Traveling to Belarus today is like taking a spin in a Wellsian time machine. Suddenly one is transported back to the USSR circa 1980. One finds none of the ubiquitous advertising seen in post-Soviet bloc states like Poland and Ukraine, and few of the western products. Most of the commercial businesses that sprang up after the dissolution of the Soviet Union have been shut down. Most shops and industries are state-controlled and thus about as efficient as your average department of motor vehicles. Urban dwellers still rely on small vegetable gardens to feed their families. The colossal iron statues of Lenin and Marx remain standing proud and tall. (Not long ago a 16-year-old boy was sentenced to 18 months hard labor for defacing a statue of Lenin.) The KGB prowls the neat and tidy streets and political opponents disappear without a sign. Frightened citizens avert their eyes as they pass you on the street. And Europe’s last dictator rules with the proverbial iron hand.
He is known to his supporters as Bat’ka, or “father,” but Alexander Lukashenko, 50, has more in common with Josef “Koba” Stalin than a thick black mustache and a silly nickname. Experts believe Lukashenko has his eyes on the Kremlin as well, and he just might be ruthless enough to pull it off.
Lukashenko’s rise to power was, like the man, calculated and cruel. The former collective farm manager was elected deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus in 1990. As the Soviet Union imploded and the threat of chaos loomed, Lukashenko earned a reputation for fighting corruption and taking down privileged communist leaders. In particular, he accused 70 senior officials of corruption and stealing state funds. The charges, later found to be groundless, cost acting president Stanislav Shushkevich his post. But that didn’t stop Lukashenko from tossing his hat into the 1994 presidential ring. A born populist, he knew what the Belarusian people — particularly peasants and the elderly — wanted to hear. Two words: “No reforms.”
By 1994, Belarus’s old style command economy was in a shambles. Factories were idle and shops empty. On the campaign trail Lukashenko promised to double the minimum wage and reprivatize industries. “Our only hope,” he said, “is unification with Russia.” For good measure he promised if elected to expel his opponents to the Himalayas. And how’s this for a campaign slogan?
“You will live badly, but not for long.”
Amazingly, the Belarusian people bought it.
LUKASHENKO CALLS HIS economic program “market socialism,” but outside of a few University of Wisconsin literature professors and the New York Times editorial board, Lukashenko may be the world’s last die-hard communist. In August 1991, Lukashenko declared his support for the military coup that attempted to topple Mikhail Gorbachev. After the coup failed, Lukashenko’s popularity skyrocketed. He was the lone member of Supreme Soviet in 1991 to vote against dissolution of USSR. Again his popularity soared.
Lukashenko’s economic plan seems to consist of making it impossible for small businesses to operate, while an endless supply of Soviet-era red tape (the one product Belarus has in surplus) and a Kafkaesque legal system send potential joint venture partners running for the Carpathian hills. In fact, Lukashenko is so averse to privatization and reform that even Russia is hesitant to deal with him. In 1998, after the Russian Central Bank suspended trading in the Belarusian ruble, Belarus’s currency collapsed. Lukashenko seized the opportunity to take control of Belarusian bank, freeze bank accounts, and order the exchange rate set back to earlier levels. When a panic ensued, Lukashenko blamed “economic saboteurs,” and their western lackeys. Some thirty government scapegoats were arrested and paraded on state television. Hundreds of minor bureaucrats were “punished.” Nowadays Lukashenko likes to brag that Belarus has the world’s most egalitarian distribution of income. Translated into English that means that every one is equally poor.
Belarus repeatedly has been called “the last dictatorship in Europe,” most recently by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Lukashenko himself is not afraid to raise the “D” word, even when addressing the Belarusian people. “Am I a dictator?” he asked in an August 2003 radio address. “My position and the state will never allow me to become a dictator… But an authoritarian ruling style is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it. Why? We could spend hours talking about this. You need to control the country, and the main thing is not to ruin people’s lives.”
For now whenever Lukashenko wants to increase his authority he simply calls a referendum. And why not? Since his people control the ballot boxes he can’t possibly lose. Belarus’s last best chance at democracy came in 1996 when 70 out of 110 MPs tried to impeach the dictator on charges of violating the constitution. Lukashenko upped the ante by calling for a referendum that would extend his term from four to seven years, and allow him to dissolve parliament. After rigging the referendum, Lukashenko’s first act was to lock out 89 MPs. He then handpicked a new parliament. So much for impeachment. Soon after the prime minister resigned, as did more than half of the Constitutional Court and various other ministers, saving Lukashenko the trouble of sacking or “disappearing” them. Many were forced into exile in Poland or Lithuania.
Finally, in a 2004 referendum, Lukashenko sought to do away with presidential term limits completely. After results were counted almost 80 percent of voters had voted to do away with term limits. (Had Lukashenko been limited to two terms, his second would have expired in 2006.) International observers again disputed the results. And a Lithuanian Gallup Poll reported that only 48 percent voted to eliminate term limits.
