illustrating his ability to walk a fine line between Europe and Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Russia's aggression in Ukraine has enabled Lukashenka to score points at home and in the West at Putin's expense, issuing strident warnings that Belarusians will fight hard for every inch of their country's soil if invaded.

Lukashenka said on October 7 that Belarus "does not need" a Russian air base that the Kremlin wants to establish there, days after protesters in Minsk said the base would turn the country into the Kremlin's "vassal."

Walking A Fine Line

It has also fueled his latest effort to mend ties with the West, where some have branded him "Europe's Last Dictator."

On August 23, Lukashenka released six jailed opposition figures, a move welcomed by the United States and European Union. Among those freed was Mikalay Statkevich, one of several foes jailed after challenging Lukashenka in the 2010 presidential election.

Lukashenka's moves may bear fruit: Two days before the election, RFE/RL and Reuters quoted diplomats in Brussels as saying the EU plans to suspend sanctions against Belarus, including those imposed on Lukashenka, for a period of four months.

But Human Rights Watch (HRW) says there has been no meaningful improvement in Belarus's human rights record. And EU efforts launched in Prague in 2009 failed to engage Belarus and achieve press freedoms, electoral reform, and the abolition of the death penalty.

"The fact of the matter is that Belarus has a poor human rights record," says Rachel Denber, deputy director of the HRW's Europe and Central Asia division. "Belarus is not complying with its international human rights obligations, and that...needs to change."

And while he is wooing the West, Lukashenka has hardly abandoned Russia. Belarus has joined the Eurasian Economic Union -- part of Putin's effort to bolster Moscow influence in the former Soviet Union -- rather than taking up the European Union's offer of a free-trade deal.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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