Some 200,000 people swarmed the streets in Belarus’s capital Minsk on Sunday demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko – often dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator” – step down after 26 years of rule.
The demonstrations, in which at least one person has died and come less than a week after what most international watchdogs have deemed fraudulent reelection, are considered the largest-ever in the history of the former Soviet nation. But who is 65-year-old Lukashenko, and why will he not go quietly?
“Lukashenko comes straight out of central casting. A typical authoritarian leader who seems stuck in a different time and stubbornly refusing to change, even as the world modernizes,” Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who served as the director of Global Engagement at the White House, told Fox News. “Media is weaponized against his critics. Opposition politicians are arrested and barred from standing for public office. Sometimes they are even publicly beaten by police.”
Lukashenko has domineered the country of 9 million since 1994, taking power right after the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1992 – and has built something of a cult of personality throughout his more than quarter-of-a-century reign. He is known for his charisma, trademark mustache, eccentricities and self-promotion as a “man of the people.”
During the Soviet era, Lukashenko ran a state farm and thrived on the nickname of “Batka” – meaning father – as he sought to curate an image of a caretaker of the Belarusian people, their animals and the country’s agriculture and industrial industries in what some analysts consider to be holding on to the Soviet heyday. Yet the fatherly persona also brings with it an eccentric and an authoritarian approach to leadership, experts contend, in which opposition parties are routinely repressed, imprisoned and sometimes “disappeared” without a trace.
The “one-man ruler” has effectively depended on the country’s secret service called the KGB – retaining the Soviet-era name – to sustain his position of power, and over the years, Lukashenko has been condemned for his at-whim constitutional amendments and the changing of referenda laws to stay in office.
Insulting the president is punishable by up to five years in prison, and criticizing Belarus abroad is punishable by up to two years behind bars – making the ongoing protests even more significant in illuminating the desperate quest for change.
“Over the 26 years in power, he ran in six presidential elections, none of which were deemed fair or free under international standards. He instituted a puppet parliament with no opposition in it,” asserted Sofya Orlosky, senior program manager of Freedom House, Europe and Eurasia. “Laws that have been passed during his time in office have curbed the ability of journalists to report freely and made it impossible to register a rights-focused civil society organization.”
Lukashenko’s personal life, too, is a topic of private whispers. His high school sweetheart and wife, Galinka, has long been living on a farm far from the capital, oddly shielded from the public eye and next to no photos are available. Meanwhile, the leader has been spotted routinely at public functions with a beauty queen in her early 20s – and he doesn’t shy away from poking fun at his “dictator” tag in the West.
Lukashenko’s official presidential biography states that in the past, “he was not a member of the Communist Party or government nomenclature,” characterizing him as a “statesmen whose popularity can be attributed, first of all, to his personal merits and support of the people.”
“On 10 July 1994, after a difficult election campaign involving five other candidates, Aleksandr Lukashenko was elected president of the Republic of Belarus. He won 80.3% of the vote,” the biography states. “On 9 Sept. 2001, Aleksandr Lukashenko was reelected president of the Republic of Belarus with 75.6% of the vote. On 19 March 2006, he was elected president of the Republic of Belarus for the third term with 83% of the vote. On 19 Dec. 2010, Aleksandr Lukashenko secured a convincing victory at the presidential election and was reelected president of Belarus with 79.6% of the vote.”
There is no update pertaining to the recent vote.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said over the weekend that around 65,000 people had also taken to the streets for a pro-Lukashenko rally, yet Reuters reported that only about 5,000 people attended.
Reporters Without Borders last year ranked the Republic of Belarus 153 out of 180 countries in its press freedom index. However, the small Eastern European nation has consistently ranked in global surveys as one of the top 10 countries for the lowest crime and unrest.
But if one wants a glimpse of what the USSR was like, geopolitical experts have long pointed to Minsk as an accurate modern-day depiction.
Belarus’ lifeblood has centered on the Stalin-erected capital city, which maintains swaths of symbols from Soviet times. Its countryside is also peppered with ecclesiastical palaces illuminating the vast wealth and power of yesteryear. Belarus boasts four World Heritage Sites, including two castles at Mir and Nesvizh.
A “Lenin Street” adorns every town, in homage to Vladimir Lenin, the communist ruler and head of the Soviet Union until 1924. Its intelligence unit is still called the KGB. Restaurants and public places mandate that all coats be checked. Just a few years ago, a Soviet-style shopping mall opened.
