President Alexander Lukashenko has some lessons for other strongmen
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that we were reading about the protests in central Minsk after the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko won reelection for the umpteenth time under dubious circumstances. For a week, maybe even a little more, the press carried images of crowds demanding the resignation of the strongman with a combover, and then…. well, the situation in “Europe’s last dictatorship” fell off the radar somewhat.
What happened? Well, the bad guys won. All the stern op-eds in the world mean little when you can pass laws allowing police to shoot protestors. But what other lessons does Lukashenko’s survival have for fellow strongmen looking to extend their reigns in the face of mass unrest?
1. Never acknowledge your opponents have even the tiniest atom of a point. A weaker leader confronted with large crowds demanding change might be tempted to waver, acknowledge their frustrations, and offer to listen. Not Lukashenko, who, along with his next-door neighbour Vladimir Putin, comes from the Millwall F.C. school of leadership, that is to say they are guided by the principle of “no-one likes us we don’t care.” Of course, one might assume that even the most hardcore of Millwall supporters back in the day liked each other at least a little bit, but the crucial thing was that they did not care about what outsiders thought of them. Thus, Lukashenko makes no concessions to the claims of liberals, democrats or foreign governments; in fact, it serves his interests that they all read from the same message sheet as he can accuse the opposition of being in cahoots with external forces, and thus not representative of Belarusian society.
2. Make sure you have the local heavy in your corner. Up yours attitude notwithstanding, even the likes of Lukashenko might struggle to sustain so uncompromising a stance if he did not have backing from some serious hard men both at home and abroad. Fortunately for him, he can rely not only on his own security forces, but also on his frenemy Putin to virulently oppose any attempt by the EU or US to impose their values on or exercise influence over Russia’s “near abroad”. That said, it’s not much fun being a little bully backed by a big bully, and not just from the lack of self-respect it induces. Putin’s help doesn’t come for free, and he immediately pushed for the otherwise friendless Lukashenko to submit to closer ties with the far larger Russian state.
3. Always remember that the West is highly unlikely to go beyond a few symbolic gestures. Russian and Belarusian elites are accustomed to being insulted, sanctioned and placed on various blacklists and no doubt this is a bit annoying, but they are also pretty good at getting around the rules. In addition, Lukashenko is obviously aware that he presides over a land of farms and forests, 25% of which was heavily contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster, so he has nothing anybody really wants (except perhaps Putin). Cosmic indifference on the part of the US et al provides further insurance against the threat of regime change. And so he carries on dictating.