Lukashenko: Belarus autocrat determined to retain power

·4-min read
Lukashenko is said to have personally ordered the intercept of a European airliner

Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko has retained his grip on power for nearly 30 years by hounding opponents, jailing and allegedly torturing dissidents, and muzzling independent media.

Lukashenko's latest gambit -- re-routing an EU passenger plane with an opposition journalist on board -- drew ire from Western leaders who vowed their toughest response yet to his regime, long accused of serious rights violations.

He weathered historic opposition protests last year but has had to lean increasingly heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain at the helm of his ex-Soviet country and has further alienated the West.

In the wake of the demonstrations, which erupted after his claim to a sixth term in a presidential election in August, the 66-year-old moved swiftly to snuff out civil society in order to rout vestiges of dissent.

That clampdown had already spurred sanctions on his regime from the European Union and Washington.

But after Lukashenko on Sunday scrambled a MiG-29 jet to forcefully land a European plane in Minsk and arrest opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, Western leaders vowed a firmer response and more penalties.

They accused Lukashenko of having carried out an "act of state terrorism", banned Belarusian airlines from the EU and urged carriers based in the bloc not to fly over its airspace.

The moustachioed leader -- often dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- has yet to speak about the incident, but Belarusian officials said Lukashenko personally ordered the fighter jet to intercept one of his most important opponents.

Analysts said that Lukashenko, who is known for erratic behaviour and eyebrow-raising pronouncements, nonetheless had had a clear goal in mind with the forced landing.

"The regime wants to strike terror into the minds of the opposition," said Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at London-based Bluebay Asset Management.

- Western 'Blitzkrieg' -

The protests last year were seen as the most significant challenge to Lukashenko's 27-year rule, but they had since lost momentum following his sweeping efforts to silence criticism.

Several people died during the unrest in the wake of the election, thousands were detained, hundreds reported torture in prison.

Some opposition leaders received lengthy prison terms. Others, like Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to have won the August polls, were forced from the country.

At the height of the protests, Lukashenko viewed one rally from a helicopter in a bullet-proof vest and carrying a Kalashnikov, describing the demonstrators as "rats".

In February, having weathered the demonstrations, he told loyalists at a congress in Minsk that the country had fended off a Western-orchestrated "Blitzkrieg".

"We held on to our country," he said at the conference, at which he also delayed promised reforms.

- Soviet time warp -

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has kept his landlocked homeland wedged between Russia and EU member Poland largely stuck in a Soviet time warp.

A quarter of a century after the collapse of the USSR, Belarus still has a security service called the KGB, adheres to a largely command economy and looks to former master Moscow as its main creditor and energy provider.

His authoritarian streak stretches to his views on women, and he said ahead of the vote last year that Belarus could not possibly have a woman leader.

Rights group Amnesty International accused Lukashenko's government of "misogyny" and targeting female activists with discriminatory tactics.

He concluded a 2012 argument over rights with Guido Westerwelle, Germany's openly gay foreign minister at the time, by saying: "Better to be a dictator than gay."

His youngest son Nikolai has, since he was a toddler, routinely appeared with Lukashenko at state functions and on official foreign trips, raising speculation he might be grooming a successor.

While Belarus remains the most closely aligned former Soviet republic to Moscow, Lukashenko insists he is no Kremlin patsy, often switching from speaking Russian to Belarusian to show his independence.

Lukashenko watched with worry as Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and to distance himself from Moscow, he dangled the promise of political and social change long demanded by the West.

But since the protests erupted, he has warmed again to closer ties with Putin and the two leaders have discussed deeper integration, even though Lukashenko has ruled out outright unification.

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