Hall of infamy: Alexander Lukashenko
JOB: President of Belarus
REPUTATION: Europe’s last dictator
Lukashenko plainly enjoys power and doesn’t let it go to waste. He uses it to fuel a lavish lifestyle most Belarusians could barely imagine. According to the opposition video Lukashenko Goldmine, which has gone viral, his luxurious Independence Palace in Minsk cost a cool $250 million and he has 17 other properties around the country. Add in a fleet of planes and cars at his disposal and we are looking at yet another world-beating case of brutal public kleptocracy.
Lukashenko has honed it to an art because he has had a long time to practise. A former Soviet apparatchik in the mould of his friend and protector Vladimir Putin, he grabbed power in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like Putin, he uses the whole arsenal of repressive tactics – arbitrary arrests, disappearances, heavy-handed policing against protesters, shutting down media voices to keep ‘opposition scum’ in line. Perhaps more than any other post-Soviet head of state, he has maintained and adapted the symbols and institutions of the Stalinist past. His modus operandi is to call ‘elections’ which he duly manipulates, ‘winning’ by a standard 80 per cent, give or take, depending what his inner circle believes the optics require. Sadly for this tidy little arrangement, ordinary Belarusians are proving less and less malleable.
The tipping point came when he did it again with falsified elections in August 2020, claiming a sixth term win with the usual but highly unlikely 80 per cent of the vote. Masses of Belarusians poured onto the street in outrage, defying the teargas and rubber bullets in the largest demonstrations Minsk had ever seen. The sheer numbers supported the claims of opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya that she was the rightful winner with some 60 per cent of the vote. She was forced to flee and now lives in Warsaw.
Relentless popular pressure from below was met with ruthless repression from above. Today, months after the protests, hundreds remain in prison and thousands of the most politically active have fled the country. Journalists are a favourite target; media outlets like the independent web portal Tut.by (with 400,000 followers) have been shut down. As time goes on, promises of concessions have been replaced with threats to build a large concentration camp to house protesters. The machine-gun-toting Lukashenko prides himself on being a tough guy and refers to himself as an ‘orthodox atheist’ – an oxymoron that allows for the cultural conservatism of traditional religion in combination with old-school Soviet loyalties.
Russia in general and the status of the Russian language in particular are the political hot potatoes of domestic politics in Belarus. The country is evenly split between those who speak Russian and those who speak Belarusian as their primary language. Many nationalists embrace the latter.
The opposition in Belarus is multi-dimensional with varying views on the country’s future and geopolitical positioning. The part of it that tilts to Europe and the West falls foul of Moscow, which would not allow the country to fall into the hands of Europhile forces. It is likely that Putin was embarrassed by the public outpouring of disaffection with his Belarusian protégé, but equally likely that he will continue to hold his hand for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the opposition is faced with the task of building links beyond the youthful core of activists to the industrial workers and unions that are the heart of the Belarusian Soviet-style command economy. The limited success of the mass-strike tactics against Lukashenko underlines this necessity.
LOW CUNNING: Under pressure at home and from abroad, Lukashenko promised (last November) to resign after Belarusians approved a new constitution. Such promises have now faded into the background, with the repressive apparatus of the police state meting out ‘rough injustice’ far and wide. The promised constitution now seems more likely to be a rubber stamp for endless terms of Lukashenko and his cronies.
SENSE OF HUMOUR: Recent Belarusian joke: A man is going home from work. He is sober and doesn’t attract any attention. Suddenly an armoured police vehicle pulls up, riot police jump out and start pushing him into it, hitting him with their batons. The guy shouts: ‘Let me go, I voted for Lukashenko!’ The reply: ‘Don’t lie, no-one voted for Lukashenko!’