By Jan Maksymiuk
February 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently made headlines by disrupting Russian oil supplies to Europe during a row with Moscow over energy price hikes. The standoff capped a season that saw Lukashenka throw his weight behind a number of proposals certain to damage ties with Moscow -- a union state with Ukraine, a transit-country alliance meant to counteract Russian pressure, and even eventual eurozone and EU membership for Belarus. What motivates "Europe's last dictator" to taunt a massively powerful neighbor that is also one of his few remaining allies?
Anybody seeking to understand Lukashenka's political behavior could get a good start by reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterful 1975 novel, "The Autumn Of The Patriarch." Although Garcia Marquez based his fictional hero on a number of real-life autocrats from Latin America, the resulting picture is that of an archetypical dictator and patriarchal nation suffering the consequences of concentrating all possible power in a single man.
Lukashenka's life and career appear to emulate those of Garcia Marquez's protagonist in a number of ways -- some deeply fearsome and some irresistibly comic. By a strange twist of fate, the only Russian-language translation of "The Autumn Of The Patriarch" was made by two Belarusian writers in 1978. It was as if fate decided that, of all the Soviet nationalities, it was Belarusians who needed most to look into the mind-set of people living under dictatorial oppression.
The similarities between Garcia Marquez's creation and the real-life Lukashenka begin, fittingly, with their fathers -- or lack thereof. Lukashenka's official website (http://www.president.gov.by) is laconic on the topic, saying only that the president "grew and was brought up without a father."
In fact, the identity of Lukashenka's father has never been disclosed. The president's patronymic, Ryhoravich, indicates his father was called Ryhor, or Grigory in Russian. One somewhat questionable account maintains the mysterious Ryhor may have been a one-eyed married man who saw his son as a small boy just a handful of times.
Details about Lukashenka's mother, Katsyaryna Trafimauna Lukashenka, have been somewhat easier to uncover. Journalists in the 1990s reported that Katsyaryna spent the early 1950s working in a flax-processing factory in the city of Orsha. She then returned to her native village of Aleksandria in eastern Mahilyou Oblast, her 2-year-old son, Sasha, in tow.
Lukashenka would later refer to Aleksandria as his birthplace. His official biographers have since offered a third version, saying he was born in nearby Kopys, in Vitsebsk Oblast.
No Fairytale Childhood
Young Sasha -- the boy destined to become Belarus's first president -- was reported to have had a difficult childhood. He was deeply disliked by his peers in the village, who tormented and mocked him as an extramarital scion and a bastard. Sasha repeatedly pledged to take revenge on all of them as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
As an adult, Lukashenka has been prompted to describe his childhood only on rare occasions. Apart from his mother, he has never mentioned the name of a single friend or relative from that time. "In my childhood I grew up among animals and plants," he once confessed, and recalled helping his mother, a farm worker, to milk cows.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka plays the accordian and sings: Real Audio Windows Media
In his early years, Lukashenka dreamed of becoming a tractor driver. His thoughts later turned to a musical career after his mother bought him an accordion. In a propaganda film meant to boost his image in Russia in the second half of the 1990s -- when he still nurtured dreams that a Russian-Belarus union would propel him to the post of Russian president -- Lukashenka is shown in casual dress, amateurishly playing an accordion and singing a sentimental tune.
Man Of The People
In 1971-75, Lukashenka studied history at the Pedagogical Institute in Mahilyou. After graduating, he married Halina Zhaunerovich, a childhood acquaintance, and fathered two sons, Viktar and Dzmitry. His wife, who has never served in the capacity of first lady, was eventually dispatched to a lonely home in the country. Lukashenka is believed to have spent his recent years living with a mistress, with whom he reputedly has a child. "I'm not a family man," he has confessed, "because I've devoted my life to my work."
Despite his teaching diploma, Lukashenka never pursued a teaching career. He went on to graduate from the Belarusian Agricultural Academy and from there took up a number of low-profile, politically flavored jobs in the provinces. He alternately worked as a Komsomol instructor; a "politruk," or political propaganda officer in Belarus's KGB border-troop unit; deputy director of a construction-materials factory; and deputy director and party secretary of a series of collective farms.
A point of contention on Lukashenka's resume is whether he ever worked as a prison warden. Opponents are fond of the theory, perhaps because of the president's appetite for incarcerating political opponents. Lukashenka, however, vigorously denies he ever held such a post.
In sum, the early, provincial years of Lukashenka's career gave the future president invaluable insight into the character of ordinary Belarusians -- collective-farm laborers and industrial workers -- who now form the backbone of his support. He mastered their natural idiom, a plebian version of Russian mixed with Belarusian syntax and pronunciation.
