With a gray comb hairstyle, a chevron-shaped mustache, and a strong rural accent, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager and small communist officer, became the only Belarusian Soviet legislator to vote against his independence from Russia in 1991. .
Three years later, he came to power promising to “reintegrate” the two nations, but only on his own terms.
Lukashenko was just 39 years old when he won the election – an inexperienced but steadfast reformer with a high level of approval.
The mid-1990s were dark and disappointing, with criminal gangs, flat inflation, and a paralyzed economy; Lukashenko offered Belarusians “stability” in the face of the chaotic transition and crime to capitalism in neighboring Russia and Ukraine.
“All [plant and factory] closed, there were empty shelves in the shops and people gathered in the city squares. I remember the price of bread went up 18 times in one day, ”he told a Russian newspaper in 2009.
Middle Belarusians still remember their heyday, and commitments that have never been fulfilled.
“I thought it saved us from the‘ wild capitalism ’of the 1990s, and I voted for it twice,” said 57-year-old Belislav, who runs a group of construction workers in a Moscow suburb.
“But the Russians survived and are much better than they were in the 1990s, and than we are. And we are 30 years behind, ”Vladislav, who kept his last name, told Al Jazeera because he was afraid of being persecuted at home.
Lukashenko was the first president of Belarus, a position that no one has yet held.
Last year he won his sixth term in a controversial election that disrupted Minsk’s relations with Western governments.
A turning point
Following the vote, Belarusian police and intelligence services attacked, arrested and tortured thousands of protesters who had been rallying for weeks against the victory of the August 20, 2020 elections, according to witnesses, opposition leaders and rights groups.
Like the opposition, the West said the election had been exchanged.
The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president and yes imposed penalties which hampered the economy and isolated a longtime ruler who remains Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But despite being sidelined and marginalized, Lukashenko heightens the image of his evil boy by clearly challenging the West.
“I do not care what you say about the President of Belarus in the European Union. It was not the EU that chose me, ”he told the BBC on 22 November, adding that US President Joe Biden had been chosen as“ illegal ”.
In recent weeks, the West has accused him of execution migration crisis thousands of refugees, mostly from the Middle East, arrive in Belarus to cross the border into Poland or Lithuania.
“His behavior over the past year has shown that political isolation has turned him into a delusional, paranoid and petty man,” said Ivar Dalek, a policy adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Commission, a human rights watchdog.
“What you see is an unstable and dangerous man who desperately clings to power, a power that is believed to belong only to him personally,” he told Al Jazeera.
A small USSR
But this is not the first time Lukashenko has tried to stay submerged in political hot waters.
Called the “last dictator of Europe” 20 years ago, when Putin was seen as a newcomer to Western politics, Lukashenko is accustomed to Western criticism and punishment.
“He’s a tactical genius; in the wrong situation, he can go back a little bit or play for a while until the outside pressure is over,” said Al Jazeera researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany, Nikolay Mitrokhin.
Lukaxenko’s critics have spent years silencing him through beatings and arrests, as documented by rights groups. Some were imprisoned, others escaped, and others disappeared without a trace.
Mitrokhin said what helped mostly fight the city’s dissidents was mainly a cohort of police and intelligence officers hired from villages with higher than average wages.
“He created a system of operation of his own rule based on the energy of the big fists who used to go through the army and the intelligence service, who hated ‘urban slickers’ and therefore reluctant to obey every order given by Lukaxenko.” yours.
Under Lukashenko, Belarus remained a mini-USSR stored in the amber, and its rule was based on three axes, observers say.
First, the Soviet-era collective farm controlled the economy by manufacturing factories, machinery, and fertilizers that processed discount Russian raw materials. The control prevented the emergence of millions of oligarchs who played a huge role in money and ties in Russia and Ukraine.
Second, he did his best to slow down the formation of the middle class: the rich, the pro-Western, and some of his biggest critics.
This new-born middle class, which rose up against him in protests last year, forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Ukraine and the EU.
Third, he formed a symbiotic political alliance with the Kremlin.
In 1997, Lukashenko signed an agreement with Russia to create a “union state” with a single government, legislation and currency. He hoped to replace the sick Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who stopped the merger after Putin came to power in 2000.
Lukashenko also used uprisings in favor of the neighboring Ukraine in neighboring Ukraine in 2005 and 2014 as an excuse to provide the Kremlin with $ 1 billion in loans, trade concessions, and political support.
“There is no depth in his maneuver”
Today, Lukashenko’s political value has sunk lower than ever as the three axes of his rule are shaking.
“Lukaxenko ‘s crisis is caused by the neglect of these factors, which he still controls [economic] active, but lacks depth in his maneuver while creating a creative middle class, ”said Al Jazeera, an analyst living in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, Aleksey Kushch.
The migration crisis and the forced landing of a Ryan Air passenger plane in May forced the arrest of one in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Belarusian dissident, Accelerated Lukashenko becoming an international bogeyman.
“A year ago, Lukashenko was seen as a usurper who took power and waged war against his people,” said Alexander Opeikin, head of a successful Minsk handball club, before taking part in last year’s protests and looking for fugitives.
“Now it is clear that Lukashenko is a threat to the security of the region, a man who can be called an international terrorist based on his actions,” Opeikin told Al Jazeera, fleeing to Ukraine.