World

Belarus Protests Test Limits of Lukashenko’s Brutal, One-Man Rule

He jokes about working a dictatorship. He makes his generals salute his teenage son, who shares his penchant for dressing in navy uniforms. He instructions a brutal safety service that makes folks disappear. And when Covid-19 arrived, he informed his folks to play hockey, drive tractors and never fear about it.

Aleksandr Lukashenko, the embattled ruler of Belarus and probably the most enduring chief within the former Soviet Union, heads a regime that’s much less a one-party state than a one-person state. In 26 years as president, he has turned Belarus right into a strategically essential and reliably authoritarian buffer between Russia and NATO-member democracies like Poland.

Clinging to energy amid mass protests this month, Mr. Lukashenko, the previous director of a Soviet collective pig farm, may appear to be a relic of an period the world had forgotten, or barely seen. But years earlier than Vladimir V. Putin took energy, vowing to “clean up” Russia, Mr. Lukashenko made comparable guarantees to his nation, and blazed the path Mr. Putin would observe: an obscure determine on an unlikely, meteoric rise to non-public rule.

Since a disputed election on Aug. 9, nonetheless, the largest demonstrations within the nation’s historical past have examined whether or not Mr. Lukashenko’s iron-fisted suppression of dissent can hold him in energy after he claimed a landslide victory that’s broadly seen as fiction. As many as 100,000 protesters poured into central Minsk, the capital, on Sunday — a robust present of defiance in a rustic with solely 9.5 million folks.

Mr. Lukashenko despatched his personal defiant message, flying by helicopter to his presidential palace and strolling off to a thank a squad of riot cops with an automated weapon in his hand, accompanied by his son, who was additionally armed. Mr. Lukashenko, whose opponents usually name him mentally unstable, has warned currently of a attainable NATO assault, claiming that he’s readying Belarus’s navy to repel invaders.

The scene of a swaggering dictator with a gun highlighted how a lot he and his nation — whose nationwide anthem opens with the phrases “We, Belarusians, are peaceful people” — have modified since he rose to prominence within the early 1990s, promising safety from a bullying elite.

With a tough rural accent and an ill-fitting go well with, Mr. Lukashenko took the ground of the Belarus legislature in December 1993 to thunder in opposition to “chaos” and “crooks,” calling Belarusians “hostages of a monstrous, immoral and unprincipled system that manipulates and deceives the people.”

He reworked virtually in a single day from a provincial no person to an avenging angel, changing into the nation’s first elected president six months afterward pledges to combat entrenched elites on behalf of the folks.

At his inauguration, he quoted Abraham Lincoln on democracy whereas declaring that “the end of anarchy has arrived.” At a reception after his swearing-in, he informed George Krol, the senior American diplomat in Belarus on the time, that he felt a kinship with President Clinton as a result of of their shared humble origins.

“He was a populist leader, an outsider who spoke for people who felt they had been victims — of democracy, of market economics, of the old Communist Party elites,” recalled Mr. Krol, now retired. “Everyone thought he was a bumpkin but they underestimated his ruthless acumen.”

After 26 years and 5 extra elections — every one more rigged than the last, impartial screens say — Mr. Lukashenko continues to be president, nonetheless presenting himself because the tireless defender of the little man. In February, he joked to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “our dictatorship has a distinctive feature: everyone gets some rest on Saturday and Sunday, but the president works.”

But his schtick is sporting skinny. His successful 1994 slogan — “Neither with the left nor with the right, but with the people” — has been changed by a brand new rallying cry from the road, chanted even by many of those that as soon as noticed him as their savior: “Go away! Go away!”

“When he started, he believed what he said and so did the people. They wanted to punish the elite and so they chose someone they thought would do this,” recalled Aleksandr Feduta, Mr. Lukashenko’s marketing campaign supervisor in 1994, the final time Belarus held a free and honest election.

“He destroyed the system,” Mr. Feduta added. “But today he is the system.”

Denouncing two weeks of nationwide protests in opposition to his disputed re-election because the work of a couple of spoiled urbanites in Minsk in cahoots with devious foreigners, Mr. Lukashenko on Saturday traveled to the west of the nation to rally his diminishing base.

“There are still some unsatisfied people in Minsk,” he informed a crowd of cheering supporters, “But you should not worry about this. That is my problem. Trust me, we will succeed in no time.”

Whether he manages that may rely largely on the loyalty of his safety equipment, which has to date proven no signal of wavering in its dedication to Mr. Lukashenko.

It may even rely on Mr. Putin, Mr. Lukashenko’s longtime benefactor and on-again, off-again ally. Throughout his years in energy, Mr. Lukashenko, 65, has blown cold and warm towards Moscow, which he accused final month of plotting to topple him. But now he sees Moscow as his finest hope for resisting a wave of worldwide criticism over the election, denounced by Europe and the United States as blatantly rigged.

The system he created is much less a authorities than an eccentric one-man present wherein all energy and choices movement from Mr. Lukashenko. His supporters name him “Batka,” an affectionate time period for father that the president delights in. The financial system is dominated by Soviet-era, state-owned factories and farms, all in the end managed by him. The Soviet youth group, Komsomol, has been revived and is broadly often known as “Lukamol.”

“There is no party in Belarus. There are no independent power bases. It is just him,” stated Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus.

The solely different one who may matter is Mr. Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, simply 15, whom many view because the undeclared inheritor obvious.

