World Lukashenko is cleaning up before the elections in Belarus

Lukashenko is cleaning up before the elections in Belarus

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The last dictator in Europe has been in power for 26 years. Image: AP Pool AFP

Lukashenko unpacks the hammer before the elections – who is the “last dictator in Europe”?

It lies between Poland and Russia Belarus, officially called Belarus – a landlocked country that is a terra incognita for most Western Europeans. The country is five times larger than Switzerland, but has just under ten million inhabitants. If anything is known about Belarus in this country, it is probably the fact that it is from Alexander Lukashenko is ruled with an iron hand, almost as long as the country is independent at all.

And Lukashenko, whom some call the “last dictator of Europe”, is obviously not considering giving up his office: on August 9, the eternal president will stand for re-election. It would be his sixth consecutive term. In order to maintain power, Lukashenko acts as he has seen before earlier elections – he has potential rivals arrested.

Viktor Babariko was taken into custody on Thursday for illegal business practices, including corruption. The 56-year-old ex-banker was considered to be Lukashenko’s main challenger until his arrest. In non-representative surveys on the Internet – regular surveys are prohibited – it takes first place. Babariko claims to have over 430,000 signatures collected for his candidacy. A potential candidate needs 100,000 signatures to be able to stand for election.

On Friday – on this day, the collection of support signatures for the candidates ended – there were protests during the signature collection in the Belarusian capital Minsk. Demonstrators formed human chains and demanded the release of those arrested. According to the human rights organization Vyazna, the security forces arrested at least 80 people. In other cities such as Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Brest and Mogilew, a total of 20 people are said to have been arrested. Some were released on Saturday.

Police arrest protesters in Minsk. Image: keystone

Until the start of his candidacy, Babariko had managed Belgazprombank, a subsidiary of the Russian energy company Gazprom. The Belarusian police arrested a total of more than 15 people from around the bank during raids. The Attorney General has opened proceedings; Babariko is accused of education or involvement in a criminal organization. He faces 15 years in prison.

Viktor Babariko was considered the most promising opponent Lukashenko. Image: keystone

At the end of May, Lukashenko had pulled out another promising candidate: activist and blogger Sergei Tichanowski, who runs a popular video channel, was arrested in Grodno. The authorities said that he had used violence against a police officer. Tichanowski then banned the election commission from doing so. Now his wife Svetlana wants to take his place – which Lukashenko acknowledged with the statement that the Belarusian constitution was “not designed for a woman”.

It seems the regime is showing nerves. Lukashenko described the activists as “gangs of criminals” who wanted to disrupt the presidential election. He would not let them destabilize the situation. The protests in the country are unusual say experts. The 65-year-old president said mostly accusedhow his government is dealing with the corona pandemic. Lukashenko called the virus a “dizziness”, had no protective measures, and suggested a cure for Covid-19 “stomgram” (“hundred grams” = one deciliter of vodka), saunas and tractor driving.

Vodka as a remedy for Covid-19: Lukashenko already showed in 1996 that he could take a sip. Image: EPA

From the son of a single mother to an unrestricted ruler

Who is the man who has clung to power for 26 years and has nipped almost every opposition? Since the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned in March 2019, Lukashenko is the longest-serving head of state in the states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lukashenko started out in simple circumstances. Born in Kopys in the east of the country in 1954, he grew up without a father, studied history and agriculture and became a political commissioner in the Red Army. From 1987 he ran a sowchose, a large agricultural enterprise. His chance came with the independence of Belarus – which he later rejected as the only member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet.

Lukashenko reintroduced the symbols of the abdicated Soviet Union, but at the same time sought to close ranks with the Orthodox Church. Bild: AP

At the end of 1993, as head of the parliament’s anti-corruption committee, Lukashenko accused the incumbent president and parliamentary chairman Stanislau Shushkevich and other politicians of having enriched themselves with state property. The already ailing Shushkevich then lost a vote of confidence and was replaced by an interim president. After the parliament had introduced a new constitution with a presidential system in March 1994, Lukashenko won in July with 80 percent of the votes in the presidential elections, which were still largely free at that time.

The new strong man was popular. At that time, Lukashenko still called the Belarusians traumatized by the economic decline after independence – more than a third of the population was in poverty – as “Batka” (“father”). They hoped that the new president, who was not part of the nomenclature, would take tough action against corruption as promised and help the ailing economy again. However, this did not happen: the market economy reforms remained tentative, and in 1996 Lukashenko also had the few private companies nationalized again.

In the same year, Lukashenko also dissolved the parliament and held a constitutional referendum, which brought him significant increases in power. He was now able to appoint the Attorney General, the presidents of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court and half of the constitutional judges. Finally, he abolished the ban on a third candidacy for the office of president.

In 1997 a demonstration was held in Minsk to celebrate the first anniversary of the constitutional referendum. Image: EPA

Immediately after taking office, Lukashenko began to control the media. In 1995, opposition newspapers and independent unions were banned. The autocrat relied primarily on the secret service, which in Belarus was still called KGB, as it once was in the Soviet Union. Opposition politicians were increasingly dangerous in Belarus – in 1999 and 2000, several opposition figures disappeared who were highly likely to be kidnapped and murdered by death squads.

Protesters show portraits of disappearing regime critics in Minsk in 2002. Bild: AP

Lukashenko put down protests with a hard hand. The repression peaked in 2010 when numerous demonstrators took to the streets to fight the fake elections. The rallies were violently resolved and more than 30 opposition officials sentenced to prison; some of them disappeared behind bars for several years.

Police officers in front of the government building in Minsk, 2010. The figure on the base represents the Russian revolutionary Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. Image: EPA

The death penalty, which is carried out in Belarus by a shot in the neck, is also part of the system of draconian punishments. It has not yet been abolished; Belarus is the only country in Europe that executes convicts – most recently in 2019, when two death sentences were carried out. 14 people have been executed since 2010.

In foreign policy, Lukashenko initially aimed for a new version of a kind of core Soviet Union with Russia and Ukraine and leaned heavily on Moscow. Belarus is economically heavily dependent on Russia; in addition, a large Russian minority lives in the country. Only with the annexation of the Crimea by Russia in 2014 were there clear cracks in relation to the big brother country. Lukashenko feared that Russian President Vladimir Putin could swallow little Belarus as part of his policy of “collecting Russian soil”; since then he has followed a moderate nationalist course and balanced between the EU and Moscow.

Proximity to Russia: Lukashenko in 1997 with the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Bild: AP POOL

Like many autocrats, Lukashenko has long since used up the initial credit from the population and only has to stay in power to prevent punishment or even revenge from the subjects who have been enslaved for decades – it is, as a well-known picture puts it, «a ride on the tiger »: It only works well until you dismount. That is probably why Lukashenko seems develop dynastic desires: On public occasions he often shows up with his extramarital son Nikolai. He is of course only 16 years old – so Lukashenko would have to stay at the helm for a while before he can hand over the scepter to his son.

The dictator with his son Nikolai at the Orthodox Easter 2020. Bild: AP POOL BelTa

(with material from the SDA news agency)

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