Dictator of the Month: Who Is Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus?
In my book Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators, I included a chapter about Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus. Here is an excerpt from that chapter.
THE STEADY RISE OF LUKASHENKO—Aleksandr Grgoryevich Lukashenko was born August 30, 1954, in a small town in the Vitebsk Region of Belarus. Considering that he would later promote himself as a champion of the common, rural people, he has kept secret his family history and the details of his own childhood. In 1975 he graduated from the Mogiliev Pedagogic Institute with a major in history and social studies. Two decades later, his wife Galina was asked why she was reluctant to leave her home village of Ryzhkovichi and join her husband in the Presidential Palace in Minsk. Galina replied, “I’d better wait for him at home. My Sashka never stays in one place for more than two years anyway.”
Indeed, Lukashenko had most definitely established a pattern of two-year hitches. After university graduation, he began with two years as an instructor in the ideology department of a unit of KGB border troops in Brest. Next came two years as secretary of the Komsomol Committee of the Mogiliev City Grocery Retail Department and two years as the secretary of the “Knowledge” Society of the town of Shklov. It was during this stint, in 1979, that Lukashenko joined the Communist Party, although his official biography claims that he was never a member. He moved on to two years as ideology chief of a tank division in Mogiliev, two years as deputy chairman of a collective farm, two years as deputy director of the Shklov Plant of Constructive Materials and then two years as secretary of the Communist Party of a collective farm. In 1987 he became director of another collective farm. Lukashenko’s run of two-year jobs was finally broken in 1989, but not for want of trying. In 1989, he ran for the post of people’s deputy, but lost the election by one percent to Vyacheslav Kebich, who, one year later, was installed as prime minister.
In 1990, Lukashenko won election to the Supreme Soviet, the parliament of the USSR. Although he was a vocal critic of Stanislau Shushkevich, it was Shushkevich who gave Lukashenko his big break when, in June 1993, he appointed the 38-year-old Lukashenko to be chairman of the anti-corruption committee. Lukashenko’s report on corruption, released in December 1993, accused Shushkevich of embezzlement and Shushkevich was deposed as chairman of the parliament. Lukashenko then launched attacks on Vyacheslav Kebich and other leaders, who terminated the anti-corruption committee, thus boosting Lukashenko’s popularity.
THE ELECTION OF 1994—There was four major candidates in the election to choose Belarus’ first democratically elected president. As the highest-placed member of the transition government, Vyacheslav Kebich fell into the role of the “establishment” favorite. The organized opposition split between Stanislau Shuskevich and Zianon Pazniak, who had played a leading role in the investigation of the Chernobyl disaster and of the Stalinist mass graves. Both men accused Kebich of relying too heavily on Russia to bail out the Belarusan economy. The fourth candidate was Aleksandr Lukashenko. The other candidates did not take Lukashenko seriously, dismissing him as an anti-intellectual buffoon. But it was Lukashenko, with his anti-corruption credentials, who best understood the nature of free elections. While Kebich, Shuskevich and Pazniak debated the issues, Lukashenko fashioned a simpler and more amorphous campaign, reaching out to the elderly, to rural voters and to members of the military. He ran a modern campaign, shamelessly advocating opposing points of view depending on his audience and on the ebb and flow of public opinion. He supported uniting Belarus and Russia, while at the same time championing Belarusan sovereignty. He criticized market reforms and he supported privatization. He accused top officials of corruption, but he also promised that if elected, he would not purge the leadership. As if this was not enough, Lukashenko’s supporters let it be known that his opponents were all fat and flabby, and that Lukashenko was the only candidate who was a “potent man.”
On Election Day, Lukashenko won 44.8% of the vote. Kebich picked up 17.3%, Pazniak 12.8% and Shushkevich 9.9%. On July 10, Lukashenko defeated Kebich in a runoff 80% to 20%. Four days later, Lukashenko declared, “I promise you that there will be no dictatorship.”
IN POWER—Despite his promise, Lukashenko wasted little time before consolidating his power. On May 15, 1995, he sent Belarusans to the polls to vote on four carefully chosen issues, all of which passed with at least 75% of the vote. The Soviet-era state flag was restored; the Russian language was put on a par with Belarusan; Belarus joined with Russia as an economic unit and, in the words of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, “The border between Russia and Belarus no longer exists.” In addition to these matters, Lukashenko slipped through a referendum that gave the president the authority to dissolve the parliament.
