MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who began a fourth term as president on Monday after big street protests against his re-election, is a Soviet-style strongman who portrays himself as a man of the people while muzzling dissent.
The burly former state farm boss has dominated the ex-Soviet republic since taking office in 1994, doling out generous welfare and pensions from a command economy underpinned by cheap Russian gas and tax-free crude oil.
On Sunday, he secured nearly 80 percent of the vote in a poll that his opponents say was rigged and which brought tens of thousands out in protest on the streets.
Several presidential candidates and hundreds of opposition supporters were being held on Monday after riot police broke up opposition protests.
The mustachioed, blunt-speaking 56-year-old was dubbed Europe's "last dictator" by the Bush administration and has been equally treated as a pariah by the European Union for most of his rule.
But he has equally irked the Kremlin by his eccentric style of rule and has snubbed Moscow, Belarus's chief benefactor, several times on foreign policy issues.
Analysts say his overtures now to the West are motivated by concern for the sustainability of Belarus's Soviet-style command economy, but they see only cosmetic concessions to the West.
A keen ice hockey player, Lukashenko is proving himself adept at playing one side off against the other, reflecting the location of the country of 10 million people sandwiched between Russia and the European Union and NATO.
But he could face a rougher ride over the next five years. He patched things up with Moscow before the election with a deal over oil and gas pricing, but the ceasefire is short of a peace deal.
The European Union, three of whose member states border Belarus, will want to capitalize and press Lukashenko for economic and political liberalization.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the democracy and rights watchdog, on Monday condemned vote counting in the election as "flawed" and said the police had been too violent in dealing with demonstrators.
In typical combative style, Lukashenko hit back, defending the police, dismissing members of the opposition as being bent on "banditry" and denouncing the OSCE verdict as "amoral."
Lukashenko has used such straight speaking to good effect to burnish his image at home as a down-to-earth man of the people and father of the nation.
"SEVER BUT FAIR"
Severe but fair," is how he describes himself. His opponents, on the other hand, are "enemies of the people."
Reviled by the West and the domestic opposition for jailing critics and throttling independent media, Lukashenko enjoys broad support in rural areas and among older voters, many of whom know him affectionately as 'batka', or father.
"I am not ideal, I am a normal person just like you," he is fond of telling people.
His aversion to reform is a major draw with voters scared of economic experiments and the perceived harshness of capitalism.
In 1991, Lukashenko was the only member of Belarus's parliament to vote against the treaty that dissolved the Soviet Union. He shot to prominence two years later with an acid election campaign that demonized the country's leaders and propelled him to the presidency in 1994.
He has shown no sign of rescinding power since.
Lukashenko is married but lives separately from his wife, with whom he has two grown up sons. He has a third child, Nikolai, who is about six years of age.
The president has courted controversy by frequently taking Nikolai on official business and state visits. In 2009, the pair wore matching camouflage caps and uniforms to meet Belarussian generals, who were obliged to salute both father and son.
On Sunday, Nikolai, wearing a suit, cast his father's ballot.
(Writing by Matt Robinson and Richard Balmforth; editing by Mark Heinrich)