PROFILE: Belarusian President Lukashenko: "Father" or "psychopath"?

Minsk - His friends and supporters call him 'Batka' (Father), but to his critics, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is 'the last dictator in Europe.'

Since 1994, Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist.

A supporter of Stalinist methods and a strong centralised state, he has expressed regret over the break-up of the Soviet Union, and praised the governing skills of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

In public, Lukashenko appears as a loving father to his son Nikolai. The six-year-old was on Sunday allowed to cast the Belarusian leader's ballot. Nikolai sometimes sits on his knee during high-level political talks, Lukashenko said proudly.

Lukashenko is popular, especially among the poor. Belarus' centrally-planned economy, in contrast with neighbouring Russia and Ukraine, still guarantees its citizens employment, pensions sufficient to cover the cost of living, and free health care.

Lukashenko's diplomacy for more than a decade has supplied the country with cheap Russian oil and gas.

His government's priorities of heavy industry and machine-building laid the foundations for some economic growth, and - according to official statistics at least - have dampened the effects of the world financial crisis on Belarus.

True, Lukashenko's relations with the Kremlin have recently taken a turn for the worse, in no small part because Russia now is demanding market prices for energy sold to Belarus.

Lukashenko's unwillingness to hand over Belarus' oil and gas transportation networks to Russian corporations, and his refusal to recognise the Kremlin-supported region of South Ossetia as an independent state are other points of conflict.

Earlier this year, the Russian state-run television channel in three-part report denounced Lukashenko as a 'psychopath.'

But less than a week before the election, Lukashenko took the path of reconciliation, travelling to Moscow for a summit with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.

Born in 1956 in humble circumstances on the border with Russia, Lukashenko grew up without a father. He studied history and agriculture, and by 1987 ran a collective farm in his home district of Mogilev.

Belarus' 1991 independence brought him to prominence in parliament as a fighter against crime and corruption.

US diplomatic evaluation written in 2006, and made public recently by WikiLeaks, states Lukashenko would never voluntarily hand over power in Belarus.

When once asked about a possible successor, Lukashenko referred to the then four-year-old Nikolai.

'If we're going to talk about that, then I would prepare this little one. He's a great little guy,' he said.


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