MOSCOW – When Alexander Lukashenko became its president in 1994, Belarus was an obscure country that had not even existed for three years. Over the next quarter-century, he brought it to the world’s notice through dramatic repression, erratic behavior and colorful threats.
Sunday's forced diversion of a commercial airliner and arrest of an opposition figure who was aboard epitomized his rule.
His disdain for democratic norms and country’s dismal human rights record has made Belarus a pariah in the West, bringing him the sobriquet of “Europe’s last dictator.”
The 66-year-old Lukashenko prefers to be styled as “Batka” — “Father” or “Dad” —a stern but wise patriarch leading a country out of infancy.
Although he has made occasional moves toward rapprochement with the West, Lukashenko abandoned conciliation after massive demonstrations rose up against him in 2020 following an election to a sixth term as president. The opposition, and many in the West, rejected the outcome as rigged.
Tens of thousands of protesters were arrested, many of them beaten by police; main opposition figures either fled the country or were jailed; foreign journalists were driven out of the country; and ordinary citizens reportedly were arrested for so-called “unauthorized mass gatherings” such as birthday parties and bicycle races. “
By suppressing opposition through harsh police actions and arbitrary arrests, along with keeping much of the economy under state control, Lukashenko made Belarus into a neo-Soviet outlier, wary of its thriving NATO and European Union neighbors. He alternately quarreled with and cozied up to Russia.
He’s noted for mercurial actions and provocative statements, which a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable assessed as outright “bizarre.”
In a famously bellicose moment in 2006, he threatened protesters by saying he would “wring their necks like a duck.” He also attracted uneasy note this year during a Christmas season TV interview in his kitchen when he let his little fluffy dog walk among the festive dishes on the table.
The apogee of his draconian dramatics came on Sunday, when he ordered a fighter jet to intercept a commercial airliner bound for Lithuania and carrying one of his self-exiled opponents, journalist Raman Pratasevich. Belarusian authorities said the action was taken after a bomb threat was made against the plane, but Western officials dismissed that as a preposterous attempt to disguise an act of piracy.
A strapping figure, Lukashenko presents a tough-guy image by frequently playing ice hockey, including a spring 2020 outing where he dismissed the coronavirus by asking a TV reporter if she saw any viruses “flying around” in the arena.
Once well-regarded by his countrymen as an anti-corruption leader, Lukashenko lost their trust through decades of jailing opponents, stifling independent media and holding elections that gave him term after term in power.
Protests had broken out after some elections, but not sizable or sustained enough to long withstand club-swinging police and mass detentions. Only after the 2020 vote did his opponents seem to harness the discontent: The country’s economic deterioration and Lukashenko’s cavalier refusal to act against the coronavirus added to their long-term dismay over repression.
The protests lasted for months, petering out only when winter set in. But authorities didn’t let up, reportedly arresting people for no obvious cause or on pretenses such as wearing clothing 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 eventually rose to director of a collective farm. In 1990, he became a member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet, the republic’s parliament.
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 appeared in many ways to be a man stuck in time, keeping Belarus as an eerie and dysfunctional Soviet vestige.
While neighboring ex-Soviet republics adapted to capitalism, Lukashenko kept much of the Belarusian economy under state control. That strategy initially won him support because Belarusians did not suffer the confusions and deprivations of “shock therapy” economic restructuring.
But ossified state control of industries could not keep up with market economies’ energy and flexibility; the Belarusian ruble was forced into repeated devaluations, and as of 2020, the average monthly wage was a paltry $480.
Under Lukashenko, the country’s main security agency retained its symbolically baleful acronym of KGB. He also pushed a referendum that made the new national flag nearly identical to the flag Belarus used as a Soviet republic.
Belarus also continues to carry out capital punishment, unlike every other country in Europe, and in a macabre manner echoing Soviet show-trial executions. According to reports, the prisoner is brought to a room and told that all appeals have been rejected. Then the condemned is forced to kneel and shot in the back of the head, a process lasting about two minutes from beginning to end.
When Lukashenko became president, Belarus had little experience of being an independent country; prior to its years as a Soviet republic, it had been a piece of other empires with only a brief attempt at sovereignty in the wake of World War I. Sandwiched between Russia to the east and reformist, Western-looking Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus was in a strategic position.
Lukashenko leaned strongly east. In 1997, he signed an agreement with Russia on forming a “union state” of close economic, military and political ties, but stopping short of full merger.
The agreement propped up Belarus’ economy, which depended heavily on Russian oil at below-market prices. But Lukashenko harbored beliefs that Russia aimed to eventually take over Belarus entirely, and he was increasingly vocal about them.
Russia apparently became disenchanted with Lukashenko and suspicions persist that Moscow wanted him out of the way and worked to undermine him in 2020. The former head of a bank owned by Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom was seen as a main electoral challenger before he was jailed and kept off the ballot. Belarus, meanwhile, alleged that Russia had sent in private military contractors to undermine the election.
Lukashenko’s years of repression and brutality had all but burned his bridges with the West. Faced with massive protests, he had nowhere to turn for help but Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had said he was prepared to send police to help stabilize the situation if demonstrations turned violent, but he never made the move.