Lukashenko continued to appeal to his base of support by nostalgically invoking the days of benevolent Communism when Pyotr Masherov was in power, while periodically denouncing corruption. At the same time, supporters of true democracy were growing increasingly suspicious of Lukashenko’s autocratic ways. On April 4, 1996, 20,000 people in Minsk staged a peaceful protest against a treaty Lukashenko had signed with Russia. Twenty thousand demonstrators in a nation of ten million may not seem significant, but Lukashenko saw the handwriting on the wall…and threatened to expel any foreign journalist who covered the demonstration. (The prospect of the domestic media covering the event was out of the question.) Three weeks later, on the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl explosions, 50,000 people marched in Minsk to demand Lukashenko’s resignation.
To further consolidate his power, Lukashenko staged another referendum in November 1996. This time, the electorate was asked to extend Lukashenko’s term of office two years until 2001; to give him the right to reject decisions by local councils; to give him the right to designate half of the judges of the Constitutional Court; and to dissolve parliament and create a new one. Lukashenko dominated media discussion of the ballot issues. His opponents also objected to the fact that ballot boxes were carried from apartment to apartment by hand. Not surprisingly, the final vote total showed that 70% had voted yes. Lukashenko immediately established a new legislature, including an upper house to which he personally appointed all 110 members.
As most of the rest of Eastern Europe began to experience freedom and democracy, Lukashenko shoved Belarus back into the bad old days of Communism. He ordered the arrests of opposition politicians on live television and, in a campaign for “discipline in the workplace,” he mandated a return to “mutual surveillance.” Workers were encouraged to use “trouble telephones” to inform on one another.
By March of 1997, U.S. president Bill Clinton had had enough of Lukashenko and, citing his abysmal human rights record, Clinton suspended $40 million in aid to Belarus. This did not stop Lukashenko from physically cornering Clinton at a meeting in Istanbul in 1999 and forcing a photo opportunity that was shown on Belarusan television to demonstrate (falsely) that Lukashenko was respected by world leaders.
In October 1997, Lukashenko, declaring all of his opponents “enemies of the people,” signed a law against “injury to the honor and dignity of the Republic and the president,” thus making it illegal to criticize him. In June 1998, Lukashenko ordered all foreign envoys to abandon their embassies and residences in the Drozdy district of Minsk because they were too close to the presidential compound.
On July 20, 1999, both the European Union and the United States, citing the bogus vote to extend Lukashenko’s term of office, declared Lukashenko’s legitimacy as president to have expired. Increasingly isolated, Lukashenko turned more violent. On September 16, 1999, opposition leader Viktar Hanchar disappeared and was never seen again. Death squads committed thirty murders. When word of this outrage got out to the public, Lukashenko appointed Viktor Sheiman to be the prosecutor-general in charge of investigating the death squads. This might have been viewed as a move towards justice, but for the fact that Sheiman was one of the leaders in charge of the death squads.
By the time of the next presidential election on September 9, 2001, Lukashenko had lost much of his domestic support. Ever resourceful, he utilized various tactics that compensated for this little problem. For example, he denied the registration of many opposition candidates; he raised monthly salaries and offered free fuel at harvest time; he confiscated the equipment of an independent printing house, seized hundreds of thousands of copies of the election issue of the Nash Svaboda newspaper and had police raid the offices of election monitoring organizations. Finally, for good measure, he threatened to fire any state employee who did not vote for him. Not surprisingly, Lukashenko won the election with more than 75% of the vote. He immediately purged state officials who had chosen not to endorse him and charged them, as usual, with “corruption.” Other opponents were branded “allies of NATO.”
In November 2002, fourteen of fifteen members of the European Community announced that Lukashenko would not be allowed to enter their countries. Furious at this embarrassing rebuke, Lukashenko threatened to stop policing Belarus’ borders and to allow drug traffickers and illegal immigrants to enter the European Union. But Lukashenko had little problem finding allies elsewhere. He once appeared on Iranian television offering to sell Iran “everything it needs.” And when Saddam Hussein won reelection as president of Iraq in October 2002, with more than 99% of the vote, an envious Lukashenko sent Saddam a message that the election “vividly demonstrated the Iraqi people’s striving for independence in making decisions on their own fate.” By 2002, Belarus, despite its small population, had moved into the top ten of the world’s arms exporters, as Lukashenko brazenly supplied both sides in the Russian-Chechen War.
A poll released in April 2003 showed that only 17% of Belarusans would approve constitutional changes that would allow Lukashenko to run for a third term of office. Yet when exactly that issue was put to a vote in October 2004, election officials claimed that, with an 86% turnout, 77% voted yes. On March 19, 2006, Lukashenko was reelected president with the announced support of 82.6% of voters. The result was not surprising considering that the campaign of his opponent, Aleksandr Milinkevich, was so severely restricted by the government that he was reduced to surreptitiously distributing fliers that gave a phone number where he could be reached for an hour.
Lukashenko was reelected again in December 2010, although his vote share slumped to a mere 79.6%. After the election was over, he had five of the nine candidates who ran against him arrested.
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