All this made it easy, when the time came, for him to appeal directly to the people's hearts, without bothering himself much about their minds. No other politician in Belarus -- in either the elite or the opposition -- has ever had such a forceful, almost hypnotizing, grip on an audience as Lukashenka.
Sasha Has His Revenge
Lukashenka also shared two more traits with those on the low end of the Soviet social spectrum: he was ashamed of his rural origins, and, as a result, loathed everything that was traditionally associated with them. In Belarus, this meant the native Belarusian language and indigenous culture. At the same time, however, he felt a deep-seated resentment toward the Russian-speaking urban nomenklatura, whose ranks were firmly off-limits to ambitious but insignificant country bumpkins like himself.
When he became president in 1994, the Belarusian language and the local nomenklatura both fell victim to his sense of vengeance. "The people who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speaking the Belarusian language, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian," Lukashenka famously declared -- in Russian -- in 1994. "There are only two great languages in the world -- Russian and English."
In May 1995, Lukashenka called a referendum that overwhelmingly backed his policy of integration with Russia and made Russian the second official language in the country. Belarusian, which enjoyed a brief revival in the early '90s, was enthusiastically abandoned once again by the very people who were expected to cherish it as the key component of their national identity.
The country's post-Soviet nomenklatura, meanwhile, proved indispensable -- or, more accurately, highly dispensable -- to Lukashenka during his first term. He routinely staged public humiliations of cabinet ministers and other officials, settling scores during televised conferences that showed him berating his victims for perceived economic and political errors. Often he pinned blame on them for his own fallacious decisions. At one such public display of opprobrium, Lukashenka went so far as to stage a minister's "spontaneous" dismissal, complete with handcuffs and immediate arrest.
Ordinary Belarusians watched such live programs with tremendous excitement. Lukashenka came over as a fantastic hero-leader, brandishing a sword of retribution over the heads of those they saw as their real oppressors. It was during this period that Belarusians first began to refer to their president as Batska, or "father" in Belarusian. His tough-guy approach to politics had strong appeal for a society craving authority and a firm hand -- the same society that had been overwhelmingly rural and patriarchal only a half-century ago.
Losing His Way?
In the 1950s and 1960s, Belarusians were subjected to a merciless social and cultural uprooting through the dual forces of industrialization and urbanization -- accompanied by forced Sovietization and Russification. Lukashenka lacked qualified expertise in the social manipulation of people, but he compensated with keen political instinct and a deep understanding of the national psyche. He assumed the role of father figure to a people who had lost their orientation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has been that genuine popular support, reinforced by generous Russian energy subsidies, that has allowed Lukashenka to avoid any major economic or social upheaval during the past 12 years.
Now that the subsidies seem to be over, Lukashenka's Soviet-style leadership techniques may become worthless. His recent flurry of contradictory political ideas and statements -- including a union with Ukraine and other energy-transit countries to balance Russia's increasing assertiveness in energy policies -- may be a sign that his political instinct has begun to fail him as well.
Another factor that bodes ill for Lukashenka's future is his isolation from the ruling class in Belarus. In January, at the height of his energy-pricing dispute with Russia, Lukashenka appointed his 31-year-old son, Viktar, to the Security Council, granting the politically inexperienced young man a status equal to that of the KGB chief or the interior minister.
Some analysts have speculated that Lukashenka may be priming his son to serve as his successor. But the reason for the appointment actually seems to be much simpler -- the solitary president lacks qualified and trustworthy candidates to fill senior state positions and replace the battered and exhausted political veterans who have managed to remain in government.
Lukashenka is famous among state leaders for his idiosyncratic pronouncements and verbal meltdowns. Many of his sayings -- like "I will not lead my nation after the civilized world" -- have earned a place in the pages of post-Soviet political folklore. Hardly one among them can be commended for its wisdom or wit. But many are inadvertently funny because of their bizarreness, silliness, or even unintended obscenity.
Some of them, taken at face value, are terrifying -- such as the one in which Lukashenka, in a 1995 interview with Germany's "Handelsblatt" newspaper, praises Hitler's Third Reich as an example worthy of emulation for other nation builders.
Not everything connected with Germany and a certain Adolf Hitler was bad," he said. "The German order had been formed throughout centuries. Under Hitler this formation reached its peak. This is what conforms to our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of a president in it."
