President of Belarus
Born August 30, 1954, in Kopys, Vitebsk, Belarus. Education: Earned degrees from the Mogilev Teaching Institute, 1975, and Belarusian Agricultural Academy, 1985.
Addresses: Office—c/o Embassy of Belarus, 1619 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
Served in the Border Guards, 1975–77, and Soviet Army, 1980–82; Komsomol chapter leader, 1977–78; deputy chair of a collective farm, 1982–85; director of a state farm and construction materials plant, 1985–90; elected deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus, 1990; manager of a state farm, c. 1991–93; elected chair of an anti-corruption committee in the Belarusian parliament, 1993; elected president of Belarus, 1994; re-elected, 2001 and 2006.
In 1994, voters in the former Soviet republic of Belarus elected Alexander Lukashenko to the presidency in the country's first democratic elections. They were also apparently the last, for Lukashenko moved quickly during his first term to restrict political dissent and enlarge the powers of his office. Re-elected twice by suspiciously wide margins, the former farm manager has been accused of ruthlessly silencing his political opponents, some of whom have vanished entirely. His Belarus, a nation of 10.4 million, is often deemed the last outpost of Sovietstyle authoritarian rule, and Lukashenko is referred to in the West as Europe's last remaining dictator.
Born in 1954, Lukashenko grew up in a single-parent household headed by his mother. He came from a village called Kopys in the rural Vitebsk province of what was then known as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Belarus people were eastern Slavs, and inhabited a region located somewhat unfortunately between more powerful states; over the centuries they had been ruled by their Lithuanian and Polish neighbors, before becoming part of Imperial Russia in the 1790s. Belarus enjoyed a brief period of independence following World War I, but was subsumed into the Soviet Union in 1919. Purges ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the late 1930s decimated its intelligentsia in Minsk, the capital, which was followed by Nazi German occupation during World War II. As a result of both, Belarus—the contemporary transliteration of a term usually referred to in English as "white Russian" —suffered heavy population losses estimated at a third in just a decade's time.
Lukashenko grew up under Soviet communism, and joined the local chapter of Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union(CPSU), when he was a student at the Mogilev Teaching Institute. After graduating in 1975, he served two years as a border guard, and returned to Mogilev to head the Komsomol chapter. He spent another two years in the Soviet Army, and upon his discharge in 1982 was given a post as deputy chair of a collective farm. These were the mass agricultural outfits in which farmers worked under the communist system, which had abolished private property. After further study at the Belarusian Agricultural Academy, Lukashenko was named director of a state farm and construction materials plant in the Shklov district in 1985.
Lukashenko entered the political arena in 1990 when he was elected a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus. Earlier that year, the country had declared its independence from the Soviet Union, joining the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as part of the first wave of breakaway states that by the end of 1991 resulted in the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union. Initially one of the reformers who supported Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Lukashenko sided with CPSU hardliners who attempted to wrest control of the Soviet state from Gorbachev in August of 1991. The Moscow coup failed, Gorbachev resigned, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed in its place as an alliance of eleven former republics. Lukashenko voted against ratification of the agreement that made Belarus part of the CIS in December of 1991.
Lukashenko returned for a time to managing a state farm, but re-entered politics and rose to chair an anti-corruption committee in the Belarusian parliament in 1993. He gained widespread attention for his accusations that many of the former Communist elite, who still wielded political power, were enriching themselves by pocketing state funds. In 1994, voters in Belarus approved a new constitution, and the country's first-ever democratic elections were held in July. Lukashenko was one of six candidates, and was the surprise finisher over Vyacheslav Kebich, the current prime minister.
Lukashenko ran as an independent, promising to root out the high-level corruption that was exacerbating the country's serious economic troubles, which had started with the collapse of the Soviet system. He also vowed to avoid privatization—the selling-off of formerly state-owned industries to private investors—that had taken hold throughout much of the former Soviet Union. Privatization had created a new ruling class, the oligarchs, but adversely affected the average citizen, who was suddenly forced to pay market price for goods and services that were once generously subsidized by the state.
In the July of 1994 elections, Lukashenko won 45 percent of the vote, against Kebich's 15 percent, and then bested him in a run-off election with 80 percent of the vote. One of his first presidential acts was to double the minimum wage, and he also reinstituted Soviet-era state price controls. He earned the scorn of the international community by refusing to enact any free-market reforms at all, and in 1995 both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund suspended lending to the country because of its defiance on the matter. As its free-market-friendly neighbors began to prosper, domestic opposition to Lukashenko's economic policies mounted, and he began to consolidate his political power.
In the summer of 1996, Lukashenko was the target of an impeachment attempt, which he managed to avoid by calling in high-ranking Russian officials to mediate. That November, a referendum was held on the matter of granting him increased presidential powers, including the extension of his term from four years to six. After a "vote yes" campaign carried out in the state-controlled media, and a campaign of harassment carried out against the opposition, the referendum passed by 70 percent.
In retaliation for the impeachment attempt, Lukashenko dissolved parliament, and set up his own handpicked legislature. The prime minister resigned in protest, as did several judges on the constitutional court, and Lukashenko continued his crack-down on his political opponents by closing independent newspapers and granting increased powers of surveillance and detention to the Belarusian secret police, which was a remnant of the Soviet-era force and even retained the dreaded acronym KGB ( Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or State Security Committee).
