"The history of Germany is similar to the history of Belarus. Germany was raised from ruins thanks to firm authority and not everything connected with that well-known figure Hitler was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and attained its peak under Hitler."

Alexander Lukashenko
Illustration by Laura Hempel
Europe's last dictator's democracy lessons

It takes courage to express something positive about Hitler. One needs to be a self-confident lateral thinker, especially if one happens to be a president of a country with a population of nearly 10 million, situated in the middle of Europe. Yet there are more traits about Alexander Lukashenko that make him appear different in the eyes of the rest of the continent that fortunately  managed to rid itself of various dictatorships throughout the 20th century. Never mind his deep respect for Saddam Hussein, Mugabe and Milosevic - just look at his moustache, his hair and his gestures.

However, looking like a time traveller from the golden age of socialism doesn't make you a harmless person.  Lukashenko, a graduate of history and agriculture with a CV that includes spells working for KGB, the Red Army and running a collective farm, became the President of Belarus in a free and democratic election in 1994.  What followed was a return to the familiar soviet model with all its attributes like five-year plans; protecting the nation from the enemies stalking through the borders form North, West and South; winning one election after another and the remorselessly suppressing any internal opposition. Lukashenko seems to have created a world of his own, banning anything that could remind him of the alternative reality outside. For example, both the flag of the EU and the flag of the Belarussian People's Republic declared in 1918, that later became the country's flag after the fall of the USSR are illegal.

Lukashenko made headlines in spring 2008 by condemning the celebrations to mark the 90th anniversary of the declaration of   independence in 1918. Sergei Chernooki, a young journalist from Minsk, reported:

"On March 25th 2008 Belarussians all over the world celebrated Independence Day at the 90th anniversary of Belarussian People's Republic. In Minsk several thousands people took to the streets. In a short while they were surrounded by specially trained police forces using all their skills to cause the people as much harm as they could. Backed with total impunity, Belarussian policemen were ready to fulfill any order. I believe the metal shoes and gloves used by police are supposed to be illegal ,but that appeared not to be the case in Belarus, especially not that day."

Less than a decade ago Lukashenko did not hesitate to establish death squads in his battle against the opposition, dissidents claim The legal proceedings concerning deaths of five most prominent opponents were all abandoned in 2003, apparently for good. These murders were subsequently investigated internationally, yet still people are not allowed to demand a domestic investigation.

Prior to this year's parliamentary election on the 28th of September the instruments of persuasion seemed to be reduced to dismissing, fiscal controls, exmatriculation and arrest for swearing in public places. Nevertheless, Lukashenko warns:

"If the West does not recognise the results of parliamentary elections this time around and they turn out to be undemocratic in Western politicians' view, the Belarussian authorities will break off all diplomatic ties with them."

That Lukashenko seems to be supported by a majority of the Belarussians shouldn't be a surprise. After all, thanks to his good relations with Russia, oil and gas are extremely cheap and this has been providing a kind of welfare in the country. By contrast, Belarus' neighbours, like Poland and the Ukraine, have struggled with much higher costs of  transformation than anyone could have had expected.  The man, who once named himself a "Christian-Orthodox atheist", is called by many "Batka"  ("daddy") with love and true admiration. Yet the influence of the state propaganda cannot be underrated: every stream of information is tightly controlled.

In the ageing society of Belarus (half of the population is older than 37) there is no chance for a "colorful" revolution like the one in Ukraine, for example.  On the other hand, only 5% of the population would like Belarus to become part of the Russian Federation, although the danger of being swallowed by the big brother is more evident than ever. In these circumstances, Lukashenko, who is not allowed to enter any EU member state for the following year, has started flirting with the West. His first step to rapprochement seems to have been very well thought out. He has just hired a PR legend, Timothy Bell, the man who created Margaret Thatcher.

"Europe's last dictator" certainly belongs to our era.

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