Lukashenko's first term as president

Lukashenko's victory in 1994 came as a surprise to many in Belarus and abroad, given his youth and lack of experience. His manifesto during the campaign included establishing a clean government; removing corrupt officials from office and bringing to trial those who had abused their positions; maintaining pay and working conditions in what was still an almost entirely state-run economy; and moving towards greater integration between Belarus and Russia. There were wide-spread rumors in Belarus that he was supported by Russian secret services.

Although he won substantial popular support due to his proclaimed opposition to privatization and market reformers, much of his electoral platform was focused on the corruption of the Belarusian government. He claimed during the campaign that he was facing a constant threat of assassination and that he had even been shot at. He attacked his opponents in lurid terms, promising to expel them "to the Himalayas" if he was elected. Many domestic and foreign observers drew a comparison between his approach and that of the Russian ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, although the two men's politics were very different.

Lukashenko's platform was strongly at odds with the pro-reform policies backed by the leaders of Belarus' neighbors, which had undertaken radical reforms following the fall of Communism. Very little reform, however, had taken place in Belarus. Only 2% of the economy had been privatized by the time of Lukashenko's election. The end of the Soviet command economy, on which Belarus was very heavily dependent, led to a 50% drop in production between 1991 and 1994 and a corresponding fall in living standards. At the time of the 1994 election Belarus faced an economic crisis: the question was what to do about it.

Lukashenko acted quickly to 'stabilize the economy'. One of his first acts was doubling the minimum wage. He also reintroduced state control of prices and reversed the few economic reforms that had taken place. But he faced great problems in trying to revive a command economy in a country of 10.4 million surrounded by emerging capitalist economies. Belarus was, and still is, wholly dependent on imported gas and electricity from Russia. Most Belarusian enterprises, however, could not pay market rates for energy. The Belarusian government's lack of hard currency to pay for Russian imports made an economic union with Russia a necessity, and one for which both Lukashenko and his opponent Kebich had campaigned.

During his first two years in power, Lukashenko faced an increasingly vocal domestic opposition. In 1995, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suspended lending money to Belarus, citing the government's lack of economic reform. Belarus's continuing economic difficulties prompted strong criticism from the opposition, to which Lukashenko reacted angrily. In September 1995 when a hot air balloon involved in a competition was blown over Belarusian airspace, he had it shot down by a military helicopter, whose crew had been led to believe that they were shooting at an unmanned weather balloon. The two US pilots aboard died. In November 1995, he caused international controversy by claiming in an interview for German newspaper Handelsblatt that Hitler's domestic policies had not been entirely bad for Germany (1). Many of his critics took this as implying that a similar type of authoritarian leadership could benefit Belarus.

In the summer of 1996, 70 deputies of the 110-member Belarusian parliament signed a petition to impeach Lukashenko on charges of violating the Constitution. Lukashenko invited top Russian officials as 'mediators' such as former Russian premier Viktor Chernomyrdin and managed to escape immediate impeachment with their support. Shortly after that Lukashenko called a referendum for 24 November 1996 to extend his term of office from four to seven years. It would also give him the power to close down the Parliament. On November 25, Lukashenko announced that 70.5% of voters, on an 84% turnout, had approved the measure. The conduct of the referendum was widely condemned. The government banned opposition supporters from TV and radio broadcasts, prevented any opposition newspapers from being printed and seized opposition publicity material. In these circumstances, the United States and the European Union refused to accept the legitimacy of the referendum.

Lukashenko immediately used his new powers to close down the Belarusian parliament. Armed police took over the parliament building and locked out 89 deputies regarded by the government as 'disloyal'. A new parliament, made up of 110 hand-picked supporters of Lukashenko, was established in a building next door. His actions were widely condemned internationally by governments and human rights groups. The Belarusian Prime Minister and two other ministers resigned in protest, as did seven of the eleven members of the Constitutional Court; they were replaced by Lukashenko supporters who promptly rejected the impeachment petition. Lukashenko consolidated his power by forcibly closing several opposition newspapers and increasing the power of the Belarusian KGB, which, uniquely in the former Soviet Union, had retained its old name and status.

At the start of 1998, the Russian central bank suspended trading in the Belarusian ruble, which led to the currency's near collapse. Lukashenko responded by taking control of the Belarus central bank, ordering the exchange rate to be set back to earlier levels, freezing bank accounts and curtailing the activities of commercial banks. Not surprisingly, this led to a run on Belarusian banks and a spate of panic buying. Lukashenko also blamed the country's problems on 'economic saboteurs' at home and abroad. Thirty government officials were arrested, some paraded on state television, and hundreds of others were 'punished'.

Lukashenko blamed foreign governments for conspiring against him and, in April 1998, he expelled ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Japan from their residential complex near Minsk. This caused an international outcry, as diplomatic residences are supposed to be strictly off limits under the terms of the Vienna Convention. The affronted countries all withdrew their ambassadors, as did, temporarily, Russia.

Although the ambassadors eventually returned after the controversy died down, Lukashenko stepped up his rhetorical attacks against the West and took to portraying his domestic opponents as stooges of hostile foreign powers. He claimed that Western governments were trying to undermine Belarus at all levels, including the economy. Lukashenko went as far as expelling an International Monetary Fund delegation labeling them 'swindlers'. He also claimed that Western countries were conspiring to defraud Belarus of medals in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Lukashenko moved beyond rhetoric to take a more active stance of supporting countries in conflict with the West. During the late 1990s, Belarus exported about $400 million worth of armaments annually to an assortment of countries including Iran, Sudan, Iraq - which received anti-aircraft weapons and training, and to Yugoslavia. The outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1999 led to Lukashenko proposing a 'Slavic Union' of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Yugoslavia, an idea which received only lukewarm support and was quietly dropped. Following the Iraq war of 2003, the United States announced that several high-ranking Iraqi officials had been issued Belarusian passports.

These policies led Western governments to take a tougher position against Lukashenko. The United States was particularly angered by Belarus' arms trade with the so-called 'Axis of Evil' countries and US political leaders increasingly referred to Belarus as 'Europe's last dictatorship', comparing Lukashenko with Serbia's ousted leader Slobodan Milosevic. The European Union was concerned for the security of its gas supplies from Russia, which are partially piped through Belarus, and took an active interest in the country's affairs when the accession of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania gave the EU a lengthy border with Belarus. Even Russia, which established a loose economic union with Belarus in April 1998, grew impatient with the way that Belarus was implementing the union in practice. Although Lukashenko remained useful to Russia in terms of keeping his country in the Russian orbit, his tense relations with the West increasingly became a liability for the government of President Vladimir Putin.

1) The interview in November 1995 was considered 'inappropriate' and not published by Handelsblatt. It was, however, taped and later broadcast by Belarus radio. Lukashenko did note that the effects of Hitler's leadership 'were negative in foreign policy'. Lukashenko is alleged as saying: "Not everything connected to a certain Adolf Hitler in Germany was bad. Remember his rule in Germany. The German order had grown over centuries. Under Hitler, this process reached its culmination. This is perfectly in line with our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of its president." Lukashenko has denied saying the above.