Its roads and parks are perfectly manicured without a hint of trash or graffiti. There is no road rage nor voracious car-honking. Traffic doesn’t clog the wide lanes, and people don’t raise their voices. Civilians are courteous, and most spend their Sundays at church, having sought a deeper spiritual meaning after the crash of communism almost three decades ago.
Just how long Lukashenko can remain at the helm is questionable as his grip on power appears to unravel at an astonishing rate. Lukashenko has turned to Russia to request military assistance if needed. Moscow has promised to assist its neighbor in accordance with a joint military agreement should “external pressure” be put on Belarus – but it is unclear the scope or form of the military aid.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko, according to local media reports, spoke twice over the weekend and have in the past shared their mutual passion for ice hockey and other nationalized sports.
Putin has stopped short of publicly endorsing Lukashenko, yet it is widely assumed that the Russian leader sees his rule and the nation as a whole as a bulwark against NATO in the region – and has harbored the long-term goal of eventually absorbing Belarus into Russian terrain.
In contrast, Lukashenko’s relationship with the West has long been a contentious one.
Since the disputed election last week, Lukashenko has claimed that there is a foreign-backed scheme to usurp him and asserted that NATO tanks and planes had been deployed close to the Belarusian border.
“NATO troops are at our gates,” he said, via state-run media. “Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections.”
NATO has stated that it is “closely monitoring” the developing situation, but denied that there is a military increase on Belarus’s western frontier. Meanwhile, the United States government has criticized last week’s election as “not free and fair,” and the United Kingdom has said it does not accept the results.
“The world has watched with horror at the violence used by the Belarusian authorities to suppress the peaceful protests that followed this fraudulent presidential election,” said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in a statement.
Indeed, footage emanating from the capital in recent days has shown a slew of demonstrators being dragged away by authorities. Human rights groups contend that thousands have been unlawfully detained, with hundreds beaten or tortured.
Moreover, the European Union is preparing to slap a fresh round of sanctions on the beleaguered government in retaliation for the protest response. In January, the E.U. – evidently weary of Lukashenko and his tyrannical style – extended an arms embargo and asset freeze on Belarus through to 2021. The restrictions, centered on a ban on trade in arms and equipment first signed in 2004, were re-upped on the guise that it “could be used for internal repression.”
“Their concern isn’t external aggression, but internal suppression of its people,” noted Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, a Defense Priorities expert analyst.
Earlier this year, Belarus was almost included in the list of countries with U.S. travel restrictions. According to Homeland Security (DHS) officials at the time, the department conducted a global review of countries last year and deemed several – including Belarus – a public safety threat. Yet the former Soviet nation has no recent history of terror attacks, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the embattled president in March in a bid to “normalize” relations.
The U.S. did impose sanctions on nine state-owned entities and 16 individuals – including Lukashenko – in 2006 in the wake of a presidential election much of the international community considered to be contrived. The sanctions were somewhat tempered five years ago after Minsk released a political prisoner, and also chose not to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Nonetheless, the internal push for Lukashenko to surrender his title has dramatically increased since the Central Election Commission declared last week that he had won 80.1% of the vote, while opposition frontrunner Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya garnered only 10.12%. Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after denouncing the results as rigged, insists that she won with around 60% to 70% of the votes.
And the apparent fall in public support for the “last dictator” has quickly gone from the shadows to the public light.
On a visit to a tractor plant in the capital on Monday, Lukashenko endeavored to defend his rebutted win, ensuring workers that the election is done – and unless he is killed, “there will be no other election.”
Hundreds responded simply by walking out or chanting “leave,” in keeping with much of the country as thousands vowed not to show up for work. Strikes are ongoing at numerous state-owned ventures, and hundreds of law enforcement and state news media have taken to social media to show their resignation letters and trashed uniforms.
“It is a new country now. He doesn’t want to go, though, but he has no choice,” one Minsk-based protester, who requested anonymity, told Fox News on Monday. “We have been 26 years for this moment, and everyone is so united. The whole country is going on strike. Ninety percent of people want (this) change.”
But the road ahead remains rocky.
According to Freedom House’s Orlosky, at this point, there are few options left, and none are very appealing for Lukashenko.
“One, he can act on his threat to ask Putin to boost security service and law enforcement personnel, but this will further alienate and anger Belarusian people. Two, Lukashenka can concede to the demands of the opposition and the people and either resign or recognize the elections as invalid and announce repeat presidential elections. (But) this seems unlikely,” she added. “Unless there are very strong pressures and convincing arguments both from the West and from his KGB leadership, he’s unlikely to give in.”