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article imageFrom Belarus farm boss to Soviet-style strongman on Europe's doorstep

By Tatiana Kalinovskaya (AFP)     Sep 23, 2020 in World

Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko is a former collective farm boss who has leveraged Russian backing and Soviet-style political oppression to run a personal fiefdom on Europe's doorstep for 26 years.

The plain-talking 66-year-old, who is fighting for political survival, held a secretive inauguration ceremony after claiming a sixth term in disputed August elections that spurred historic demonstrations against his rule and a brutal police crackdown.

He addressed troops in full military attire following the ceremony, lauding his military for ensuring peace in the face of threats from the West, which he accuses of stoking massive street demonstrations against his rule.

"You defended the sovereignty and independence of our country," he said.

Lukashenko turned to ally Russia for support to stay in power and President Vladimir Putin has promised a $1.5 billion loan and promised military aid if the situation worsens.

By contrast, European countries have supported the dictatorial leader's rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and promised sanctions for police violence and election fraud.

Painting protesters as Western pawns is a tactic he has exploited with ruthless effectiveness to justify jailing generations of opponents while using the KGB security services to oversee most facets of the agrarian nation's political and social life.

Yet tens of thousands of people have risked violent detentions and taken to the streets to insist that Lukashenko lost to the 38-year-old political novice Tikhanovskaya in the presidential race.

- Europe's last dictator -

Lukashenko almost instinctively reverted to the use of brute force to try and crush protests that sprung up even before the polls officially closed.

He used mass arrests in which hundreds -- including almost all the main rivals and some of their family members -- were jailed to stamp out a wave of election protests in December 2010.

Those demonstrations quickly subsided and few have dared rise up since -- until last month.

Alexander Lukashenko detained his main opposition rivals ahead of the election
Alexander Lukashenko detained his main opposition rivals ahead of the election
Sergei GAPON, POOL/AFP/File

Lukashenko's unrepentant use of force in 2010 only further reinforced his reputation as the overseer of "the last dictatorship in Europe".

The dispersal of demonstrators this time around was equally unapologetic.

Lukashenko viewed one protest rally from a helicopter, describing the demonstrators as "rats," and later disembarked in a bullet-proof vest carrying a Kalashnikov.

- Folksy machismo -

His authoritarian streak stretches to his views on women and even some aspects of his personal life.

He has appeared with his youngest son Nikolai at state functions and some official foreign trips since the 16-year-old was a toddler.

Lukashenko's latest election declaration said that he is still legally married but few can recall ever seeing the wife he wed in 1975.

He has said that Belarus could not possibly have a woman leader because she "would collapse, poor thing."

President Lukashenko insists that Belarus is not ready for a woman leader
President Lukashenko insists that Belarus is not ready for a woman leader
Sergei GAPON, AFP

Amnesty International has accused Lukashenko's government of "misogyny" and targeting female activists with discriminatory tactics.

He concluded a 2012 argument over rights with Germany's openly gay former foreign minister Guido Westerwelle by saying: "Better to be a dictator than gay."

This machismo is accompanied by a rural folksiness that appealed to voters who were used to the stiff octogenarians that dominated Soviet political life around the time of the superpower's collapse in 1991.

Lukashenko likes being filmed driving tractors or picking watermelons and potatoes. He once gave US action actor Steven Seagal a carrot that he cleaned himself with a peeler and joined Putin at amateur ice hockey matches.

He has also brushed off the dangers of the coronavirus as a hoax and refused to introduce a lockdown or postpone the election.

Lukashenko's health tips for the virus included drinking vodka and taking steam baths.

- Difficult ally -

Yet these peculiarities make Lukashenko an unpredictable ally for Putin who has sought to turn the "union state" of close military and economic ties between Russia and Belarus into a political reality.

Lukashenko watched with worry as Moscow seized Crimea and supported insurgents in eastern Ukraine in the wake of the 2014 pro-European Maidan protests.

He has occasionally switched from Russian to Belarusian to distance himself from Moscow and has dangled the promise of political and social changes long demanded by the West.

In power since 1994  Lukashenko has kept his landlocked homeland wedged between Russia and EU member...
In power since 1994, Lukashenko has kept his landlocked homeland wedged between Russia and EU member Poland largely stuck in a Soviet time warp
Nikolay PETROV, BELTA/AFP

Lukashenko welcomed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February -- the first visit to Minsk by Washington's top diplomat since 1994.

The election was preceded by the mysterious arrest of what Belarus claimed were Russian mercenaries.

But since the August 9 vote, Lukashenko has warmed again to closer ties with Putin and the two leaders recently met in Moscow to discuss deeper integration.

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