MOSCOW (AP) – For most of his 27 years as authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko’s repressive and punitive statements have often offended the West. This year, that militancy is directly affecting Europe.
His government heavily diverted an airliner flying between Greece and Lithuania that carried a political opponent. As the European Union imposed sanctions for that action, Belarus responded by relaxing its border controls for migrants from the Middle East and Africa, allowing them to head to the EU border.
This forced Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to declare a state of emergency in their border areas to stop illegal crossings. Warsaw sent thousands of riot police and troops to bolster security, leading to tense clashes.
Lukashenko has since raised interest in threatening to stop natural gas shipments from Russia through Belarus – possibly a severe blow to Europe as winter sets in.
The moves are a dramatic escalation for Lukashenko, who became president in 1994 when Belarus was an obscure country that had existed for less than three years.
His contempt for democratic standards and the country’s sad history of human rights made Belarus a pariah in the West, earning him the nickname “Europe’s last dictator”.
The 67-year-old Lukashenko prefers to be called “Batka” – “Father” or “Dad” – a stern but wise patriarch.
Although he made occasional moves toward rapprochement with the West, Lukashenko left a deal after mass demonstrations rose against him in 2020 after an election to a sixth term as president. The opposition, and many in the West, rejected the result as rigged.
Tens of thousands of protesters were arrested, many of them beaten by police; main opposition parties either fled the country or were imprisoned; foreign journalists were expelled; and ordinary citizens were reportedly arrested for “unauthorized rallies,” which included even birthday parties.
By suppressing opposition through such severe actions, along with keeping much of the economy under state control, Belarus has become a neo-Soviet extraordinary, wary of its prosperous NATO and EU neighbors. He alternately quarreled and joined Russia.
He is known for mercurial actions and provocative statements that leaked U.S. diplomatic cable rated as completely “bizarre”.
In 2006, he threatened protesters saying he would “twist their necks like a duck.” He also attracted an anxious remark this year in a Christmas season television interview when he let his fluffy puppy walk on the table between the festive dishes.
His dramatic drama escalated in May, when he ordered a Lithuania-going Ryanair plane diverted to Minsk and arrested a self-exiled opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, who was on board. Belarusian authorities said the action was taken after a bomb threat was made against the plane, but Western officials dismissed it as an absurd attempt to disguise what they called piracy.
The rope Lukashenko presents a tough picture with frequently playing ice hockey, including a spring outing of 2020, where he dismissed the coronavirus by asking a TV reporter if she saw any viruses “flying around” in the arena. He also advised Belarusian to “kill the virus with vodka”, go to saunas and work on the fields to avoid infection, saying “Tractors will cure everyone!”
Once well regarded by his compatriots as an anti-corruption leader, Lukashenko has lost his faith due to decades of imprisonment of opponents, suffocation of independent media and holding elections that gave him a term after term in power.
Protests erupted after some of the election, but not considerable or lasting enough to withstand club-swinging police and mass arrests. Only after the 2020 vote did his opponents seem to take advantage of the discontent: Lukashenko’s economic deterioration and knightly refusal to act against COVID-19 added to their long-standing consternation.
The protests lasted for months, extinguished only when winter began. But authorities did not stop, reportedly arresting people for no obvious reason or under pretexts like wearing clothes in the red-and-white colors of the opposition.
Lukashenko was born in a Belarusian village and followed a conventional path for an ambitious provincial Soviet. After graduating from an agricultural academy, he became a political instructor in the border guard service and later rose to director of a collective farm. In 1990, he became a member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet, the parliament of the republic.
He was its only member in 1991 to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When he won the new country’s first presidential election three years later, he seemed in many ways to be blocked in time, keeping Belarus as a frightening and dysfunctional Soviet trail.
While neighboring ex-Soviet republics adapted to capitalism, Lukashenko kept much of the Belarusian economy under state control. This initially earned him support because Belarusians did not suffer the pain of “shock therapy” economic restructuring.
But ostracized state control of industries could not keep up with the energy and flexibility of the market; the Belarusian ruble was forced to repeat devaluations, and as of 2020, the average monthly salary was a meager $ 480.
The country’s top security agency has retained its symbolically bad acronym KGB. He also pushed for a referendum that made the new national flag almost identical to that of Belarus used as a Soviet republic.
Belarus continues to have the death penalty, unlike any other country in Europe, even echoing Soviet executions of show trials that last about two minutes in total: The prisoner is reportedly brought to a room, saying all appeals were rejected, forced to kneel and then shot. in the back of the head.
When Lukashenko became president, Belarus had little experience of being an independent country; as a Soviet republic, it was a piece of other empires with only a brief attempt at sovereignty after World War I. Sandwiched between Russia in the east and reformist, west-looking Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus was in a strategic position.
Lukashenko leaned sharply to the east. In 1997, he signed an agreement with Russia on the formation of a “union state” of close economic, military and political ties, but stopped before a full merger.
The agreement has strengthened the economy in Belarus, which is heavily dependent on Russian oil at market prices. But Lukashenko contained beliefs that Russia was ultimately aiming to take over Belarus altogether, and he was increasingly vocal about them.
As protests plagued the country in 2020 and Western pressure increased, Lukashenko had nowhere to turn for help other than Moscow. Putin said he would be willing to send police to Belarus if demonstrations turn violent, but he never made that move.
This year, Lukashenko and Putin announced a wide range of agreements to consolidate the union state, including a common military doctrine. Although the agreements considerably increase Russia’s influence in Belarus, Lukashenko is also gaining assurance of support.