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Authoritarian system: “Europe’s last dictator”: Lukashenko celebrates anniversaries

Lukashenko, known as Europe’s last dictator, has ruled Belarus for three decades. In his anniversary summer, he will celebrate 30 years in office and his 70th birthday. And how long will he stay?

Minsk (dpa) – The personality cult surrounding ruler Alexander Lukashenko knows hardly any limits on state television in Belarus. The “president”, as he is still respectfully called, is present every day in the news and in the documentaries on the occasion of his summer of anniversaries.

The autocrat, described as Europe’s last dictator, was first elected president 30 years ago – on July 10. In a country struggling with its newfound independence, the former director of a state-owned agricultural enterprise (sovkhoz) promised to stick to the Soviet way of life. The anniversary of his first inauguration will be on July 20. And next month, on August 30, he will be 70 years old.

“Lukashenko is firmly in the saddle thanks to the support of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin. And he is evidently preparing for the next presidential election in a year,” Belarusian political scientist Valery Karbalevich told the German Press Agency. “I see no threat to his power. The end of the dictatorship is not in sight.”

Karbalevich, who lives abroad for fear of political persecution, speaks of an “iron and totalitarian regime” that is aimed at only one person.

It has long been forgotten that in 2020 Lukashenko declared that this current sixth term would be his last. At that time, after a quarter of a century in power, he violently suppressed protests by hundreds of thousands of angry Belarusians against the presidential election, which was overshadowed by unprecedented allegations of fraud.

Despite amnesty, many political prisoners remain

To date, human rights activists count more than 1,000 political prisoners in the country. At the beginning of this month, Lukashenko promised that he would release some of his critics as part of a large amnesty as part of a humanitarian gesture. In fact, there have been a good dozen so far. “But there are still many arrests of dissidents,” as the human rights center Vyazna, which is banned in Belarus, also noted.

The expert Karbalevich believes that Belarus is significantly less free than Russia. “People are arrested because they subscribe to news from independent media on their cell phones,” he says. The KGB secret service, feared for its brutality even in Soviet times, keeps the country, which is the last country in Europe to still carry out the death penalty, in check.

Above all, the opposition working in exile around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya denounces political persecution, torture and other crimes against humanity in Belarus. Tikhanovskaya was considered the actual winner of the presidential election at the time. Her husband Sergei remains in prison.

The politician, who has been put on the wanted list by Minsk as an extremist, is building up strategic contacts abroad with a kind of government in exile made up of high-profile experts in the event of a change of power in Belarus. And at meetings with Western heads of state, she is primarily pushing for sanctions, for the punitive measures to remain in place and be made more severe.

Support for Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine

Lukashenko smiles away the confrontation with the West – and has long been largely economically and politically dependent on its large neighbor Russia. Since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, Lukashenko has been one of Kremlin chief Putin’s most important allies. Belarus not only gave the Russian armed forces access to its territory for attacks on Ukraine. The country, which has long been industrially weak, is now considered an important arms producer for Putin’s invasion.

Experts like Karbalevich still see no indication that Belarus is using its own troops in the war. The military is poorly prepared and there is widespread opposition to the war among the population, he says. From Russia’s point of view, Lukashenko is nevertheless useful for the war against Ukraine. The ruler of Minsk also fully accepts Russia’s interpretation that the war is primarily a confrontation with the USA and the West.

And like Putin, Lukashenko also occasionally makes nuclear threats. Russia, which created a barely active union state with Belarus, also stationed Iskander missiles with nuclear warheads not far from the Polish border. Lukashenko has since boasted that Belarus is now a nuclear power again after giving up its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Putin has control over the weapons.

Personnel renewal in Minsk

“Lukashenko’s dependence on Putin has grown. But I wouldn’t say that he is Putin’s puppet,” says Karbalevich. He shows that he is active in foreign policy by traveling to places like Africa and China.

The new foreign minister is Maxim Ryzhenkov. Ryzhenkov, who most recently headed the presidential administration, replaced Sergei Aleinik, who was considered disorganized and weak.

Lukashenko recently caused a stir in domestic politics when, following massive criticism of the inefficiency of the state apparatus, he replaced several hardliners with roots in the security apparatus with comparatively moderate officials. For example, he brought Ambassador Dmitri Krutoj back from Moscow to the most important hub of his power apparatus in order to make him the new head of the presidential administration. The economist, only 43 years old, was once the country’s youngest economics minister and, as Belarusian governor, also had the powers of a deputy head of government in Moscow. He is considered an assertive manager.

Preparing for a seventh term – and health problems

Experts see these personnel changes in several ministerial posts, as well as the amnesty, as contradictory signals from Lukashenko. “The release of the first political prisoners was welcomed in the West, but anti-Western rhetoric continues. Liberalization is not to be expected,” says Karbalevich. At the same time, the personnel changes in the power apparatus show domestically that the system has not become rigid.

Artjom Shraibman, an analyst who also fled abroad, sees this as preparation for a seventh term in office. “Lukashenko wants to freshen up his regime, give it momentum and dynamism through new faces, but without letting them take the helm,” he writes in an article for the Carnegie think tank.

Karbalevich expects Lukashenko to remain in power as long as his health allows. “It is clear that he has problems with his legs when walking,” he said. In the past, there has been speculation that the 69-year-old could be seriously ill. At one point, he was not seen on television for days, which sparked hopes among the opposition in exile that the dictatorship would end. But Lukashenko is currently active and shows daily on television that he continues to hold the reins of power firmly in his hands.

Source: Stern

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