Monday, November 29, 2021

“Europe’s last dictator” increases its commitment to the West

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For most of his 27 years as the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko’s repression and recalcitrant remarks frequently offended the West. This year this act of war is having a direct impact on Europe

His government violently diverted a plane flying between Greece and Lithuania with a political opponent. When the European Union imposed sanctions for this, Belarus responded by easing its border controls for migrants from the Middle East and Africa so that they can reach the EU border.

This has forced Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to declare a state of emergency in their border areas in order to stop illegal crossings. Warsaw has dispatched thousands of riot police and troops to increase security, which has led to tense confrontations.

Lukashenko has since stepped up the stakes by threatening to suspend shipments of natural gas from Russia through Belarus – a potentially severe blow to Europe if winter arrives.

The steps are a dramatic escalation for Lukashenko, who became president in 1994 when Belarus was an opaque country that existed for less than three years.

His contempt for democratic norms and the country’s gloomy human rights record have made Belarus a pariah in the West and earned it the nickname “Europe’s last dictator”.

The 67-year-old Lukashenko prefers to be called “Batka” – “Father” or “Papa” – as a strict but wise patriarch.

Although he has occasionally taken steps towards rapprochement with the West, Lukashenko gave up on reconciliation after massive demonstrations against him in 2020 following the election for a sixth term as president. The opposition and many in the West rejected the result as manipulated.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators were arrested, many of them beaten by the police; Major opposition officials either fled the country or were imprisoned; foreign journalists were expelled; and ordinary citizens have reportedly been arrested for “unauthorized mass gatherings,” including birthday parties.

By suppressing the opposition through such harsh actions and keeping much of the economy under state control, Belarus has become a neo-Soviet runaway suspicious of its thriving NATO and EU neighbors. He took turns fighting and snuggling up to Russia.

He is known for queer actions and provocative remarks, which a leaked diplomatic telegram from the US rated as downright “bizarre”.

In 2006 he threatened protesters by saying he would “turn their necks like a duck”. Also this year he was noticed in a TV interview at Christmas time when he let his fluffy little dog walk on the table between the festive dishes.

His draconian drama came to a head in May when he ordered a Ryanair jetliner flying to Lithuania to be diverted to Minsk and the arrest of the exiled opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, who was on board. Belarusian authorities said the measure was taken following a bomb threat against the plane, but Western officials dismissed it as an absurd attempt to cover up something called piracy.

Strapping Lukashenko presents a harsh picture by playing ice hockey frequently, including a spring 2020 outing where he rejected the coronavirus by asking a television reporter if she saw viruses “flying around” the arena. He also advised Belarusians to “kill the virus with vodka”, go to the sauna and work in the fields to avoid infection, saying, “Tractors will all cure!”

Once viewed by his compatriots as an anti-corruption leader, Lukashenko lost their trust by imprisoning opponents for decades, suppressing independent media, and holding elections that gave him tenure after tenure.

After a few votes, protests broke out, but they were not large or sustained enough to withstand the stick-swinging police and mass arrests for long. Only after the 2020 vote did his opponents seem to take advantage of the discontent: the economic deterioration and Lukashenko’s careless refusal to take action against COVID-19 heightened their long-term dismay.

The protests lasted months and only ended with the onset of winter. The authorities persisted, however, and reportedly arrested people for no apparent reason or on the pretext of wearing clothing in the opposition’s red and white colors.

Lukashenko was born in a Belarusian village and went a conventional route for an ambitious provincial soviet. After graduating from an agricultural academy, he became a political instructor in the border guard service and eventually rose to become the director of a collective farm. In 1990 he became a member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet, the Parliament of the Republic.

He was the only member to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. When he won the first presidential election in the new country three years later, he seemed stuck in time in many ways, keeping Belarus an eerie and dysfunctional Soviet holdover.

While neighboring ex-Soviet republics adapted to capitalism, Lukashenko kept much of the Belarusian economy under state control. This initially supported him because the Belarusians did not suffer from the pain of “shock therapy” economic restructuring.

But the frozen state control of industry could not keep up with the energy and flexibility of the market; the Belarusian ruble has been forced into repeated devaluations, and as of 2020 the average monthly wage was a ridiculous $ 480.

The country’s most important security agency retained its symbolically ominous acronym KGB. He also called for a referendum that made the new national flag almost identical to that used by Belarus as a Soviet republic.

Belarus, unlike any other country in Europe, still has the death penalty, which even mirrors the Soviet show trial executions, which last around two minutes in total: the prisoner is reportedly taken to a room, told all appeals have been denied, him must kneel down and then be 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 part of other empires with only a brief attempt at sovereignty after World War I. Wedged between Russia in the east and reformist, western-oriented Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus found itself in a strategic position.

Lukashenko leaned heavily to the east. In 1997 he signed an agreement with Russia to create a “Union State” with close economic, military and political ties, but stood before a full merger.

The deal strengthened the economy in Belarus, which is heavily dependent on Russian oil at below market prices. But Lukashenko was convinced that Russia intended to eventually take over Belarus completely, and he became increasingly louder.

When the protests rocked the country in 2020 and pressure from the West increased, Lukashenko could only turn to Moscow for help. Putin said he was ready to send the police to Belarus if there were violent demonstrations, but he never took that step.

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