Why you should care
This despot might be the least of three evils.
Most men, even the alphas, would take pains to avoid a showdown with Vladimir Putin. But Alexander Lukashenko is not most men, even among the alphas. In 2013, after Russia’s macho president boasted he’d pulled a 21-kilogram pike out of a river, his Belarusian counterpart announced he’d caught a catfish that weighed 57 kg.
That is Lukashenko in a nutshell: a 60-year-old who would do almost anything to assert his strength and remain in power. It’s not for nothing has he been the president of this half-forgotten, ex-Soviet state for 21 years — almost since the USSR’s dissolution. When he’s not busy fishing, “Europe’s last dictator” — as Condoleezza Rice once called him — rules Belarus like his private fiefdom, with methods straight out of the dictator toolkit: He controls all branches of government, censors the press and makes opposition leaders disappear.
Little-Known Dictators: A series by Laura Secorun Palet
But here’s the thing: Lukashenko’s iron fist might be what’s keeping little Belarus stable — no small feat for a country that’s wedged between voracious Russia and violent Ukraine. Instead of siding with the Kremlin, his longtime ally and economic benefactor, Lukashenko has made a careful show of neutrality. He walks a thin line, but should he keep his balance, Belarus could end up a model for other sandwiched nations in the region. At home, his independence has proven popular. Over the past six months, Lukashenko’s approval ratings have grown from 31.9 percent to 42.3 percent, the highest in three years.
It’s all about balance. On the one hand, Belarusians feel close to Russia — most speak Russian — and grateful for its economic support. On the other, yoking yourself to the Russian economy is not such a good move these days, what with tumbling oil prices and the crashing ruble. “So they are thankful to Lukashenko for staying neutral in this conflict,” says Ryhor Astapenia, analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre, a nonprofit think tank focused on Belarusian politics.
Lukashenko claims to be a “man of the people,” because he was no rich oligarch or party factotum before he ran for president, as an independent, in 1994. It didn’t take long for this former head of a state-owned farm to fall in love with power. In 1996, he won a flawed constitutional referendum to greatly expand his authority — including the ability to dissolve parliament — and survived an impeachment petition by several outraged deputies.
Granted, none of this sounds very democratic, but, hey, who says democracy is what Belarus needs? Certainly not Lukashenko. “People think it is the leader that influences the country but it’s the country that influences the leader. People from Belarus actually prefer an authoritarian president,” argues Grigory Ioffe, professor at the department of geospatial science at Radford University, expert in Belarus and author of Reassessing Lukashenka: Belarus in Cultural and Geopolitical Context. It’s not improbable, given the context: Authoritarianism may provide something of a comfort to Belarusians who fear spillover violence from Ukraine.
The president did win the 2010 elections with 79.6 percent of the vote, but winning elections is easy when you control the media and throw your political opponents in jail. Several of those who stood against him in the last election ended up in prison; one of them, Mikalai Statkevich, is still behind bars. Human rights activists are also targeted, like Ales Bialiatski, who was recently released after spending two years in a “penal colony” — read, labor camp. “The censorship and repression are actually getting worse,” says Vital Rymasheuski, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party. “Many democratic leaders, activists and journalist are being forced to emigrate.”
Yet the delicate geopolitical situation has given Lukashenko an authoritarian assist: the opposition fears putting too much pressure on Lukashenko, especially now that he’s disentangling himself from his lifelong ally, Russia. After all, democracy is a very appealing idea until internal tensions lead to a near civil war and a Russian invasion — ask Ukraine. “It’s a big dilemma for us because, yes, he’s not a democratic leader but at least he’s trying to be the head of an independent nation, and that is important for the future of Belarus,” says Yury Chavusau, lawyer at the Assembly of pro-democratic NGOs of Belarus.
Belarus’ heavily state-run economy is in dire trouble, with stalled growth and high inflation.
This temporary quieting of dissent is unlikely to last if Lukashenko fails to address his country’s other major problem: the economy. With the European market shrinking after the crisis and Russia’s economy expected to contract by 3 percent this year, Belarus’ heavily state-run economy is in dire trouble. Growth has stalled; inflation has hit 18.3 percent. Yet the president has ruled out any Western-like reform and refuses to loosen the tight bureaucratic clutch around the major industries — metallurgy, mechanics and IT — to increase competitiveness. To complicate things further, the European Union and the United States are both imposing sanctions on the country due to the president’s poor human rights record.
Will Lukashenko be able to walk the line of neutrality and redirect the economy, or will his citizens’ pragmatism eventually run out? The future looks uncertain, as Russia’s economy flounders, Western pressure grows and elections approach in the fall. Still, Lukashenko is likely to get more than 70 percent of the vote. Because if there’s something you can count in Belarus, it’s this: The president will come out on top.