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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 142-156
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Dark Days in Belarus
With the more or less bloodless deposition of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in mid-2000, hopes rose that Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus—Europe's "last dictator"—might be toppled in similar fashion when Belarus's 7.2 million voters went to the polls to elect a president in September 2001. Those hopes, as it turned out, were dashed, and Lukashenka survives in power. This essay will attempt to explain why.
Born of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus was one of the forgotten "new independent states" during the early 1990s. With only 10 million citizens, it makes up 3.6 percent of the population and less than 1 percent of the territory of the former USSR. After the rigged presidential elections of September 2001, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called it Europe's "lone outlaw," while President George Bush singled out the country's lamentable human rights record in his Captive Nations Week proclamation. The Western press has dubbed Belarus "Europe's last communist state" and "the Jurassic Park of former Soviet republics." Freedom House's Nations in Transit 2001 study found Belarus to be a "despotic country" whose general performance regarding political and economic reform ranked it next-to-last among all ex-communist states, with only Turkmenistan scoring worse. The UN's most recent Global Report on Human Development also ranks Belarus's democratic transition near the bottom of the list. Belarus has only managed to make it onto the "Top Ten" lists of unsavory accomplishments, such as arms dealing, the muzzling of the media, and human trafficking.
While Belarus may raise eyebrows as a place where statues of Lenin still stand tall, the secret police is still officially known as the KGB, the anniversary of the October Revolution is still celebrated, and the largest newspaper is still called Soviet Belarus, it has always been important [End Page 142] from a geostrategic point of view. Located at a crossroads of Europe, Belarus continues to be a key border and transit state in Russia's "near abroad," providing sites for military bases as well as road and rail links to the West. Also crossing Belarusian territory are the main pipelines that carry Russian oil and natural gas westward.
Belarus's current notoriety is due to Lukashenka, who has provoked his own share of metaphors. The Western press calls him "the tyrant of Belarus" and "an international pariah." Born in 1954 in eastern Belarus, Lukashenka entered politics by securing election to the Belarusian Supreme Soviet in 1990. After Belarus gained independence, his big break came in 1993, when he was appointed chairman of a parliamentary committee formed to investigate corruption. Lukashenka used this platform to gain popularity by attacking the "corrupt nomenklatura" who had benefited from sweetheart privatization deals.
In July 1994, Lukashenka became a dark-horse candidate for the new office of the presidency. Eschewing ideology, he ran on a populist platform of continuing reforms but halting the country's economic slide. Lukashenka also campaigned for a closer union with Russia, falsely claiming that he was the only member of parliament who had voted against the dissolution of the USSR. Spouting a peasant dialect of mixed Russian-Belarusian and promising to investigate the "new rich," Lukashenka was seen by the common folk as "one of us." Young and charismatic, he positioned himself as an outsider and a "strong man" who would tame an unruly parliament. As a former mid-level agrarian functionary, he railed against "criminal" industrialists and the nomenklatura. Aided by several dramatic events, including a staged assassination attempt against himself, Lukashenka won 80 percent of the vote in a runoff upset over Prime Minister Vyachaslau Kebich.
As president, Lukashenka soon became known for his erratic statements and behavior. With his comb-over hairstyle and Stalinesque moustache, he likes his people to call him "Batka" ("Daddy"). Passionate about sports, he often appears on television in a tracksuit, plays ice hockey with the national team, and closes off streets in Minsk so he can roller blade. Lukashenka...