Monday

28th May 2018

Investigation

Who is Lukashenko anyway?

Eighteen years in power and counting, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko retains a mesmerising hold on a country whose public spaces still glorify the mythological beasts of Soviet-era rule.

Towering bronze statues of Lenin in front of city halls remind visitor and resident alike of Lukashenko's power and anachronistic vision. The Soviet star, hammer and sickle sit on top of the Cyclopean edifice of the state post office headquarters in Minsk.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Lukashenko and Kolya meet Pope Benedict XVI (Photo: udf.by)

Lukashenko is the product of a defunct empire which refuses to fade into history books. As President, his decrees become the rule of the land and some of his early laws were a portent of things to come.

In one of his first fiats, he changed Belarus' national independence day. The country declared independence on 23 August 1991. But Lukashenko moved it to 3 July, the day Soviet forces entered Minsk to liberate Belarus from Nazi Germany in World War II.

In 1995, he changed the country's flag. In 2007, thousands of small businesses had to shut after he forbade them from hiring close relatives. "According to the law, a nephew is not a close relative," Alaycsandr Makaev, who used to own two stalls at an outdoor market, told this reporter in Minsk last November.

He adores, and often plays hockey. But his team always wins because the other side wants to keep their jobs.

Lukashenko's narcissism is also plain to see in his flamboyant security arrangements.

Ihor Makar, a 34-year-old former Belarus Spetsnaz officer who worked in a unit which later became Lukashenko's personal detail, says the state spends three times more money protecting him than on its national health service.

Whole swathes of roads in Minsk are sealed off when he and his caravan of police cars go from place to place.

"Lukashenko has three groups of personal body guards. Each group has six people of which one is a personal adjunct to the President ... Over five years experience in the special unit, I've seen people disappear as families are left without fathers. Indifference in such situations cannot continue," Makar, who now lives in a secret location outside the country, told EUobserver.

From prison guard to president

Born in the Mogilev region in east Belarus, Lukashenko graduated from the university of the same name with a degree in history. But people who knew him before his rise to the top used to call him dull-witted.

He was installed in office by a circle of manipulators who planned to use him as their servant: as an MP he would run errands for his superiors, buying them bottles of vodka when told to. But Lukashenko himself had learned how to manipulate people in his time as a prison guard, biding his opportunity to gain power.

Soviet jails were grossly understaffed and guards relied on a form of self-governance by inmates to maintain order.

In parliament, he applied the same principles to his political career. Even today, he calls his underlings "sixes" - a pejorative term used by Soviet prisoners to describe weak inmates. The number shows up in a popular prison card game and is normally part of the worst hand. But it can also be a trump.

In Lukashenko's world there is only one "trump six" and his name is Viktor Sheiman: currently in charge of business relations with Latin America, Sheiman is implicated in the vanishing of opposition leaders 10 years ago and is considered to be just as dangerous and power-hungry as his master.

Meanwhile, on the evening news, Lukashenko repeats, time and again, his tired legends of heroic Belarusian resistance in World War II.

In some government chamber, bedecked in pink and white stucco, the master can be seen standing behind a podium lecturing his starry-eyed and seated "sixes" who nod in approval to his every word. In other cases, when he is unhappy, he can be seen yelling at ministers for failing to implement changes to save the country from Western conspiracy.

The spectacles come from a man who understands the value of theater and whose performances bewilder the mind with paradox.

Amid his stories of Belarusian partisans, he admires Hitler's "strong, presidential" qualities, sports an uncanny little black moustache and invokes Hitler in his own perorations. Amid the patent abusiveness of his regime, he cultivates the sobriquet "backa," which means "daddy" in Belarusian.

Mentally unstable?

Some EU politicians who have met him believe he is mentally unstable.

He decks out his seven-year-old son, Kolya, in full military dress for parades and sits him on his knee at top-level meetings, as with the Pope in 2009. Last year, after a mysterious bomb went off in the Minsk metro, he held him by the hand on a televised tour of the carnage-filled crime scene.

His micro-management is the butt of jokes, one of which goes: Lukashenko is in his cabinet office talking on the phone surrounded by his ministers. He is saying: "Left, left, right, right, now left," and so on. Eventually, someone asks what is going on. "He is telling them where to plant potatoes," a colleague whispers.

EU politicians also like to make fun.

One foreign minister in an off-the-record briefing in 2009 noted that Lukashenko had gone to Switzerland for treatment for prostate cancer. "I haven't personally examined his prostate, but our services tell me it's in a bad way," the minister said.

But Lukashenko, equally at home in the geopolitical salons of Moscow and among simple farmers in the Belarusian outback, has his own brand of vulgar political comedy.

"On the subjects of bastards like [EU commission President] Barroso and others - who is Barroso anyway? There was a Barroso in Portugal. But they kicked him out and put him to work in the European Commission," he told state TV at a Chernobyl commemoration event last year.

In a response to the EU's decision to pull ambassadors from Minsk in early March, he lashed out against Germany's gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle: "When I heard him - whoever he is, gay or lesbian - talking about dictatorship, I thought, it's better to be a dictator than gay."

Then, as if on cue, the master said Belarus will defeat the West, the same way they did when the Germans rolled in their tanks. And Russia, he added, will be standing by its side.

Belarus executions compound EU outrage

Belarus has executed two men despite an international appeal for clemency, just as EU countries start talks on whether to impose extra sanctions.

Belarus - Europe's last dictatorship

Caught between the competing geopolitical interests of its neighbours, Belarus President Alexander Lukashanko has managed to position himself as a strategic buffer between Europe and Russia. EUobserver's Nikolaj Nielsen examines life - political, economic and cultural - under this autocrat.

EU ambassadors trickle back to Minsk

All EU ambassadors are returning to Minsk in a bid to improve deteriorating relations with Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, in power for the past 18 years.

Visual Data

EU budget: Biggest cuts and increases

The European Parliament accused the EU Commission of not providing clear figures for a comparison of the proposed and the current EU budgets. We take a look at the main differences.

News in Brief

  1. Italy set to pick eurosceptic finance minister
  2. UK foreign minister fooled by Russian pranksters
  3. Rajoy ally gets 33 years in jail for corruption
  4. Close race as polls open in Irish abortion referendum
  5. Gazprom accepts EU conditions on gas supplies
  6. Facebook tells MEPs: non-users are not profiled
  7. Commission proposes ending France deficit procedure
  8. UK households hit with Brexit income loss

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman requests more lending transparency from European Investment Bank
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  3. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  4. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  5. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  6. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  8. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  11. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  12. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May
  2. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  5. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  6. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  8. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  9. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  10. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  11. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  12. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight
  2. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMacedonians in Bulgaria Demand to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  3. Counter BalanceThe EIB Needs to Lead by Example on Tax Justice
  4. ILGA EuropeTrans People in Sweden to be Paid Compensation for Forced Sterilisation
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Danger of Standing Up for Justice and Rights in Central Asia
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Must Work Together to Promote Global Steel Sector
  7. Swedish EnterprisesEU Tax Proposal on Digital Services Causes Concern for Small Exporting Economies
  8. European Jewish CongressCondemns the Horrific Murder of Holocaust Survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris
  9. Mission of China to the EUAn Open China Will Foster a World-Class Business Environment
  10. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  11. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  12. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds