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Belarus Protests Test Limits of Lukashenko’s Brutal, One-Man Rule

He jokes about working a dictatorship. He makes his generals salute his teenage son, who shares his penchant for dressing in army uniforms. He instructions a brutal safety service that makes individuals disappear. And when Covid-19 arrived, he instructed his individuals to play hockey, drive tractors and never fear about it.

Aleksandr Lukashenko, the embattled ruler of Belarus and probably the most enduring chief within the former Soviet Union, heads a regime that’s much less a one-party state than a one-person state. In 26 years as president, he has turned Belarus right into a strategically necessary and reliably authoritarian buffer between Russia and NATO-member democracies like Poland.

Clinging to energy amid mass protests this month, Mr. Lukashenko, the previous director of a Soviet collective pig farm, would possibly look like a relic of an period the world had forgotten, or barely seen. However years earlier than Vladimir V. Putin took energy, vowing to “clear up” Russia, Mr. Lukashenko made comparable guarantees to his nation, and blazed the path Mr. Putin would comply with: an obscure determine on an unlikely, meteoric rise to private rule.

Since a disputed election on Aug. 9, nonetheless, the largest demonstrations within the nation’s historical past have examined whether or not Mr. Lukashenko’s iron-fisted suppression of dissent can preserve him in energy after he claimed a landslide victory that’s extensively seen as fiction. As many as 100,000 protesters poured into central Minsk, the capital, on Sunday — a robust present of defiance in a rustic with solely 9.5 million individuals.

Mr. Lukashenko despatched his personal defiant message, flying by helicopter to his presidential palace and strolling off to a thank a squad of riot law enforcement officials with an automated weapon in his hand, accompanied by his son, who was additionally armed. Mr. Lukashenko, whose opponents typically name him mentally unstable, has warned currently of a potential NATO assault, claiming that he’s readying Belarus’s army to repel invaders.

The scene of a swaggering dictator with a gun highlighted how a lot he and his nation — whose nationwide anthem opens with the phrases “We, Belarusians, are peaceable individuals” — have modified since he rose to prominence within the early 1990s, promising safety from a bullying elite.

With a tough rural accent and an ill-fitting swimsuit, Mr. Lukashenko took the ground of the Belarus legislature in December 1993 to thunder in opposition to “chaos” and “crooks,” calling Belarusians “hostages of a monstrous, immoral and unprincipled system that manipulates and deceives the individuals.”

He reworked virtually in a single day from a provincial no one to an avenging angel, turning into the nation’s first elected president six months in a while pledges to struggle entrenched elites on behalf of the individuals.

At his inauguration, he quoted Abraham Lincoln on democracy whereas declaring that “the tip of anarchy has arrived.” At a reception after his swearing-in, he instructed George Krol, the senior American diplomat in Belarus on the time, that he felt a kinship with President Clinton as a result of of their shared humble origins.

“He was a populist chief, an outsider who spoke for individuals who felt they’d been victims — of democracy, of market economics, of the outdated Communist Celebration elites,” recalled Mr. Krol, now retired. “Everybody thought he was a bumpkin however they underestimated his ruthless acumen.”

After 26 years and 5 extra elections — each more rigged than the last, independent monitors say — Mr. Lukashenko is still president, still presenting himself as the tireless defender of the little guy. In February, he joked to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “our dictatorship has a distinctive feature: everyone gets some rest on Saturday and Sunday, but the president works.”

But his schtick is wearing thin. His winning 1994 slogan — “Neither with the left nor with the right, but with the people” — has been replaced by a new rallying cry from the street, chanted even by many of those who once saw him as their savior: “Go away! Go away!”

“When he started, he believed what he said and so did the people. They wanted to punish the elite and so they chose someone they thought would do this,” recalled Aleksandr Feduta, Mr. Lukashenko’s campaign manager in 1994, the last time Belarus held a free and fair election.

“He destroyed the system,” Mr. Feduta added. “But today he is the system.”

Denouncing two weeks of nationwide protests against his disputed re-election as the work of a few spoiled urbanites in Minsk in cahoots with devious foreigners, Mr. Lukashenko on Saturday traveled to the west of the country to rally his diminishing base.

“There are still some unsatisfied people in Minsk,” he told a crowd of cheering supporters, “But you should not worry about this. That is my problem. Trust me, we will succeed in no time.”

Whether he manages that will depend largely on the loyalty of his security apparatus, which has so far shown no sign of wavering in its commitment to Mr. Lukashenko.

It will also depend on Mr. Putin, Mr. Lukashenko’s longtime benefactor and on-again, off-again ally. Throughout his years in power, Mr. Lukashenko, 65, has blown hot and cold toward Moscow, which he accused last month of plotting to topple him. But now he sees Moscow as his best hope for resisting a wave of international criticism over the election, denounced by Europe and the United States as blatantly rigged.

The system he created is less a government than an eccentric one-man show in which all power and decisions flow from Mr. Lukashenko. His supporters call him “Batka,” an affectionate term for father that the president delights in. The economy is dominated by Soviet-era, state-owned factories and farms, all ultimately controlled by him. The Soviet youth organization, Komsomol, has been revived and is widely known as “Lukamol.”

“There is no party in Belarus. There are no independent power bases. It is just him,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus.

The only other person who might matter is Mr. Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, just 15, whom many view as the undeclared heir apparent.

Mr. Gould-Davies, now a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, recalled attending a reception hosted by the president in Minsk and having to shake hands with not only Mr. Lukashenko but also his son, who was then only around five years old. Generals in the Belarus military have for years had to salute the son, whose mother has never been officially identified but is believed to be Mr. Lukashenko’s former physician.

“The whole system is unorthodox and perhaps a little ridiculous. But it is not comical or benign in any way. It is extremely nasty,” Mr. Gould-Davies said.

Mr. Lukashenko’s government routinely harasses, jails and even tortures critics, some of whom have disappeared. It arrests journalists and quashes impartial media, and it brutally suppresses reveals of dissent.

Belarus, Mr. Krol mentioned, “isn’t North Korea” and “doesn’t simply seize individuals willy-nilly.” However in the event you cross Mr. Lukashenko, he mentioned, “you can be taught a lesson it’s possible you’ll not recuperate from.”

“He has always been cruel,” said Valery Karbalevich, the author of a lengthy Russian-language political biography of Mr. Lukashenko. “He is a fanatic for power. He has no real family life or friends and cannot even imagine having a life when he is not the leader.”

Many of his opponents call the president deranged, with an ample ruthless streak.

“He has always been crazy and very brutal,” said Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat who was imprisoned and tortured after running against Mr. Lukashenko in 2010. “He will do anything to keep power. Anything.”

That was evident this month when protesters took to the streets and riot police officers beat them savagely, killed at least two people, injured hundreds and arrested nearly 7,000.

He has additionally declared ice hockey, together with saunas and tractor-driving, as cures for Covid-19. On the top of the pandemic in March, he took to the ice and introduced: “There aren’t any viruses right here.”

Mr. Lukashenko has lengthy painted the West as a menace and appeared to Russia for assist — and as a potential method to seize vastly larger energy.

When President Boris N. Yeltsin ruled Russia within the 1990s, Mr. Lukashenko pushed for the formation of a “union state,” a unfastened merger between Belarus and Russia. With Mr. Yeltsin sick a lot of the time, Mr. Lukashenko believed that he may dominate the brand new entity and maybe even revive the Soviet Union with himself as its chief.

Belarus Radio, a state-controlled broadcaster, ramped up its sign and bombarded Russia with denunciations of free-market economics and soothing experiences about how, due to Mr. Lukashenko, Belarusians had been spared the chaos and distress visited on Russians.

Mr. Lukashenko’s ambitions, nonetheless, suffered a critical setback when, on Dec. 31, 1999, Mr. Yeltsin, sick and dispirited, out of the blue resigned, leaving a younger, energetic and likewise ruthless former Okay.G.B. agent, Vladimir V. Putin, to take over as Russia’s president.

“He misplaced his hyperlinks to society,” Mr. Karbalevich mentioned. “He was now not an outsider combating the elite, however was the chief of the elite.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting in Minsk.

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