"Handelsblatt" prudently opted to remove this passage from the published text of the interview. But Belarusian Radio twice broadcast the recorded conversation in its entirety, raising a cry of indignation in some domestic and international media for the extreme callousness of his remark.
Did Lukashenka really mean what he said? Did he want to build a fascist state in Belarus? Many journalists were quick to say yes. But another explanation, odd as it may seem, is more plausible: Lukashenka, wanting to please his interviewers, had thought it right to praise German "order." Through the simplicity of his soul or lack of exposure to the West, it may be the Belarusian president simply did not realize that Hitler's contributions to that "order" were beyond mention, in Germany and elsewhere.
Even more disturbing is the fact that Lukashenka afterward flatly denied ever making such a statement. The Belarusian president does not like to admit his mistakes. This denial, along with the Hitler quote, was recalled by Russia's Channel One television in a January program portraying Lukashenka as a brazen liar.
Another odd move came in November 2006. While giving an interview to a group of Ukrainian journalists in Minsk, Lukashenka suddenly floated the idea of creating a Ukraine-Belarus union -- adding that such a project had a better chance of success than the languishing Russia-Belarus Union State.
Lukashenka clearly sensed trouble ahead. Anticipating problems with energy deliveries from Russia, he was eager to send a signal to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko -- himself no stranger to the strong arm of Russian energy politics -- that it was time for the two of them to get together for a talk. Chances are, however, that the pro-Western Yushchenko was as stupefied by the proposal as the journalists in Minsk.
More recently, in a January interview with the German daily "Die Welt," Lukashenka suggested Belarus was ready to be an "eager pupil" of the West and that he personally envisioned his country someday following the model of Germany or Sweden. His comments appeared to be a fleeting overture to the West. A week later, meeting with Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Lukashenka was back in traditional form -- pledging that Belarus will continue to serve as Russia's "outpost" in the West.
His most recent foreign interview, to the Reuters news agency, finds him not trying to make friends with anyone in particular. Neither Russia nor Europe are essential to Belarus's survival, he said in classically bullish mode.
The erratic nature of Lukashenka's public pronouncements defy literal interpretation. Building any hopes on his words is a senseless task. As long as Lukashenka eludes the pinch of an acute economic necessity, he'll stay in one place and won't lead his nation anywhere -- neither to Sweden, nor to Russia.
'Festival' Of Democracy
It is his narrow-mindedness, and not his shrewdness, that presents the biggest obstacle to easing Lukashenka onto a more democratic path. The president has a clear vision of his role in Belarus -- he is a provider who carefully attends to the concerns of the common people, and severely punishes those who do them harm. It is hard for him to envision a Belarus without Lukashenka. It is hard for him to envision a world in which other people feel differently.
The stagecraft behind Belarusian elections -- routinely criticized by observers -- is an exercise in simulated democracy that Lukashenka appears convinced is precisely what the people need. He drove this point home in comments following the March 2006 presidential vote handing him an unprecedented third term.
"How can a normal, reasonable, good, decent man -- I've told this to [election] observers -- say that this [election] process was undemocratic? We have made a festival out of this election," he said. "Do you know why I did this? [Because] polling stations were visited by my people, who some time ago supported me so stunningly and unexpectedly, when I was [a novice in politics], you remember, 10 years ago. And I will do everything possible to make more festivals of this sort for my people."
Lukashenka may be right when he asserts that for "his people" nationwide elections and referendums have so far been "festivals." On election day, many polling stations offer vodka, sausages, and other commodities at discounted prices, and most people rightfully enjoy taking advantage of such opportunities. As long as such discount prices are possible, the festival may go on.
But some of the perks -- including substantial oil and gas subsidies -- have already begun to dry up. The festival atmosphere may come to a sudden end once Belarusians are made to pay in full for everything they now buy at discount rates.
The reality is that Lukashenka has failed to build a self-sustaining economy or functional state institutions. Belarus under his rule looks like a failed state. Lukashenka's bizarre public boast that he falsified the 2006 presidential vote in order to give the opposition at least some of the votes only underscores his profound political failure.
"Yes, we falsified the last election. I have already told the Westerners about this," he told Ukrainian journalists in Minsk on November 23. "As much as 93.5 percent voted for President Lukashenka. But they say this is not a European figure. So we made it 86 [percent]. That was true. If we were to start recounting ballots now, I don't know what we would do with them. The Europeans told us before the election that if there were approximately European figures in the election, they would recognize our election. [So] we tried to make European figures."
Making election figures look more "European" appears to be an easy task for Lukashenka. Making Belarus look more "European" seems to be totally beyond his ability.