With a gray comb-over coiffure, chevron-shaped moustache and a robust rural accent, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager-turned-minor Communist official, was the one legislator in Soviet Belarus to vote in opposition to his nation’s independence from Russia in 1991.
Three years later, he got here to energy promising to “reintegrate” the 2 nations – however solely on his personal phrases.
Lukashenko was solely 39 years previous when he received the election – an inexperienced but decided reformer with sky-high approval rankings.
The mid-Nineties have been darkish and determined, with legal gangs, galloping inflation and a paralysed financial system; Lukashenko provided Belarusians “stability” versus the chaotic, crime-ridden transition to capitalism in neighbouring Russia and Ukraine.
“Each [plant and factory] shut down, there have been empty cabinets in retailers and folks rallying on metropolis squares. I keep in mind how the worth of bread as soon as went up 18 instances inside a day,” he instructed a Russian each day in 2009.
Common Belarusians nonetheless keep in mind his heyday – and the pledges that by no means got here by means of.
“I believed he saved us from the ‘wild capitalism’ of the Nineties, and I voted for him twice,” stated Vladislav, a 57-year-old Belarusian who leads a crew of building employees in a Moscow suburb.
“However Russians survived it and are much better off than within the Nineties – and than us. And we’re 30 years behind,” Vladislav, who withheld his final title as a result of he fears persecution again dwelling, instructed Al Jazeera.
Lukashenko was the primary Belarusian president, an workplace nobody else has but held.
He received a sixth time period final yr in a disputed election that roiled Minsk’s relationships with Western governments.
A tipping level
After that vote, Belarusian police and intelligence providers assaulted, arrested and tortured hundreds of protesters who rallied for weeks in opposition to his August 20, 2020 election victory, in line with witnesses, opposition figures and rights teams.
Just like the opposition, the West stated the election was rigged.
The USA, European Union and the UK now don’t recognise Lukashenko as a authentic president and have imposed sanctions that hobbled the financial system and remoted the longtime ruler whose sole worldwide supporter stays Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However even when cornered and ostracised, Lukashenko boosts his bad-boy picture by brazenly defying the West.
“I don’t give a rattling about what you consider the Belarusian president within the European Union. It wasn’t the EU that elected me,” he instructed the BBC community on November 22 – and added that US President Joe Biden was elected “illegitimately”.
In current weeks, the West has accused him of masterminding a migration crisis by letting hundreds of refugees – primarily from the Center East – arrive in Belarus to cross the border with Poland or Lithuania.
“His behaviour over the previous yr has proven that political isolation has turned him right into a delusional, paranoid and petty man,” stated Ivar Dale, a coverage adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog.
“What you see is an unstable and harmful man who’s desperately clinging on to energy, an influence that he’s satisfied can belong solely to him personally,” he instructed Al Jazeera.
However this isn’t the primary time Lukashenko has tried to remain afloat in political scorching water.
Dubbed “Europe’s final dictator” 20 years in the past at a time when Putin was seen as a pro-Western political newcomer, Lukashenko is used to withstanding Western criticism and sanctions.
“He’s a genius tactician – beneath any unfavourable circumstances he can both step again a bit or play for time till exterior strain ends,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher with Germany’s Bremen College, instructed Al Jazeera.
Lukashenko’s critics have for years been silenced by means of beatings and arrests, rights teams have documented. Some have been jailed, some fled, and a few disappeared and not using a hint.
What helped him struggle the largely city dissidents was the cohort of police and intelligence officers primarily recruited from villagers who get pleasure from a higher-than-average wage, Mitrokhin stated.
“He created a working system of his rule that’s based mostly on the power of large-fisted ex-peasants who went by means of the military and intelligence service, who hate the ‘metropolis slickers’ and subsequently haven’t any qualms about finishing up every order Lukashenko provides,” he stated.
Underneath Lukashenko, Belarus remained a mini-USSR preserved in amber, and his rule rested on three cornerstones, observers say.
First, he scrupulously managed the financial system by preserving the Soviet-era collective farms, state-run crops processing discounted Russian crude, manufacturing equipment and fertiliser. The management prevented the emergence of billionaire oligarchs whose cash and connections performed an outsized function in Russia and Ukraine.
Secondly, he did his finest to decelerate the formation of the center class – prosperous, pro-Western and a few of his biggest critics.
When this nascent center class rose in opposition to him throughout final yr’s protests, he pressured tons of of hundreds to flee for Ukraine and the EU.
Thirdly, he created a symbiotic political alliance with the Kremlin.
Again in 1997, Lukashenko signed a deal to create a “union state” with Russia, with a single authorities, laws and foreign money. He hoped to interchange ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin – and stalled the merger after Putin got here to energy in 2000.
Lukashenko additionally used pro-Western uprisings in neighbouring Ukraine in 2005 and 2014 as a pretext to exploit the Kremlin for numerous multibillion greenback loans, commerce concessions and political assist.
‘No depth in his manoeuvring’
As of late, Lukashenko’s political inventory has sunk decrease than ever because the three cornerstones of his rule are shaking.
“Lukashenko’s disaster is attributable to the nullification of those elements – he nonetheless controls the [economic] property, however has no depth in his manoeuvring, whereas the inventive center class is rising,” Aleksey Kushch, an analyst based mostly within the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, instructed Al Jazeera.
The migration disaster and this Might’s pressured touchdown of a Ryan Air passenger airplane within the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to arrest a Belarusian dissident, hastened Lukashenko’s transformation into a global bogeyman.
“A yr in the past, Lukashenko was seen as a usurper who seized energy and waged a battle on his personal individuals,” stated Alexander Opeikin, who headed a profitable handball membership in Minsk earlier than collaborating in final yr’s protests and changing into a wished fugitive.
“Now, it’s apparent that Lukashenko is a risk to regional safety, a person who, based mostly on his actions, might be known as a global terrorist,” Opeikin, who fled to Ukraine, instructed Al Jazeera.