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For 25 years, Belarus has been ruled by autocrat Alexander Lukashenko. The man once deemed "Europe's last dictator" has softened on the West somewhat, but his biggest political challenge may still lie ahead.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is celebrating his 25th year in power on Wednesday. Following the resignation of Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March, the 64-year-old became the longest-serving leader in the former Soviet Union.
The father of modern Belarus
Lukashenko — who ran a state farm, or Sovkhoz, during the Soviet era — was elected president of Belarus on July 10, 1994. The country, a former Soviet republic bordering what is now the European Union's eastern frontier, had only gained independence three years prior.
Lukashenko soon earned the affectionate nickname "Batka," meaning father, among Belarusians. And he has sought to live up to this image ever since. In March, for example, he visited a farm to inspect whether the cows were properly looked after. Dissatisfied with the dismal treatment of the animals, he fired several bureaucrats and the minister of agriculture.
It is often said that Lukashenko turned Belarus into a miniature version of the Soviet Union, as the country's relatively strong industrial and agricultural sectors are heavily subsidized and benefit from close ties to Russia. Russia, in turn, has been able to take advantage of this overreliance, for example by placing import restrictions on Belarusian milk.
Lukashenko's rule has also been marked by his personalized and deeply authoritarian leadership style. To maintain his grip on power he has relied on the country's secret service, the KGB, which still carries the same name as its Soviet-era predecessor. Lukashenko has used referenda to amend laws and even the constitution to expand his authority and scrap term limits. The country's parliament has been stripped of its power, the liberal opposition sidelined and media outlets censored. Some opposition lawmakers have vanished without a trace, and political protests are suppressed.
Political analyst Valery Karbalevitch, who authored a biography of Lukashenko, says two factors explain the rise and persistence of the authoritarian Belarusian regime. "Lukashenko was hungry for power and rejected having his powers curtailed," he explained. But at the same time, "Belarusian society yearned for a sense of Soviet stability," Karbalevitch said. In much of Europe, meanwhile, he has long been regarded as the continent's "last dictator." Accordingly, the EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his leadership circle.
Moving towards the West
Times have changed, however. Following Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, Lukashenko took a neutral stance. He went on to host peace talks in the capital, Minsk — a move that earned him international respect. Lukashenko also freed several dissidents, prompting the EU to lift its sanctions in 2016. Even so, Belarus cannot be classified as a genuine democracy: a recent report from the UN's Special Rapporteur noted there were continued "systemic and systematic human rights violations" in the country.
Lukashenko's gradual rapprochement with the West reached its apex in February of this year, when he was slated to attend the Munich Security Conference for the first time ever. His trip was canceled on short notice, however, after he met with Vladimir Putin, prompting speculation that the Russian president inspired a sudden change of heart.
Russia eager to keep Belarus close
Lukashenko has always maintained a close relationship with Russia. In 1997, he established the Union State of Russia and Belarus with the then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The supranational union, however, has only ever really existed on paper. Belarus was also a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, one of Putin's pet projects to help bring together the various former Soviet republics.
In recent months, however, Russia has increased its pressure on Lukashenko to deepen ties between Minsk and Moscow. Russia's economic policy means that Belarus now benefits less from Russian oil, including refining it and selling it to the West. There has also been speculation that Putin may consider reviving the Union State of Russia and Belarus project as a mean to extend his presidency. He is currently constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term in 2024, but serving as leader of a new, unified Belarusian and Russian state could be a way to skirt that limitation. For now, Lukashenko has dismissed talk of a unified Belarusian and Russian state, and has even scolded Russia over the ongoing integration process, though without directly attacking Putin.
Lukashenko's biggest challenge, meanwhile, still lies ahead: his exit from the political stage. He recently announced that the 2020 presidential elections will be held as planned, and he is expected to run again. In his biography on Lukashenko, Valery Karbalevitch described the leader as a "hostage" trapped in a political system of his own making. Lukashenko, he writes, "has no choice but to try to remain in power indefinitely." With no viable successor is in sight, Karbalevitch says Lukashenko's electoral defeat would lead to radical regime change.