Mr. Gould-Davies, now a researcher on the International Institute for Strategic Studies, recalled attending a reception hosted by the president in Minsk and having to shake fingers with not solely Mr. Lukashenko but additionally his son, who was then solely round 5 years outdated. Generals within the Belarus navy have for years needed to salute the son, whose mom has by no means been formally recognized however is believed to be Mr. Lukashenko’s former doctor.

“The whole system is unorthodox and perhaps a little ridiculous. But it is not comical or benign in any way. It is extremely nasty,” Mr. Gould-Davies stated.

Mr. Lukashenko’s authorities routinely harasses, jails and even tortures critics, some of whom have disappeared. It arrests journalists and quashes impartial media, and it brutally suppresses exhibits of dissent.

Belarus, Mr. Krol stated, “is not North Korea” and “does not just grab people willy-nilly.” But should you cross Mr. Lukashenko, he stated, “you will be taught a lesson you may not recover from.”

During the current marketing campaign, he dismissed his principal rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as too weak to run the nation as a result of of her gender. The Belarus Constitution, which supplies the president intensive powers, he stated, “is not for a woman. Our society is not mature enough to vote for a woman.”

It got here as a “very rude shock” when it turned apparent that Ms. Tikhanovskaya may really win a good election, stated Andrew Wilson, a professor at University College London and creator of “Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship.”

“He embraced this myth of himself as the plain-speaking ordinary guy, a muzhik, or real man, who thinks a woman’s place is the kitchen,” Mr. Wilson stated.

When she went to the election fee a day after voting day to complain of huge falsification, Ms. Tikhanovskaya was met by safety officers who held her for hours and compelled her to make what amounted to a hostage video, wherein she known as on her supporters to not protest the consequence. She left Belarus under duress that evening for neighboring Lithuania.

Mr. Lukashenko, who final week warned mutinous tractor manufacturing unit employees that he would reply “cruelly” to any “provocations,” has lengthy been trailed by a repute for violence. In the 1990s, proof emerged that earlier than coming into politics he had assaulted individuals who labored underneath him on the Horodets collective pig farm.

“He has always been cruel,” stated Valery Karbalevich, the creator of a prolonged Russian-language political biography of Mr. Lukashenko. “He is a fanatic for power. He has no real family life or friends and cannot even imagine having a life when he is not the leader.”

Many of his opponents name the president deranged, with an ample ruthless streak.

“He has always been crazy and very brutal,” stated Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat who was imprisoned and tortured after working in opposition to Mr. Lukashenko in 2010. “He will do anything to keep power. Anything.”

That was evident this month when protesters took to the streets and riot cops beat them savagely, killed at the least two folks, injured a whole lot and arrested practically 7,000.

“Yes, I’m not a saint,” Mr. Lukashenko informed putting employees in Minsk final week. “You know my toughness. You know that if there was no toughness, there would be no country.”

When Saddam Hussein declared that he had received 100 % of the vote in a 2002 referendum on extending his rule in Iraq, Mr. Lukashenko despatched an admiring message of congratulations. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Belarus “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

Mr. Krol, the American ambassador in Minsk on the time, stated the outline aggravated Belarusian diplomats however by no means actually appeared to hassle Mr. Lukashenko, who has usually made mild of being labeled a dictator.

He has additionally declared ice hockey, together with saunas and tractor-driving, as cures for Covid-19. At the peak of the pandemic in March, he took to the ice and introduced: “There are no viruses here.”

Mr. Lukashenko has lengthy painted the West as a menace and regarded to Russia for assist — and as a attainable method to seize vastly higher energy.

When President Boris N. Yeltsin ruled Russia within the 1990s, Mr. Lukashenko pushed for the formation of a “union state,” a free merger between Belarus and Russia. With Mr. Yeltsin sick a lot of the time, Mr. Lukashenko believed that he may dominate the brand new entity and even perhaps revive the Soviet Union with himself as its chief.

Belarus Radio, a state-controlled broadcaster, ramped up its sign and bombarded Russia with denunciations of free-market economics and soothing stories about how, due to Mr. Lukashenko, Belarusians had been spared the chaos and distress visited on Russians.

Mr. Lukashenko’s ambitions, nonetheless, suffered a critical setback when, on Dec. 31, 1999, Mr. Yeltsin, sick and dispirited, immediately resigned, leaving a younger, energetic and likewise ruthless former Ok.G.B. agent, Vladimir V. Putin, to take over as Russia’s president.

Mr. Putin by no means warmed to Mr. Lukashenko, whom he thought of a provincial upstart with concepts above his station. But he supplied Belarus with cut-price oil and fuel, buoying the nation’s financial system and Mr. Lukashenko’s standard assist for greater than a decade.

More lately, although, Belarus’s financial system has stagnated, and the Kremlin has drained of Mr. Lukashenko, resenting his periodic flirtations with the West, and his refusal to implement the “union state” that he had as soon as championed.

Russia has scaled again its gasoline subsidies to Belarus, and early this year, halted them. The Belarusian financial system took a nosedive, and with it went Mr. Lukashenko’s standing.

Like many leaders who cling to energy for too lengthy, Mr. Lukashenko misplaced contact along with his folks, in keeping with his biographer, Mr. Karbalevich.

“He lost his links to society,” Mr. Karbalevich stated. “He was no longer an outsider fighting the elite, but was the leader of the elite.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting in Minsk.

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