Alexander Lukashenko, with a gray comb hairstyle, herringbone beard, and a heavy rural accent, was the only legislator in Soviet Belarus who voted against Belarusian independence in 1991. .
Three years later, when he came to power, he promised to “reintegrate” the two countries-but only on his own terms.
Lukashenko was only 39 years old when he won the election-an inexperienced but determined reformer with extremely high approval ratings.
The mid-1990s were dark and desperate, with criminal gangs flooding, inflation raging, and economic paralysis; Lukashenko provided Belarusians with “stability” instead of neighbouring Russia and Ukraine’s transition to chaotic capitalism and rampant crime.
“Every [plant and factory] After closing, the shelves in the store were empty, and people gathered in the city square. I remember that the price of bread used to rise 18 times in one day,” he told the Russian daily in 2009.
Ordinary Belarusians still remember his heyday-and promises that were never fulfilled.
Vladislav, a 57-year-old Belarusian who leads a team of construction workers on the outskirts of Moscow, said: “I think he saved us from the’barbaric capitalism’ of the 1990s. I voted for him twice. Votes.”
“But the Russians survived, and they are much better than they were with us in the 1990s. We are 30 years behind,” Vladislav concealed his surname for fear of persecution in the country, he told Al Jazeera.
Lukashenko was the first President of Belarus, and no one else has held this position.
Last year, he won his sixth term in a controversial election that disrupted Minsk’s relations with Western governments.
A tipping point
According to eyewitnesses, opposition figures and rights groups, after that vote, the Belarusian police and intelligence services attacked, arrested and tortured thousands of protesters who opposed his election on August 20, 2020. The triumphant rallied for several weeks.
Like the opposition, the West said the election was rigged.
The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom now do not recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president, and Impose sanctions This hinders the economy and isolates the sole international supporter who remains the long-term ruler of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But even when he was forced into desperation and repelled, Lukashenko promoted his image as a bad boy by publicly rebelling against the West.
“I don’t care what you think of the EU President of Belarus. It was not the EU that elected me,” he told the BBC Network on November 22, adding that US President Joe Biden was elected “illegal”.
In recent weeks, the West has accused him of planning Immigration crisis Let thousands of refugees-mainly from the Middle East-arrive in Belarus and cross the borders of Poland or Lithuania.
“His behavior in the past year shows that political isolation has turned him into a delusional, paranoid and petty person,” said Ivar Dyer, a policy adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Commission, a human rights watchdog.
“What you see is an unstable and dangerous person who desperately seizes power. He believes that this power can only belong to him,” he told Al Jazeera.
A little soviet
But this is not the first time Lukashenko has tried to survive in political hot water.
Twenty years ago, when Putin was seen as a pro-Western political newcomer, Lukashenko, known as “the last dictator in Europe,” was accustomed to accepting Western criticism and sanctions.
Nikola Mitrokhin, a researcher at the University of Bremen, Germany, told Al Jazeera: “He is a genius tactician-in any adverse situation, he can take a step back, or fight for a while, until the external pressure ends. “
Lukashenko’s critics have been silent for years of beatings and arrests, and rights groups have recorded the case. Some went to jail, some fled, some disappeared without a trace.
Mitrokhin said that helping him fight mainly urban dissidents were police and intelligence personnel recruited mainly from villagers, whose salaries were higher than average.
“He created a work system under his rule, which is based on the energy of the former big-fist farmers who have worked in the military and intelligence agencies. They hate the’urban gangsters’, so they do not hesitate to implement every move issued by Lukashenko. An order. ,” he said.
Observers say that under Lukashenko’s leadership, Belarus is still a mini Soviet Union preserved in amber, and his rule is built on three cornerstones.
First, he strictly controlled the economy by preserving Soviet-era collective farms, state-run factories that process cheap Russian crude oil, manufacturing machinery, and fertilizers. Control prevented the emergence of billionaire oligarchs whose money and relationships played a huge role in Russia and Ukraine.
Second, he went to great lengths to slow down the formation of the middle class-wealthy, pro-Western and some of his greatest critics.
When this new middle class rose against him in protests last year, he forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Ukraine and the European Union.
Third, he established a symbiotic political alliance with the Kremlin.
As early as 1997, Lukashenko signed an agreement with Russia to establish a “United Nations” with a unified government, legislation and currency. He hoped to replace the sick Russian President Boris Yeltsin-and shelved the merger after Putin came to power in 2000.
Lukashenko also used the pro-Western uprisings in neighbouring Ukraine in 2005 and 2014 as an excuse to provide the Kremlin with countless billions of dollars in loans, trade concessions and political support.
“His movements have no depth”
These days, Lukashenko’s political status is lower than ever, because the three cornerstones of his rule are shaking.
“Lukashenko’s crisis was caused by the ineffectiveness of these factors-he still controls [economic] Assets, but his operations have no depth, and a creative middle class is emerging,” Alexei Kush, an analyst in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, told Al Jazeera.
The immigration crisis and in May this year a Ryanair airliner was forced to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to arrest one Belarusian dissident, Has accelerated Lukashenko’s transformation into an international troll.
“A year ago, Lukashenko was seen as a usurper who usurped power and waged war on his own people,” said Alexander Opekin, who led a successful company in Minsk before participating in last year’s protests and becoming a wanted criminal. Handball club.
Opeikin, who fled to Ukraine, told Al Jazeera: “Now, Lukashenko clearly poses a threat to regional security. Based on his actions, he can be called an international terrorist.”