Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko in recent weeks has alternately defied Russia, flirted with Europe, and stressed his determination to go it alone.
By Heather Maher for RFE/RL (09/02/07)
Some prognosticators may be predicting the imminent demise of Belarus's beleagured leader. But Aleksandr Lukashenko begs to differ. In an interview this week, he suggested rumors of the death of his political career have been greatly exaggerated.
"If God gives me strength to fulfill all that I have promised to the Belarusian people, if health permits me and I achieve my goals, if I am still as active as you say I am, then I will tell you honestly, I will not abandon political struggle," Lukashenko told Reuters.
Is "Europe's last dictator" that dedicated to his job, or simply loathe to consider the alternative?
In fact, autocratic leaders like Aleksandr Lukashenko, irrespective of political philosophy, all share a key instinct - keeping themselves in power.
That's according to US journalist David Wallachinsky, the author of "Tyrant: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators," a detailed account of presidents, kings, and princes who rule their countries with an iron fist.
Wallachinsky divides dictators into three categories.
There are those who inherit their power from a family member, like Syria's Bashir al-Assad. There are those, like Cuba's Fidel Castro, who take over the country by force.
And then, Wallachinsky says, there are those who simply rise up through the political ranks to take power - as is the case with Lukashenko and other post-Soviet autocrats.
"In the case of Lukashenko, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, [Saparmurat] Niyazov of Turkmenistan, et cetera - these gentlemen were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, when communism collapsed in the Soviet Union," Wallachinsky says.
"They were able to transform themselves into the symbol of a new, independent country while retaining quite a bit of the old Soviet system."
Wallachinsky, who refreshes his list each year, ranks his subjects from one to 20, one being the worst.
The ranking is based on criteria such as violations of free speech and religion, rigged elections, an corrupt judiciary, and the inability to stage public protests or criticize the government without punishment.
In this year's list - due to be published 11 February, Lukashenko ranks 14th, the same position he held in 2006.
This puts the Belarusian leader slightly ahead of Karimov at No 8, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at No 5.
But it leaves him below a newcomer to the list, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who enters the ranking at No 20 - nudged in, perhaps, thanks to the space vacated by Niyazov, last year's No 8, who died in December.
The absolute worst living dictator, according to Wallachinsky, is President Omar Hasan Ahmad Al-Bashir of Sudan, who has been accused of orchestrating the murder and displacement of hundreds of thousands in his country's Darfur region.
Other world leaders on Wallachinsky's list are North Korea's Kim Jong-il (No 2), Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (No 3), China's Hu Jintao (No 4), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (No 7), and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan (No 15).
Of all the figures on Wallachinsky's list, Lukashenko is the only leader whom the journalist has had occasion to observe up close and in person.
At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Wallachinsky witnessed the Belarusian leader several nights in a row in a section of the ice hockey arena reserved for elite guests.
His overwhelming impression, Wallachinsky says, was that Lukashenko looked and acted like a "gangster."
"On the first couple of evenings, he showed up dressed in a suit and tie, as befits a world leader. And his bodyguards were dressed similarly," he says. "And then suddenly they started showing up in sports outfits - you know, track suits. [But] in no way did it change their appearance. They still appeared to be a political mafia."
In his research on dictators, Wallachinsky looks not only at the oppressive policies they impose on their citizens. He also examines details from their personal lives.
He says he does this to remind readers of the disturbing fact that these are real people, not invented monsters.
While researching Lukashenko's private life, Wallachinsky hit a dead end trying to find a picture of the president's wife. When he asked a group of Belarusian sports journalists at the Olympics, they said they had never seen her, or even a picture of her.
Wallachinsky found this missing link bizarre. He now says it helped him develop a theory about Lukashenko's personal demons.
"I got the impression that he was kind of ashamed of his background, that he wanted to be the sophisticated world leader, and if you met his wife, you'd know where he really came from," he says.
In fact, Lukashenko's wife, Halina, has never officially served as first lady. She lives alone in the small Belarusian city of Shklou, where Lukashenko held a job at the beginning of his career.
Lukashenko is now believed to live with a mistress, with whom he has a young child. But this side of his life is kept under wraps as well.
No easy out
So what does the future hold for the 53-year-old Lukashenko?
Tyranny expert Wallachinsky says this is a difficult time for the Belarusian leader, as he struggles to find a balance between the country's almost crippling economic dependency on Russia and growing pressure from the West to end its self-imposed isolation.
But Lukashenko's autocratic style is going to be a problem if he tries to forge new friendships, Wallachinsky predicts.
"Lukashenko's in a difficult situation, because this is not an era in which the European powers are willing to overlook human rights violations," he says. "He just stands out like a sore thumb in Europe. To be a dictator like he is is to be part of times gone by, from a European point of view."
So where does it leave Lukashenko if he is rejected by both his traditional ally, Russia, and a Europe that refuses to do business with a politician of his ilk?
In such a scenario, Wallachinsky believes, Lukashenko will do what many besieged dictators do when they need help - look to others who are just like him.
"If he's having trouble with the Europeans, and he's having trouble with the Russians, he'll do what a lot of other dictators do - he'll turn to the Chinese, he'll turn to the Iranians, he'll turn to that whole world of dictators who try to help each other. And he'll increase trade with China, with Pakistan, with Iran, with certain African nations if they have anything that he can use."
Lukashenko, in fact, has already forged ties with the leadership of countries likes of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. It's unclear, however, if those alliances will be enough to sustain his reign as "Europe's last dictator."