By 1999 Lukashenko's authoritarian regime was firmly entrenched. In May of that year, a former Minister of Internal Affairs who had opposed Lukashenko, Yuri Zakharenko, was last seen being hustled into a car by men while out for a walk in his neighborhood. Four months later, another out-spoken critic of Lukashenko's, Viktor Gonchar—formerly the deputy speaker in the parliament dissolved by Lukashenko in 1996—disappeared along with the financial backer of his new political party when they visited the banya, or ritual baths, in Minsk. The Belarusian KGB were widely suspected of foul play in both incidents.
Belarus and Russia signed a 1999 agreement that some predicted was a blueprint for an eventual merger, but Lukashenko found himself drastically outmatched by another hardliner, new Russian president Vladimir Putin. International political observers wonder if Putin—a former KGB man— provides some behind-the-scenes support for Lukashenko's authoritarian regime, especially after Belarus became the last buffer state between Russia and the European Union when Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia became EU member nations in 2004.
Lukashenko earned a somewhat dubious moniker after October of 2000, when Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic was ousted, and Lukashenko inherited the title of "Europe's last dictator" in the press. In September of 2001 he was reelected to a second term by a predictably wide margin, beating his main challenger, labor leader Vladimir Goncharik, with 75 percent of the vote. The European Union and United States termed the election invalid, and Lukashenko has responded in strong terms denouncing foreign powers he claims wish to subvert democracy in Belarus. His hostility toward the West has also taken other forms: Belarus has been suspected of selling arms to Iran, Sudan, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and around the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, reportedly issued emergency Belarusian passports to high-ranking officials in Hussein's regime when they were forced to flee.
In October of 2004, voters in Belarus approved another referendum ballot, this one eliminating presidential term limits entirely, which had been restricted to two in the 1994 constitution. That same day, parliamentary elections were held, and the pro-Lukashenko candidates won all available seats after opposition candidates were disqualified on technicalities. Lukashenko's rubber-stamp parliament approved a measure in 2005 that specified a jail term of three to five years for criticizing the president or organizing an anti-government protest. There was also a repeal of a provision that allowed the police and security services to disobey an order deemed unlawful, such as firing on protesters.
Lukashenko presides over a nation that journalists describe as a bizarre, Soviet Communist-era theme park. The international airport in Minsk is sparsely lit to conserve energy, there is almost no advertising—instead government propaganda posters tout the regime's successes—and no foreign goods in stores. Allegedly Lukashenko is a keen athlete, and sometimes shuts down entire city blocks in Minsk for in-line skating competitions, which he always wins. "An authoritarian ruling style is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it, " he told Belarusian radio in 2003, according to Guardian journalist Nick Paton Walsh. "Why? We could spend hours talking about this. You need to control the country and the main thing is not to ruin people's lives."
Western visitors also describe a climate of fear in Belarus, where anti-Lukashenko activists are fanatically cautious about speaking to journalists, and assert that the KGB handily intercepts cell-phone text messages. Events in neighboring Ukraine in late 2004 and early 2005—in which mass protests in Kiev dislodged an authoritarian incumbent suspected of election fraud and foul play against his prodemocracy opponent, Viktor Yushchenko—seemed to spark hope that what had been dubbed Ukraine's Orange Revolution might be repeated in Belarus. As the next presidential election loomed, however, Lukashenko warned against challenges to his rule in strong terms. "Any attempt to destabilize the situation will be met with drastic action, " he said on Belarus television in January of 2006, according to Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times Magazine. "We will wring the necks of those who are actually doing it and those who are instigating these acts."
Not surprisingly, Lukashenko won his third presidential term on March 19, 2006, with 84 percent of the vote. His opponent, Alexander Milinkevich, polled just two percent, according to official results. There were protests, however, that numbered some 10, 000 in Minsk alone, and a week later there was another wave of anti-government demonstrators who gathered, but they were blocked by riot police. Lukashenko was last seen in public a day later, and then vanished on the eve of a scheduled visit to Moscow. His inauguration was even postponed, and rumors flew that the usually indomitable and apparently physically robust president was either suffering from depression or some unknown health issue. He resurfaced and was sworn in on April 8.
In June of 2006, the European Union froze Lukashenko's assets, along with those of other top government officials, and issued a ban on travel visas for the president and other high-ranking cronies of his. Americans were forbidden from conducting any kind of business with Lukashenko. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has named Belarus as one of the last "outposts of tyranny" on the planet, along with Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, and Zimbabwe. Just before the 2006 election, Lukashenko responded to Rice, the European Union, and the entirety of his foreign and domestic critics with characteristic bombast. "I've been hearing these accusations for over ten years and we got used to it, " a report from BBC News quoted him as saying. "We are not going to answer them. I want to come from the premise that the elections in Belarus are held for ourselves. I am sure that it is the Belarus people who are the masters in our state."
Contemporary Review, January 2002, p. 22.
Financial Times, May 15, 2006, p. 6.
Foreign Policy, November-December 2003, p. 35; November-December 2005, p. 81.
Guardian (London, England), March 2, 2006, p. 12.
Independent (London, England), October 16, 2004.
New York Times Magazine, February 26, 2006, p. 48.
Times (London, England), April 3, 2006, p. 33.
"Profile: Alexander Lukashenko, " BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3882843.stm (June 18, 2006).