By James Brooke
Next week, Belarus will be back in the spotlight as European Union officials meet to impose visa sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko and the top leaders of the government. Several EU foreign ministers have charged that Lukashenko stole the Dec. 19 presidential election. Seeing the Belarus leader as illegitimate, they want to keep him from visiting their countries.
Poland is making it clear that visa sanctions should not target all 10 million people of Belarus. Last week, Warsaw waived visa fees for normal Belarussians. Instead, the proposed sanctions target the man called by critics, “the last dictator in Europe.”
Three weeks after the Belarus elections, most of the politicians who dared to run against the president remain in jail. Police beat the two most popular candidates, Andrei Sannikov and Andrei Neklayev, so badly that they cannot be presented before photographers.
The day before the election, these two candidates gave the best attended press conference of the campaign, speaking before a dozen cameras from international television networks. On the election night, policemen attacked Neklayev, beating him unconscious in front of reporters. Later that evening, I walked with Sannikov, conducting an interview as he headed a peaceful march down the central avenue of Minsk. About 90 minutes later, police attacked this well known leader, a former diplomat, breaking his leg and bloodying his head.
Officially, Lukashenko won 80 percent of the vote, and Sannikov came in second, with 2.5 percent. If the vote tally is true, what is the president afraid of?
Western officials say that independent exit polls show that Lukashenko did not win enough votes to avoid a second round — 50 percent plus one vote.
Whatever the real numbers might be, some are saying he has cracked down hard on dissident politicians and journalists, because hard economic times loom this spring. This year, Russia is slashing the subsidies that long underwrote the “Belarus miracle:” virtually unchanged living standards since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There is an additional element: Lukashenko is now being Lukashenko.
After reluctantly posing as a democrat last fall, the real Lukashenko jumped out of the closet on election night. This is the well known hockey playing, former state farm manager who sees politics as a hard contact sport. The next day, in his post-election press conference, the president said that politicians who whine about being hit over the head are sissies.
In fact, none of his opponents have complained publicly about being attacked by police. They are being held incommunicado, locked up in “isolator” cells of a secret police force that in Belarus still is called the KGB.
The two hour press conference, televised live, gave the world a good portrait of the man who believes he now has a mandate to run his Central European nation through 2015, making a total of 21 years in power.
I watched the press conference as I packed my bags in my Minsk hotel room, the hours on my 4-day journalist visa draining away. Soon, it occurred to me that I was watching a Slavic version of Hugo Chavez.
This was not the charismatic Venezuelan army officer I followed on the presidential campaign trail in 1994. But the contemporary, bloated version, man who keeps a firm grip on all levers of power, convinced that he is the “salvador de la patria” — the savior of the nation.
In Minsk, the Belarussian version referred to his political rivals as “enemies of the people.” While the phrase is Stalinist, the thought is Louis IV. France’s Sun King liked to say “l’etat c’est moi” – the state is me.
Facing rows of sycophants in the press conference hall, Belarus’ president basked before a sea of sympathetic faces. They chuckled at every witticism, earnestly soaked up every morsel of wisdom, and clucked in agreement at every paternal scolding from a leader who calls himself “severe, but fair.”
Presumably, the audience was stacked with state employees and business people whose personal fortunes depend on presidential whim.
One journalist was so nervous with excitement at being picked to ask the first question, that she flubbed her lines. President Lukashenko indulgently allowed her to repeat the question.
“Mr. President,” she asked again, still trembling with excitement before national television. “When will the inauguration be?”
A better question might have been: how long will this go on?
With all levers of power in his control, Lukashenko exit may be decided by biology.
He could die of a heart attack tomorrow afternoon. But that is unlikely for a physically vigorous 56-year-old who presumably gets the best medical care in his nation. Good health could mean the Fidel Castro option. Sixteen years in power could stretch to 60.