Lukashenko - Europe's 'last dictator'

Minsk - When Alexander Lukashenko was asked if he expected opposition protests to follow his procession to a fourth term as president of Belarus, he had an icily menacing answer ready.

"What is awaiting supporters of the protest - read our laws," he said as he cast his ballot. "Do not worry - there will not be anyone on the square tonight."

In the event, tens of thousands of people rallied in central Minsk to protest Lukashenko's near 80% landslide victory on the back of a gargantuan 90% turnout.

But by the early hours of the morning, no-one was left as the security forces carried out a massive sweep, netting hundreds of protestors, clubbing several and arresting all but two of the opposition candidates.

There had been hints Lukashenko wanted these elections to receive a more positive blessing from the West than previous polls in 2001 and 2006 and there had been a cautious loosening of controls on civil society.

Acrobatic political gymnast

But the sight of armoured riot police filing through Minsk like an invading militia will likely put an end to ideas that Lukashenko has softened after 16 years in power and is ready to embark on EU-inspired democratic reform.

Lukashenko, 56, was memorably described by the US administration of ex-president George W Bush as presiding over Europe's "last true remaining dictatorship".

The mercurial Belarusian strongman has kept his critics on their toes by some acrobatic political gymnastics this year, stepping back from a traditional alliance with Russia that raised expectations of a rapprochement with the West.

His foreign minister even met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this month - an encounter unthinkable two years ago - agreeing a landmark deal to eliminate Belarus' stocks of highly-enriched uranium by 2012.

But the man who likes to be known as "batka", a peasant word for dad, has never yet shown any sign of abandoning his unpredictable nature.

Rigged elections

On Sunday he brought his six-year-old son Kolya to the polling station, the latest outing for a young boy who has already attended official meetings and even met Pope Benedict XVI.

"He is my talisman, my cross - so I wear him," Lukashenko once said of his son, the fruit of an extra-marital relationship.

Lukashenko has always brushed off the allegations his hold on power has been secured by foul play.

But last year he made the characteristically bizarre admission that he rigged the 2006 polls to lower his own popularity.

"I gave the order for it to be not 93%, but something around 80, I can't remember how much. Because when you get over 90, this is not accepted psychologically. But it was the truth," he said.

According to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, US diplomats concluded after the 2006 election that a "defiant Lukashenko intends to stay in power indefinitely and sees no reason to change his course".

It also described him as "clearly disturbed".

Troublemaker in the West

The son of a single mother, Lukashenko rose through the ranks of Communist Party youth organisations to head a group of agrarian enterprises and construction material shops.

He soon used that base to win a seat on the republic's Supreme Soviet, where he became famous for being the only lawmaker to vote against a pact dissolving the Soviet Union in December 1991 - a distinction he used to ride to the presidency in July 1994.

Lukashenko rose to prominence in the West as a troublemaker in September 1995, when a hot air balloon carrying two US nationals strayed into Belarusian air space during an international race.

The vessel was shot out of the air, killing both crew members.

Lukashenko then pushed for a Russia-Belarus union that could potentially land him a senior seat in the Kremlin itself. But in recent months an unprecedented chill has set in on Kremlin-Minsk relations.


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