Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko is often described as Europe’s “Last Dictator.” The sobriquet is apt — though it may be a tad unfair to the man who is arguably Europe’s greatest dictator, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Both strongmen will do anything to remain top dogs as Lukashenko emphatically demonstrated again last Sunday, winning Belarus’s fixed presidential election by a huge margin.
Lukashenko’s rival, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled the former Soviet republic for neighbouring Lithuania on Tuesday “for the sake of her children” after being detained for hours when she went to the Election Commission in Minsk to ask questions about Lukashenko’s hotly disputed victory.
She had only re-emerged to vote on election day after months in hiding. News of her alleged defeat brought protesters out into the street where they confronted riot police firing tear gas and allegedly beating people up.
Although Lukashenko and Putin often don’t get along with each other, they are peas from the same pod.
Both are sons of Leonid Brezhnev’s Era of Stagnation and native Russian speakers. They regard elections as a necessary nuisance, window dressing so that they can claim to be democrats. Both have no qualms about disqualifying or jailing challengers or forcing them to flee for their lives. In fact, they had done so repeatedly for years.
Not only Tsikanouskaya is in exile. Her husband, anti-Lukashenko activist Siarhei Tsikhanouski, saw the end of his candidacy for the presidency in May when he was jailed by Lukashenko, forcing the couple to send their two young children to Lithuania. Two other potential candidates for the presidency had earlier been banned from running.
Another similarity between Lukashenko and Putin is that both men control most of their countries’ media and the judiciary and readily use the secret police and police to keep close track of adversaries and to crack heads as and when required. If those tactics don’t work, both will merrily have their cronies stuff ballot boxes to create the desired result.
Not that they are too greedy. Soviet leaders often claimed to have received 99 per cent of the vote. Lukashenko and Putin have decided that rigged elections that only give them 60 or 70 per cent of the votes are perfectly acceptable. On Sunday, Lukashenko claimed to have won in a landslide with 80.9 per cent of the vote to 9.9 per cent by Tsikhanouskaya.
Predictably, Lukashenko said the protests were the evil work of “foreign puppeteers,”
Perhaps the most ominous trait that authoritarians such as Lukashenko and Putin share is their deeply held belief that they alone are capable of running their countries. Like Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and others in the Soviet pantheon, it looks as if Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin both intend to rule until the Grim Reaper comes to get them.
Lukashenko, who is 65 years old and already has been the boss of Belarus for 26 years, has just given himself another five-year term. Putin, who turns 68 in October, replaced Boris Yeltsin 20 years ago and has twice had constitutional amendments passed that rewrite presidential term limits. The latest sleight of hand permits him to remain in office until 2036.
Canada and many other countries condemned the result of the election in Belarus and complained about how unfair the election campaign had been.
Such condemnations are deserved, obviously, and necessary for domestic consumption, but they are meaningless to Lukashenko and to Belarussians. He controls the instruments of power, they don’t, and that’s that.
Sanctions by the European Union might mean something but there is little Canada or the U.S. can do short of war and that clearly is not an option. No country is prepared to go to war to rescue Belarus as it would immediately bring Russia in on Lukashenko’s side, or even worse, might use it as a pretext to seize Belarus.
But the tumult in Belarus and the obviously rigged ballot there will have made an impression on Putin and his countrymen. Although Putin only won re-election a couple of months ago, Putin’s popularity is slipping as Russia’s oil and gas-dependent government reels from the COVID-19 fallout.
Unhappy about the economy and Putin’s plan to rule until he is dead, there have been big anti-government demonstrations in Siberia and the Russian Far East this summer. The protests have left the Kremlin — which has most of its Praetorian Guard tied up in Moscow to protect Putin — in a bit of a quandary about what to do.
While the manifestations on the eastern side of the Urals are noteworthy and undoubtedly a source of aggravation to Putin, they do not really threaten him in any way. As long as Russia’s security forces unquestionably do his bidding — and they do — nothing as trivial as elections, sagging poll numbers or demos will threaten the president in any way.
Lukashenko’s situation is similar. Domestic rivals have all been eliminated. But the Belarussian despot has one vulnerability.
Putin has long dreamed of recreating the former Soviet Union, or at least parts of it. He has suggested many times that Belarus should join Russia, which has 18 times more people. Or, at a minimum, there should be closer links between the two countries. Putin brought it up again on Monday when he asked Lukashenko to reactivate stalled plans for greater economic and military integration.
It is unlikely that Lukashenko will waste much time looking over his shoulder to see if Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is gaining on him.
But Europe’s Last Dictator should be nervous. He might be ousted one day by Europe’s Greatest Dictator, Vladimir Putin.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas