Autocratic Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is poised for re-election for a fourth term this weekend, is an increasingly “bizarre” and “disturbed” ruler who plans to stay in power indefinitely, according to US diplomats in Minsk.
Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator because of the heavy-handed nature of his 16 years in power, is certain to win Belarus’ presidential election today, cementing his grip on the ex-Soviet country and provoking criticism from the West.
A series of secret US diplomatic cables from Minsk, released by WikiLeaks, describe a president who “intends to stay in power indefinitely and sees no reason to change his course.”
The president, who brooks no dissent and has locked up opponents, is unapologetic about the violence demonstrators suffer from his forces.
“Lukashenko stated the opposition should expect to get hurt when they attack the OMON [riot police],” one cable from October last year said. “Lukashenko also claimed Belarus has no political prisoners, but that common crooks join the opposition after they are arrested in order to claim political persecution.”
Today’s election is Belarus’s fourth since independence in 1991. Opposition candidates have accused Lukashenko’s regime of ballot stuffing in early voting. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has sent monitors to the vote, has never branded a Belarus election free and fair.
The opposition has warned it will turn out en masse tomorrow night if the election does not enter a second round. There were estimates that 100,000 protesters would show up.
“There will be no violence from our side,” the opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov said. “We are very true to the principle of non-violent resistance.”
The last election in 2006, which saw Lukashenko take 86 percent of the vote, led to a violent standoff.
In that election, Lukashenko claimed in private to have scored even higher than 86 percent.
“[He] repeated earlier claims that in the 2006 elections he actually received 93 percent of the vote, but reduced the final tally to 86 percent to make the vote more credible to the West,” another secret cable said.
The president’s behavior after the 2006 poll was described as “bizarre.”
“The setting of Lukashenko’s press conference showed a leader far removed from the people,” a US diplomat noted. “He sat at a large desk, flanked by two large flags centered high on a large stage, isolated from the packed auditorium. His curt answers to Western journalists and scolding of Belarussian correspondents only helped to show the world his bizarre behavior, yet he still received healthy applause from his well-chosen audience and foreign lackeys.”
The US extended sanctions against Belarus in September, and last month the EU renewed its travel ban against 41 Belarussian officials.
For many months, it appeared as though Lukashenko had lost favor with Russia, his country’s biggest backer, as he courted the EU for funds amid a financial crisis. The country was forced to take a US$2.5 billion loan from the IMF in 2008.
During the financial standoff, Lukashenko implemented an unprecedented degree of openness. Candidates were allowed to register and print manifestos in newspapers. Televised debates were held, though Lukashenko did not take part.
“He was forced to play this game as he didn’t know if Russia would support him,” said Pavel Marinich, a political analyst in Minsk.
However, a trip to Moscow on Dec. 9 sealed Kremlin support. The countries signed an energy deal that will see Belarus paying preferential terms for Russian oil and gas and hand over any profit it gains for exporting energy on to Europe.
On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised Lukashenko for taking “a clear course towards integration with Russia.”
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