Putin Blesses Europe's Last Dictator

MOSCOW, Russia -- When Aleksandr Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, met Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin leader’s Black Sea residence shortly before Christmas, there was no disguising the Russian president’s influence over his erratic neighbour.

Belarus Dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko

While Putin appeared relaxed as they made small talk for the television cameras in an oak-panelled reception room, the man described as Europe’s last dictator was clearly impatient to be left alone with his host.

“There are some questions but I would like to discuss them privately,” said Lukashenko, 51, before the cameramen were ushered out.

“A presidential election is ahead of us. You know what is going on with regard to our country. I want to inform you in this respect and you promised to tell me something.”

Less than a day after the two men’s encounter — their eighth last year — Lukashenko, who has ruled his impoverished country with an iron fist since 1994, announced that he was bringing forward the presidential election by nearly six months to March 19.

The move — evidently made with Putin’s blessing — has been denounced as illegal by Belarus’s embattled opposition, which claims that it does not have enough time to prepare.

Putin’s support has not been confined to words: he has provided Belarus with cheap oil and gas, generous loans and political and moral support.

The motivation is clear: Putin is afraid of a repetition of Ukraine’s orange revolution just over a year ago, which brought Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-western presidential candidate, to power instead of a rival preferred by the Kremlin.

“Lukashenko’s regime would probably have collapsed a long time ago were it not for Putin’s support,” said Andrei Zaytsev, an expert on relations between the two countries. “The last thing Putin wants is for Belarus to start leaning towards Nato.”

The row between Moscow and Kiev, which erupted after Russia cut off Ukraine’s gas supply last weekend in a dispute over prices, has highlighted Putin’s pivotal relationship with former Soviet republics.

The gas was turned back on after a compromise was found but Putin, who has deplored the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as “the greatest geo- political catastrophe of the 20th century”, had made his point: Russia is prepared to use its economic might to impose its will on former Soviet republics.

Significantly, Putin allowed Gazprom, the state-controlled gas company, to take a tough line against Ukraine on the day Russia took over the chairmanship of the G8 group of industrialised nations, provoking criticism from fellow members.

Putin’s policy towards the elections in Belarus, a country of 10m people, is expected to be a further cause of friction with the West. Since coming to power, Lukashenko, the former boss of a collective farm, has reintroduced Soviet symbols, closed down the independent media and asserted rigied state control over the economy.

Many opposition leaders have been jailed or have disappeared. The feared secret police retains its Soviet era name of KGB and most of its communist era powers. Poking fun at the president in public is an offence punishable by up to two years in jail.

European leaders have made little secret of their distaste for Lukashenko and have threatened to impose sanctions on his regime unless the elections are free and fair. Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, has accused him of turning his country into one of the world’s six outposts of tyranny — alongside Iran, North Korea, Burma, Cuba and Zimbabwe.

“I don’t see how a clash over Lukashenko can be avoided,” said one western diplomat. “Putin claims to be in favour of democracy but he is far too close to the Belarussian regime. It makes the West very uneasy.”

Ukraine is due to hold parliamentary elections the week after the vote in Belarus. The poll has acquired greater significance since a change in the Ukrainian constitution on January 1 gave parliament, rather than the president, the right to appoint the prime minister.

Analysts said the Kremlin’s hard line in the gas dispute was intended to strengthen Viktor Yanukovich, the candidate defeated by Yushchenko. Yanukovich has argued for Russia and Belarus to unite and form a Slavic counterweight to America and the European Union. Putin’s ploy backfired as Ukrainians rallied around their president. But Yanukovich’s party is expected to emerge as the strongest force in parliament.

“There is no question that Putin and the Kremlin want the elections to weaken Yushchenko as punishment for the orange revolution,” said Ivan Lozowy, a Kiev lawyer and civil activist. “To have Yanukovich as prime minister, especially now the post has greater powers, and Yushchenko as a lame duck would be a huge victory for the Kremlin.”

Putin is using Russia’s clout to expand its influence elsewhere in its back yard. Moscow cut off gas supplies last week to Moldova, the former Soviet state bordering Romania that is adopting a more pro-western line, in another row over prices. Ukraine has stepped in to help.

“Putin deplores the end of Soviet power,” said the western diplomat. “Meddling in elections, supporting dictators, cracking down on the opposition — it’s all part of one strategy: making Russia a power with influence well beyond its borders.”

RULE OF IRON

-- In 1995 Lukashenko ordered the shooting down of a hot air balloon that drifted into Belarussian airspace, killing its American pilot

-- In 1998 he told several foreign ambassadors to leave their residences and cut off the water and electricity when they refused to go

-- Last year he banned the use of foreign models from billboards and ruled 75% of music on radio should be Belarussian

-- Insulting Lukashenko, even in a joke, is punishable with up to two years in jail

Source: The Sunday Times

Comments

Alex said…
I think Lukashenko is a good president because look how people live in Ukrain and Belarus you'll see a big difference because Belorussian people live better.