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Belarus ramps up Lukashenko personality cult

Daria Bernstein
October 22, 2023

On one hand, Lukashenko's regime is cracking down hard on oppositionists, and on the other, it is ramping up positive propaganda about the 'humble' strongman. Experts say the personality cult shows cracks in the system.

Alexander Lukashenko receives a bouquet of flowers from two children
Lukashenko has been in power since 1994Image: Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus

Belarusian schoolchildren visit places associated with Alexander Lukashenko, the state film studio "Belarusfilm" is planning a movie about the strongman, and the ministry of justice has registered a charitable "Foundation of the First." It's named in honor of Lukashenko, whom the state media often call "the First."

And it doesn't end there. Quotes by Lukashenko are printed on articles of clothing, and a new flagship store has opened in the capital Minsk expressly for this type of fashion. There, buyers can find t-shirts and tracksuits printed with quotes such as "Presidents are not made, presidents are born."

Experts have observed that propaganda in Belarus has bolstered the personality cult surrounding Lukashenko, and has recently ramped up to support the narrative that Europe's last strongman enjoys the support of his people. This could have several reasons.

Praise Lukashenko, get promotion

Leading up to the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, independent media wanted to know who their readers would cast their votes for. The poll yielded pretty awful results for Lukashenko: Only 3% said they'd vote for him. As a result, authorities banned such surveys. Belarus no longer has independent social research.

Government-friendly experts from the analysis center EccoM claim that, in 2022, 76.3% of the Belarusian population trusted Lukashenko, up from 72% the previous year. If that were the case, why is the personality cult surrounding Lukashenko being amplified?

Vadim Mojeiko is an analyst for the Belarusian Institute for Social Sutdies (BISS). He explained that a personality cult was part-and-parcel of any autocracy: "Whenever a politician is in power for a long time, society needs constant reminders of what makes him so special and unique."

Protesting crowds waving Belarusian flags and colors fill the streets of Minsk
Protests against Lukashenko's regime spread across Belarus for months following the 2020 presidential electionImage: TUT.BY/AFP/Getty Images

The researcher pointed to events that took place around the 2020 elections, which were followed by mass protests. Lukashenko had been declared winner of the election, and brutally cracked down on those in the opposition. Since then, the expert explained, loyalty towards the regime had become a faith of sorts.

"Officials at various levels have understood that whoever praises Lukashenko can rise quickly," he said, adding that this was a way to help grease the wheels to allocate funds for various projects.

"I am certain that ‘Belarusfilm' will have not trouble finding money for its movie," he said.

Boost in the personality cult linked to elections?

Alesia Rudnik, director of the Belarusian Center for New Ideas that operates abroad believes the fresh momentum for Lukashenko's personality cult is linked to the upcoming 2025 presidential election.

"Even if Lukashenko did not enter the race, he and his statements would play a role. That's why propaganda is trying to draw positive attention to him," the political scientist explained. 

The other reason, according to Rudnik, was that even supporters of the regime were growing weary of its negative agenda. For three years, there have been daily reports of repression.

"The systematic persecution of citizens takes a great toll on the state apparatus. It requires additional expenditures, and many civil servants must focus their attention on repressions, rather than on solving the real problems they are actually responsible for. In this way, even Lukashenko's supporters start suspecting the regime might only be propped up by fear. Propaganda is meant to change this impression and create a positive image of Lukashenko," she said.  

President Lukashenko (l) and President Putin (r) shake hands
Lukashenko has tried to counteract the idea that he is depedent on PutinImage: Alexander Demianchuk/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The third reason for the rise in propaganda, Rudnik explained, was to show that Belarus had only one leader who steered the state's politics on his own and was able to make or reverse any decision, and that everything in the country depended on his wishes.

"During Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion, Lukashenko tried to present himself as a sort of referee.This was important in light of his frequent visits to Vladimir Putin, which gave the impression that he was completely dependent upon the Kremlin,"  she said.

Humble Lukashenko

"The propagandists are lying when they say that Lukashenko is a humble person who almost had to be convinced to allow a movie to be made about him," said Mojeiko. "That is another part of a personality cult, pretending that initiatives like this were started by the people. In reality, Lukashenko likes to be admired, which he has made quite clear in public."

A store workers stands in front of numerous television screens depicting Lukashenko
State media is trying to shed a positive light on LukashenkoImage: Natalia Fedosenko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

It's also hardly modest when propagandists appear at meetings with Lukashenko sporting clothes bearing his quotes, or that he is often seen in public events surrounded by winners of beauty pageants.

All this, experts estimate, was part of an image created around him. "Lukashenko does not appear as a humble man. On the contrary. He emphasized that he knows everything better than everybody else," said Rudnik.

Minsk unlikely to become Lukashensk

At the same time, experts have also noticed that the propaganda surrounding Lukashenko is still far from the kind of personality cults that can be observed in several Central and East Asian countries. In Kazakhstan, for example Nursultan Nazarbayev also had a foundation with his name during his presidency, as well as multiple films in his honor. He's also had memorials dedicated to him, and even the capital was — for a time — named after him.

Pukashenko riding a quad bike along a field of wheat
Lukashenko likes to be portrayed as a hands-on man of actionImage: Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus

"If Lukashenko wanted a hundred-meter statue in his honor, nobody would dare to object. But he knows that such grotesque displays would not sit well will Belarusians. They have a different mentality. That's why the personality cult will continue to rise, but not to the point that the capital Minsk is renamed ‘Lukashensk,'" Mojeiko believed.

But Rudnik would not rule out that universities of schools might soon bear Lukashenko's name.

"A while back, The Academy of Public Administration was given the addendum ‘of the President of the Republic of Belarus'," she explained. "Considering the widespread desire among civil servants to be promoted, educational establishments could soon also be named after Lukashenko."

This article was originally published in Russian.