A DICTATOR’S WORST nightmare is doubtless a free and independent media. Fortunately Lukashenko can rest easy on that account. The regime controls the content and editorial appointments to state media. Likewise government-controlled newspapers receive generous state subsidies. The few independent papers — Lukashenko calls them “weapons of mass destruction” — survive only by popular demand, and are often shut down, particularly around election time.
Even so, Lukashenko has a right to be paranoid. As the last dictator in Europe he stands alone against the U.S. and much of Europe. Last year the U.S. passed the Belarus Democracy Act, which placed sanctions on Belarus and provided financial support to what is left of the opposition. The act was modeled on a similar piece of legislation that helped topple Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic.
At times Belarusian and Russian suspicions have gone beyond mere paranoia. Western ambassadors are frequently charged with spying. This month the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service Nikolai Patrushev accused U.S., British, Kuwaiti and Saudi NGOs of plotting a coup for the 2006 Belarusian presidential election. The Belarusian KGB echoed the charges. “Foreign intelligence services are actively working to repeat the success of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution,” Patrushev told the BBC.
One would hope so. When opposition presidential candidate Andrei Klimov held a pro-democracy rally near the presidential palace on March 25, it was advertised as a “rehearsal for a velvet revolution.” The 1,000 demonstrators, who shouted “Down with Lukashenko!” and “Long live Belarus!” were beaten and dispersed by security forces. Dozens were arrested, including Klimov, charged with “organizing a mass riot.” Before his arrest Klimov told the BBC, “Today’s gathering must send a signal to the West, Russia and our own bureaucrats that Belarus is ready for a serious change. Our aim is to start the Belarusian revolution and force the resignation of Lukashenko, the last dictator of Europe.”
Lukashenko’s response was predictable: “The political situation in Belarus is stable and there is no need for a revolution” and “foreign efforts to impose democracy or end [our] alliance with Russia [will] fail.”
It is doubtless disconcerting for Lukashenko to watch as one by one his former allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States toss out their dictators in favor of western-style democracy, most recently in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Ukraine was an especially bitter pill to swallow. Lukashenko blamed Kuchma’s loss on Polish interference. If it were not for the fact that Poland is a member of NATO the war of words between the two countries may have by now escalated beyond mere fighting words. In September 2001, Lukashenko charged that Poland had become a “bridgehead from which the invasion of the former Soviet Union advances.
“Tell me, in what way have we not pleased our neighbor Poland?…The Americans have started exerting pressure through Poland. Just look: where have hi-tech devices to monitor Belarusian territory been installed? In Poland…From whose territory is our country being showered with untrue information? From Poland.”
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski meanwhile has called the Belarus authorities’ attitude to the large Polish minority living in Belarus “unacceptable.”
BUT EVEN A RUTHLESS dictator needs friends, and the Leftist Tyrants Club is rapidly shrinking. By the late 1990s Belarus exported $400 million of armaments annually to allies in Iran, Sudan, Iraq, and Yugoslavia. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Baathist war criminals averted capture by being issued Belarusian passports. Gone now are Lukashenko’s old friends Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, leaving only a handful of aging Russian communists and Cuba’s Fidel Castro to commiserate with.
Despite his fondness for Stalin and former Soviet tyrants, Lukashenko still has soft spot for fascists too. “The history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus,” he announced on Belarus radio. “Germany was raised from the ruins thanks to firm authority, and not everything connected with that well-known figure, Adolf Hitler, was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and under Hitler it attained its peak.”
And like his idols Stalin and Hitler, Lukashenko is fast becoming famous for his death squads. On September 16, 1999, opposition politician Viktor Gonchar and businessman Anatoly Krasovsky disappeared from a Minsk steam bath after complaining of being shadowed by the KGB. The next year former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko and TV cameraman and former Lukashenko assistant Dmitry Zavadsky vanished. All of this happened shortly after the Belarus president ordered his interior ministry to crack down on “opposition scum.”
In June 2001, the BBC reported that two former members of the state prosecutor’s office had alleged complicity of high government officials in the murder of the four opponents. The prosecutors alleged that Viktor Sheyman, former head of the security council, ordered the murder suspects released and the investigation closed. Sheyman was subsequently promoted to prosecutor general.
Asked to defend his human rights record, Lukashenko sounds remarkably like an American apologist for Milosevic’s brutal regime. “What human rights can you talk about after Yugoslavia?” he said in April 2000. “What kind of human rights issues, what kind of U.S. interests are there in the Balkans?… Why did they bomb the country, causing millions of dollars in damage? What kind of rights can you talk about? And now they start lecturing Russia. This is absurd…this is an internal affair.”
Defend tyranny by attacking the U.S. Europe’s last dictator has learned well from the American left.
Christopher Orlet is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Poland and a frequent contributor.
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