Those who know Alexander Lukashenko — dubbed “Europe”s last dictator” — are convinced he will never relinquish his grip on power.
The 65-year-old, who has been Belarus’ president since 1994, is seeking a sixth term in elections on Sunday, August 9.
But he’s facing the fight of his life, according to experts.
His other rivals, including Viktor Babariko, Valery Tsepkalo and Sergei Tikhanovsky may have all been barred from running. But Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who decided to take part in place of her husband Tikhanovsky, has seen her popularity surge.
“Now, Belarus is sizzling, but the boiling point has not been reached yet,” Valerij Karbalevich, author of a book on Lukashenko, told Euronews, referring to the support for Tikhanovskaya.
“Lukashenko is chugging towards a victory, the hardest one in his life, yet it will have to look resounding for all, perhaps with 80 per cent of the votes for him. Anything less than that would be humiliating for him,” he added.
And the fate of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is largely in his hands – as a macho hero, the portrait he has been meticulously conjuring up throughout the years, he cannot allow himself to be beaten by a woman, the analyst said.
Lukashenko the populist?
So how has Lukashenko – who was raised by just his mother – managed to hold power for nearly 26 years and earn himself the moniker of Europe’s last dictator?
“I met Lukashenko briefly in person in 1993, seven years before the publishing of the book,” Karbalevich told Euronews.
“Frankly, our exchange was quite incohesive, he is not the good listener type. He is the 1917 Russian revolutionist type, one always appealing and appeasing the masses’ wishes, not afraid to go against the grain if he feels that it will work out well for his own agenda later.”
In 1991 – the year Belarus declared its independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union – Lukashenko published in the Narodnaja Gazieta (People’s Newspaper) his revolutionary, manifesto-like article “Dictatorship: A Belarusian Variant?” in which he castigated the authorities for moving towards authoritarianism and lamented for the communist past.
But despite this Lukashenko – for Belarus’ opposition at least – has turned into a ruthless and repressive strongman.
“I can certainly speak about the reasons for Lukashenko’s rise for hours. But in a nutshell, the socio-economic situation that Belarus was embroiled in the early 1990s catapulted him to the presidency in 1994,” said Karbalevich.
“Unlike the other post-Soviet nations, Belarusians, who have passed successful industrialisation and urbanisation in the 1960s and 1980s, frowned at the last USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost (the policies aiming to transform the Soviet economy and bring more transparency).
“The changes were only bad for us. Lukashenko rose to power playing the sentiment of the glorious, relatively-prosperous past and vowing to bring back order and prosperity.”
‘Obsession for power’
As the fall of the Soviet economies eventually bottomed out and the GDP started to grow along with the Belarusians’ standards of living, Lukashenko was perceived by many as a great statesman, one able to stop the collapse of the country.
“Understanding that Belarus is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies (90 per cent of Belarus’ energy comes from Russia), he has flirted and courted Russia and Putin throughout, receiving heavy discounts on Russian gas,” Karbalevich said.
But with Russian – and global – oil prices tumbling, Belarus felt the brunt and the bruises first hand. To show his solidarity and perennial roots with Russia, Lukashenko has spearheaded two referendums on a closer union with Russia. But in recent years he has been spooked by Putin’s proposal to unite both states into a single entity.
“The characteristic most depicting Lukashenko is his unparalleled, psychological aberration-bordering zest and obsession for power. For its sake, he can do anything,” Karbalevich said.
But as experienced and assertive as he is, the political environment he has found himself in during the presidential campaign is clearly unchartered waters.
“He obviously does not have the supporting majority of the population, but, characteristically to him, he does not show angst, even exasperation. Before the enemies were in the West, now they are coming to get him from the East (Belarus detained 32 Russian mercenaries outside of Minsk in late July who, Minsk said, were to instigate riots on behalf of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya),” said Karbalevich.
“If the election were not rigged, he would be soundly defeated. However, Lukashenko has turned it into a special operation against the other opposition candidates,” Karbalevich continued. “As much as I know him, he will allow Tikhanovskaya to run until the end. He would be morally broken if he had to cut her from the race, which he did with his more formidable contenders, ex-banker Viktor Babariko and his former advisor Valeryj Tsepkalo.”
Karbalevich said Lukashenko is still enjoying the support of the large state apparatus, law enforcement agencies and swathes of pensioners who primarily listen to state media news.
Aleksandr Feduta, a member of Lukashenko’s 1994 presidential campaign and his former first press secretary, also has a book on his former boss under his belt.
“In a sense, Lukashenko has been a loser in his life. Unlike Vladimir Putin, who blissfully climbed the KGB ranks, Lukashenko failed as a member of the Komsomol (a Soviet youth political organisation The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League),” Feduta told Euronews.
“He has not shown spectacular skills elsewhere either in the past. What certainly sets him apart from other authoritarian rulers is his unparalleled yearn and driving force to subject others to servitude. He cannot stand people arguing with him and opining differently than he.”
“Now Lukashenko is vulnerable as never before, but he still stands firmly on the ground. Had he to flee with the country sinking into a tumult, he would end up in China. I believe he will not finish his new presidential term now,” added Feduta, predicting a Lukashenko victory on Sunday.
But, he added, Lukashenko has done much good for Belarus over his two-and-a-half decades in power.
“The salaries, the pensions, the allowances grew – no one can deny it,” he added.
Alexander Lukashenko: A Soviet-type leader?
Jaroslav Romanchuk, a Belarusian libertarian economist and politician, told Euronews that other post-Soviet authoritarian leaders in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and elsewhere have courted Western ideas at some point in their careers.
“Not Lukashenko, however, who has flouted them throughout. From that standpoint, he is the most Soviet-like remaining leader,” he said.
“Like Putin, Lukashenko has called the demise of the Soviet Union the biggest tragedy of the 20th century. He truly misses the past and he cannot even think out of the box – hence the domination of state economy, protectionism, corruption. Belarus has been better only when Russian oil and gas was a hot commodity.”
The only positive thing Romanchuk could discern from Lukashenko’s rule was tangibly improved infrastructure of roads.
For Anna Plotnikova, an independent Russian journalist, both Putin and Lukashenko are poorly-educated, narrow-minded people.
“The only clear dividing line between the two is their approach to their children: the former acts as if he has disavowed them and the other extols them, showering them in the limelight as if preparing the youngest son for the post of the country’s leader in future,” Plotnikova said.
“But Putin is still more sophisticated, more good-mannered. As the former chairman of a kolkhoz (a Soviet collective farm), Lukashenko is gauche, graceless, a real boor.”