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10 August 2023

Alexander Lukashenko: The broker of Belarus

The Belarussian dictator has entangled himself further in Russia’s war.

By Katie Stallard

Earlier this year it seemed as if Alexander Lukashenko might be dead. Or at least dying. The Belarusian dictator was visibly unwell during the Victory Day commemorations in Moscow on 9 May and unable to walk the short distance to the wreath-laying ceremony with Vladimir Putin. Five days later, he missed Belarus’s National Flag Day celebration for the first time in his three decades in power. There were reports that he had been rushed to hospital in Minsk. He reappeared with a heavily bandaged arm and a hoarse voice on a tour of a military base on 15 May that was clearly intended to show he was still alive and in command.

In June Lukashenko underwent an even more remarkable resurrection. The 68-year-old autocrat, who has cut an increasingly pathetic figure of late as he becomes ever more dependent on Putin for his political survival, suddenly found himself with a starring role in the drama surrounding Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny on 24 June. ­According to Lukashenko’s version of events, which he relayed with glee in a televised meeting with his officials three days later, he single-handedly saved Russia from civil war.

“I suggested to Putin not to rush,” Lukashenko said, casting himself as the wise elder statesman who had counselled the emotional Russian president. “‘Come on,’ I said, ‘Let’s talk with Prigozhin, with his commanders.’ To which he told me, ‘Listen, Sasha, it’s useless. He doesn’t even pick up the phone; he doesn’t want to talk to anyone’.” Lukashenko persevered, insisting that a “bad peace is better than any war”.

Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, was similarly in a “semi-mad state” when reached by phone during the stand-off, Lukashenko recalled, spitting obscenities and vowing to go all the way to Moscow. But here, too, the Belarusian dictator urged reason, warning Prigozhin that if he did not call off his rebellion, he would “just be crushed like a bug”. Prigozhin later ­announced that he was turning his forces around, and Lukashenko said the mercenary leader had agreed to leave Russia for Belarus

There is reason to be sceptical of his self-aggrandising account. It is still unclear what Lukashenko’s precise role was during the crisis. Yet Putin did thank him for “his contribution in peacefully resolving the situation” and the Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov pronounced him “worthy of the title Hero of Russia”.

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“In the short term, he won,” Franak Viačorka, the chief adviser to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said from Vilnius. “Lukashenko won public attention. He became an international player, and he sounds like he saved the world from nuclear war, so of course this makes him happy… But in the longer run, he just put another Russian chain around his shoulders.”

[See also: The fake tsar]

Born in 1954 in a poor village in eastern Belarus, Lukashenko was raised by a single mother who worked as a ­milkmaid, and he was bullied at school by other boys because he didn’t have a father. He served in the Soviet army and worked his way up through the Communist Party ranks to become the director of a collective pig farm in 1985, where he was once accused of beating a tractor driver with a shovel for coming to work drunk.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lukashenko leveraged his tough ­upbringing and rural accent to reinvent himself as a populist politician who would fight ­corruption and rescue Belarus from the “crooks” and the “chaos” that had taken hold. He won the 1994 presidential election with 80 per cent of the vote and set about building a cult of personality around himself as the Batka, or father of the nation.

“Lukashenko seized on the popular sentiment of dissolution in the early years following the Soviet collapse,” explained Katia Glod, a policy fellow at the European Leadership Network and Centre for European Policy Analysis. The Belarusian leader changed the constitution in 1996 to expand his powers and dissolved the parliament that had been threatening to impeach him. He also drew Belarus closer to Russia, signing a treaty with Boris Yeltsin to form a union state in 1999, which Lukashenko, who was then the up-and-coming strongman, perhaps once hoped to lead.

“This allowed him to receive gas and oil from Russia at significantly discounted prices,” said Glod, “which made the Belarusian economy rather competitive, especially as far as refining Russian crude and selling oil products to the West were concerned.”

Over the two decades that followed, Lukashenko consolidated his personal control – abolishing presidential term limits in 2004 and strengthening his grip on the state security services – while attempting to play Russia off against the West. After Putin started the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Lukashenko offered himself as a “neutral” mediator, hosting talks that resulted in two ceasefire deals known as the Minsk Agreements, although both soon broke down.

Lukashenko welcomed the then US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to Minsk in February 2020, and held joint training exercises with the Royal Marines the following month as he attempted to resist closer integration with Russia by proving to the Kremlin that he had other options. But his geo-political balancing act collapsed later that year as Lukashenko was forced to turn to Russia for help suppressing the mass protests that erupted over what were widely viewed as rigged elections in August 2020. (The EU and the US no longer recognise him as the legitimate president.)

Lukashenko had already lost public support over his handling of the Covid pandemic, which he said could be cured by playing ice hockey, driving tractors and drinking vodka, but the summer of 2020 brought the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history. At their height, he was pictured wielding a rifle and wearing body armour at the presidential residence as he ordered a brutal crackdown.

“After the 2020 protests, Lukashenko survived entirely at the expense of the Kremlin’s political and economic support, along with repression,” Glod said. Yet there has been a price. “He has given in a lot on foreign and defence policy and is slowly giving in to Russia’s creeping economic expansion.” This has meant allowing Putin to use Belarus as a staging ground to invade Ukraine – although he has avoided committing Belarusian troops – and to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons.

While he is clearly revelling in the attention, Lukashenko’s role in defusing the Prigozhin mutiny has not diminished his dependence on Russia. At best, he has won some flattering headlines and reminded ­Putin of his utility. But in the process, he has agreed to let an unstable warlord and an unknown number of his fighters set up camp just over 100km from Minsk. “The Belarusian elites will not like the idea of having Prigozhin there,” Viačorka said. “We are in touch with mid-level ­connections almost everywhere and we see how jealously and nervously people are watching these developments.”

In recent years Lukashenko has tried to keep Belarus isolated, Viačorka explained, and to instil the message through the state propaganda apparatus that the outside world is chaotic, and Russia’s war is happening far away. “Well, he has just brought this reality to Belarus, and I think it will create a lot of troubles.” Lukashenko might want to enjoy his victory lap while he can.

This article was originally published on 5 July 2023.

[See also: The left must embrace law and order]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia