Europe’s last dictator
In a nail-biting election, the incumbent looks like scraping home
Oct 10th 2015 | MINSK
THE crisis in Ukraine has been painful for nearly everyone involved. Russia finds itself under sanctions and at loggerheads abroad. NATO faces as grave a challenge as any since the cold war ended. And Ukraine itself, dismembered and drained by war, struggles to recover even as the fighting in the east of the country grinds to a halt. Yet one clear winner has emerged from the mess: Alexander Lukashenko, the mustachioed strongman of Belarus, to Ukraine’s north.
Mr Lukashenko is a former collective-farm boss who has ruled Belarus for 21 years. He stands for his fifth consecutive presidential term on October 11th. To no one’s surprise, he will win. Known as “Europe’s last dictator”, he travels everywhere with his 11-year-old son, who packs a golden pistol and expects to be saluted by Belarusian generals.
Elections in 2010 ended with a violent crackdown on protesters and the jailing of Mr Lukashenko’s rivals. The European Union imposed sanctions and travel bans for top officials, including Mr Lukashenko. Yet he approaches the vote feeling secure at home and enjoying a renaissance abroad. He has Ukraine to thank.
When compared with the chaos that followed revolution in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Belarusians are inclined to see the virtues of Mr Lukashenko’s hardline emphasis on stability, says Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst—even though living standards are falling. Meanwhile, the Belarusian opposition is in disarray, with the old guard calling for a boycott of the election while others support a little-known candidate, Tatiana Korotkevich. No one is calling for demonstrations this time.
The wily president is also using the conflict in Ukraine to pose as a statesman. In a war involving its two biggest trading partners, Belarus adopted a largely neutral stance. Strikingly, Mr Lukashenko did not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He offered his capital, Minsk, as a platform for peace talks.
European politicians who long considered Mr Lukashenko to be beyond the pale now turn up at his palace. Western diplomats say they find Mr Lukashenko less objectionable than Russia’s president Vladimir Putin—hardly a fulsome compliment, but still a compliment.
In late August Mr Lukashenko released six political prisoners, including Mikola Statkevich, a former presidential candidate imprisoned since 2010. The EU hints that if the elections pass peacefully, it will lift some sanctions. Opponents of the regime are outraged. Standing up for democracy cost opponents of Mr Lukashenko their freedom and sometimes their lives, says Mr Statkevich; Europe’s advocacy of democratic values has been revealed as “just empty words”. European diplomats retort that they have little choice but to work with the government Belarus is lumbered with.
For Mr Lukashenko, the West serves as a counterweight to Belarus’s dependence on Russia. The Russian annexation of Crimea last year frightened the authorities, whose power depends on Belarusian independence. Though extremely close, the relationship with Russia is not without its tensions. The latest is Mr Putin’s demand that Belarus build a Russian air base outside Babruysk, south-east of Minsk. Mr Lukashenko opposes the idea, in part because the precedent of Russia’s naval base in Crimea rings alarm bells.
Belarus relies on Russian aid, which Mr Putin’s government cut this year. Thanks also to falling exports, Belarus’s GDP may shrink by 3.5% this year. For the first time, state-run firms are not raising salaries as a sop ahead of elections. This summer a big dairy factory started paying employees in condensed milk rather than cash. Desperate for money, Mr Lukashenko met the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, with a bouquet of flowers this month while in New York for the UN General Assembly.
It would, however, be naive to think that Mr Lukashenko wants to reorient Belarus towards the West. If anything, Belarusians’ preference for integration with Russia rather than with the EU has strengthened over the past couple of years, says Oleg Manaev of Minsk’s Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies. Belarus is an active member of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. And under a long-standing treaty it shares open borders and mutual defence commitments with Russia (when flying from Moscow to Minsk, flights leave from the domestic side). Mr Lukashenko, says an influential businessman, is appearing to cosy up to the West “so that the golden rain will fall from Russia”. The president stands ready to reap the harvest.