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.
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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.
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.