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

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He jokes about running a dictatorship. He makes his generals salute his teenage son, who shares his penchant for dressing in military uniforms. He commands a brutal security service that makes people disappear. And when Covid-19 arrived, he told his people to play hockey, drive tractors and not worry about it.

Aleksandr Lukashenko, the embattled ruler of Belarus and the most enduring leader in the former Soviet Union, heads a regime that is less a one-party state than a one-person state. In 26 years as president, he has turned Belarus into a strategically important and reliably authoritarian buffer between Russia and NATO-member democracies like Poland.

Clinging to power amid mass protests this month, Mr. Lukashenko, the former director of a Soviet collective pig farm, might seem like a relic of an era the world had forgotten, or barely noticed. But years before Vladimir V. Putin took power, vowing to “clean up” Russia, Mr. Lukashenko made similar promises to his country, and blazed the trail Mr. Putin would follow: an obscure figure on an unlikely, meteoric rise to personal rule.

Since a disputed election on Aug. 9, however, the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history have tested whether Mr. Lukashenko’s iron-fisted suppression of dissent can keep him in power after he claimed a landslide victory that is widely seen as fiction. As many as 100,000 protesters poured into central Minsk, the capital, on Sunday — a powerful show of defiance in a country with only 9.5 million people.

Mr. Lukashenko sent his own defiant message, flying by helicopter to his presidential palace and walking off to a thank a squad of riot police officers with an automatic weapon in his hand, accompanied by his son, who was also armed. Mr. Lukashenko, whose opponents often call him mentally unstable, has warned lately of a possible NATO attack, claiming that he is readying Belarus’s military to repel invaders.

The scene of a swaggering dictator with a gun highlighted how much he and his country — whose national anthem opens with the words “We, Belarusians, are peaceful people” — have changed since he rose to prominence in the early 1990s, promising protection from a bullying elite.

With a rough rural accent and an ill-fitting suit, Mr. Lukashenko took the floor of the Belarus legislature in December 1993 to thunder against “chaos” and “crooks,” calling Belarusians “hostages of a monstrous, immoral and unprincipled system that manipulates and deceives the people.”

He transformed almost overnight from a provincial nobody to an avenging angel, becoming the country’s first elected president six months later on pledges to fight entrenched elites on behalf of the people.

At his inauguration, he quoted Abraham Lincoln on democracy while declaring that “the end of anarchy has arrived.” At a reception after his swearing-in, he told George Krol, the senior American diplomat in Belarus at the time, that he felt a kinship with President Clinton because 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 five more elections — each one more rigged than the last, independent monitors say — Mr. Lukashenko is still president, still presenting himself as the tireless defender of the little guy. 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 wearing thin. His winning 1994 slogan — “Neither with the left nor with the right, but with the people” — has been replaced by a new rallying cry from the street, chanted even by many of those who once saw 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 campaign manager in 1994, the last time Belarus held a free and fair election.

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

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

“There are still some unsatisfied people in Minsk,” he told 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 will depend largely on the loyalty of his security apparatus, which has so far shown no sign of wavering in its commitment to Mr. Lukashenko.

It will also depend on Mr. Putin, Mr. Lukashenko’s longtime benefactor and on-again, off-again ally. Throughout his years in power, Mr. Lukashenko, 65, has blown hot and cold toward Moscow, which he accused last month of plotting to topple him. But now he sees Moscow as his best hope for resisting a wave of international criticism over the election, denounced by Europe and the United States as blatantly rigged.

The system he created is less a government than an eccentric one-man show in which all power and decisions flow from Mr. Lukashenko. His supporters call him “Batka,” an affectionate term for father that the president delights in. The economy is dominated by Soviet-era, state-owned factories and farms, all ultimately controlled by him. The Soviet youth organization, Komsomol, has been revived and is widely known as “Lukamol.”

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

The only other person who might matter is Mr. Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, just 15, whom many view as the undeclared heir apparent.

Mr. Gould-Davies, now a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, recalled attending a reception hosted by the president in Minsk and having to shake hands with not only Mr. Lukashenko but also his son, who was then only around five years old. Generals in the Belarus military have for years had to salute the son, whose mother has never been officially identified but is believed to be Mr. Lukashenko’s former physician.

“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 said.

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

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

During the recent campaign, he dismissed his main rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as too weak to run the country because of her gender. The Belarus Constitution, which gives the president extensive powers, he said, “is not for a woman. Our society is not mature enough to vote for a woman.”

It came as a “very rude shock” when it became obvious that Ms. Tikhanovskaya might actually win a fair election, said Andrew Wilson, a professor at University College London and author 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 said.

When she went to the election commission a day after voting day to complain of massive falsification, Ms. Tikhanovskaya was met by security officials who held her for hours and forced her to make what amounted to a hostage video, in which she called on her supporters not to protest the result. She left Belarus under duress that night for neighboring Lithuania.

Mr. Lukashenko, who last week warned mutinous tractor factory workers that he would respond “cruelly” to any “provocations,” has long been trailed by a reputation for violence. In the 1990s, evidence emerged that before entering politics he had assaulted people who worked under him at the Horodets collective pig farm.

“He has always been cruel,” said Valery Karbalevich, the author of a lengthy 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 call the president deranged, with an ample ruthless streak.

“He has always been crazy and very brutal,” said Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat who was imprisoned and tortured after running against 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 police officers beat them savagely, killed at least two people, injured hundreds and arrested nearly 7,000.

“Yes, I’m not a saint,” Mr. Lukashenko told striking workers in Minsk last 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 won 100 percent of the vote in a 2002 referendum on extending his rule in Iraq, Mr. Lukashenko sent 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 at the time, said the description annoyed Belarusian diplomats but never really seemed to bother Mr. Lukashenko, who has often made light of being labeled a dictator.

He has also declared ice hockey, along with saunas and tractor-driving, as remedies for Covid-19. At the height of the pandemic in March, he took to the ice and announced: “There are no viruses here.”

Mr. Lukashenko has long painted the West as a threat and looked to Russia for help — and as a possible way to seize vastly greater power.

When President Boris N. Yeltsin governed Russia in the 1990s, Mr. Lukashenko pushed for the formation of a “union state,” a loose merger between Belarus and Russia. With Mr. Yeltsin sick much of the time, Mr. Lukashenko believed that he could dominate the new entity and perhaps even revive the Soviet Union with himself as its leader.

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

Mr. Lukashenko’s ambitions, however, suffered a serious setback when, on Dec. 31, 1999, Mr. Yeltsin, sick and dispirited, suddenly resigned, leaving a young, energetic and also ruthless former K.G.B. agent, Vladimir V. Putin, to take over as Russia’s president.

Mr. Putin never warmed to Mr. Lukashenko, whom he considered a provincial upstart with ideas above his station. But he provided Belarus with cut-price oil and gas, buoying the country’s economy and Mr. Lukashenko’s popular support for more than a decade.

More recently, though, Belarus’s economy has stagnated, and the Kremlin has tired of Mr. Lukashenko, resenting his periodic flirtations with the West, and his refusal to implement the “union state” that he had once championed.

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

Like many leaders who cling to power for too long, Mr. Lukashenko lost touch with his people, according to his biographer, Mr. Karbalevich.

“He lost his links to society,” Mr. Karbalevich said. “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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