20 Years of Lukashenka: The Perfect Dictatorship?
Hailed by Belarusian state TV for bringing independence and sovereignty to Belarus, media outside Belarus have offered somewhat different opinions of Lukashenka on his 20th anniversary as Belarus' leader. Here are three of the main narratives used on this occasion.
Narrative 1: Lukashenka Climbs the Greasy Pole
Conditions in which Lukashenka came to power. In Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a Polish daily, Michał Potocki argues that in a society still nostalgic for the USSR, Lukashenko’s chief opponents in 1994 – Zianon Pazniak (Belarusian Popular Front) and Stanislau Shuskevich, speaker of Parliament, stood little chance of winning.
He describes how Lukashenka came to build his political stature around the issue of corruption, and later how he essentially eliminated Shushkevich with a scandal concerning the embezzlement of eight kilogrammes of nails.
As his popularity grew, Lukashenka survived state TV attacks, an attempted assassination, and accusations of planting a bomb, and eventually went on to win the elections with 80% of votes.
Potocki notes that, once in power, Lukashenka swiftly dealt with the media, government, and courts, silencing the voices of other politicians in the game (many of whom were later ‘removed’ from the scene) who said that he would be a puppet leader.
Narrative 2: The Perfect Dictatorship?
The secret behind Lukashenka's longevity and what the future holds. In short, according to Deutsche Welle: his political dominance has emerged from populism, low demands of voters, financial support from Moscow, oppression of regime critics, a monopoly of the media and the abolition of self-administration - all of which have helped to create an atmosphere of fear.
It concludes that with the current Ukraine crisis, Lukashenka is himself afraid about what may happen but is also looking for ways to help consolidate his power. The article draws on interviews with Aleksandr Klaskouski (Belapan), Valery Karbalevich (Strategia), and Stanislau Shushkevich.
Meanwhile, Argemino Barro, writing for El Confidencial, wonders if Belarus can be called the “perfect dictatorship”, pointing to the low level of demonstrations and the relative economic stability. He contrasts the clean, Soviet-like appearance of modern-day Minsk with the opinions of experts such as Andrei Aliaksandrau and Yauheni Preiherman who reject the idea of the “perfect dictatorship” and explain Belarus’ dependence on Russia and the nature of the Vertical.
Finally, he reflects on why Lukashenka looks more relaxed with the West, concluding that it is due to what he describes as the theory of the “pendulum” in which Lukashenka simply oscillates between the EU and Russia to get as much as he can from both sides.
Anna Maria-Dyner, a political analyst, also highlights Lukashenka's apparent 'success' in creating a system that gives him the feeling of control, in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. Her main emphasis, though, is on the future. Events in Ukraine have proven to be a double-edged sword for Lukashenka - while his popularity received a much-needed boost, he also needs to demonstrate his loyalty to Russia.
Interestingly, Dyner questions if a 'Belarusianised' Belarus with European aspirations could be Lukashenka's only guarantee of independence, noting that a great deal of effort would be needed. In particular, this would require Belarus to create a new historical narrative which would reconcile Belarus' origins in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the myths connected to the Great Patriotic War.
She ends by asking what Belarusian reforms might look like, and how a political system of a country in which all of the authorities are beholden to one person can change.
Narrative 3: Can the EU Do More?
20 years of dictatorship in Belarus: "Europe is to blame". A short piece by Polskie Radio chiefly focuses on an interview with Belarusian political analyst Pavel Usov. Usov describes Lukashenka's rule as a ‘classic regime’ that has destroyed any and all democratic institutions and opposition, but has kept people’s support by providing ‘food and stability’.
He criticises the EU for being uninterested in Belarus prior to 2004, when a swathe of countries from Central and Eastern Europe either joined or became closer with the EU. By then, in his opinion, Lukashenka had strengthened his position too much for the EU to be able to influence events.
Meanwhile, BBC Russia analyses EU-Belarus-Russia relations in greater depth. Observing that Belarus has found itself in the same boat as the EU in recent months (e.g. over Crimea), they ruminate on the cyclical nature of EU-Belarus relations and attitudes within Belarusian society, measured by the latest IISEPS public polls.
Towards the end, it notes that Brussels has started a 'technical dialogue' with Belarus on modernisation. By not including the opposition, Brussels hopes to convince Belarus of the need for modernisation and to prepare the groundwork needed for eventual democratic reforms.
It concludes by quoting Andrew Wilson (European Council on Foreign Relations), who says the time for radical changes in Brussels' policy towards Belarus has not come, and that there are many other countries in the European Partnership who have already made the “European choice”. They also draw on an interview with Maryna Rakhlei of the German Marshall Fund.
And Finally… Attempts to Quantify the 20 Year Reign
40 facts about Lukashenka’s presidency. BBC Russia attempts to quantify Lukashenka’s regime in terms of its impact: Lukashenka’s 10 best-known projects, 10 most famous hostages, 10 most popular statements, and 10 of Belarus’ biggest losses.
…while The Moscow Times and Radio Free Europe prefer to emphasise the more ridiculous, and absurd aspects: Homophobia, Vote Rigging and Posturing - 20 years of Lukashenko and Lukashenka Unplugged: Two Decades Of Memorable Quotes.
Alexandra Kirby, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office