"Last dictator" caught between east and west

By Stefan Wagstyl in Minsk

Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, revels in his notoriety. Lucky are those, he says with a smile, who get to meet and sit down at a table with "the last dictator in Europe".

It is a sign of the 54-year-old Belarusan leader's defiance of western political rules that he is ready to turn this epithet into a joke. It is also a measure of his confidence. After 14 years in power, he faces few internal challenges, in spite of a parliamentary election due at the end of the month.

Given the authoritarian control he has ruthlessly established in his country of 10m, it could hardly be otherwise. A decade of strong economic growth has also allowed the former farm manager to retain much of the genuine popularity he secured when he took power in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Periodic protests organised by divided opposition parties are largely confined to the capital, Minsk.

He relishes his hold on domestic power. "I will be happy if you communicate the straightforward message to people in Europe that I have no dictatorial aspirations to stay in power but a tremendous dependence on the will of the people," said Mr Lukashenko on Thursday in an interview with the Financial Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The Belarusan president spoke for two hours on everything from the forthcoming England-Belarus World Cup football match to energy and his political credo.

Foreign media appearances are unusual for Mr Lukashenko. But these are unusual times. However strong his position at home might be, he is feeling pressure from outside, chiefly from Russia, his political sponsor, aid donor and energy supplier.

Well before the Georgian crisis, Mr Lukashenko put out feelers to the west in an effort to ease the isolation (including a visa ban on senior officials) imposed by the European Union after international observers condemned as unfair the 2006 presidential elections.

Brussels indicated it would be ready for a moderate rapprochement, as long as Mr Lukashenko eased his regime's severity, starting with the release of political prisoners and efforts to improve democratic standards in the parliamentary polls.

Mr Lukashenko has delivered on the prisoners, as the EU has confirmed, and is now concentrating on the elections. He says he is breaking Belarusan laws to ensure the polls meet EU norms, for example in pushing electoral commissions to include more opposition representatives. He also welcomes international observers, saying: "We have opened the country for all."

But he warns the EU and the US to be objective in their post-election assessments, accusing the west of "double standards". He complains important countries with similar political shortcomings escape punishment, notably Russia.

"Whether the west likes it or not, parliament will be elected in accordance with our constitution," he says. "I will not go begging for visas to the EU."

Mr Lukashenko wonders whether the west's real aim is regime change. He insists he is in no hurry to go, pointing out that "the English Queen" has been in power for some time.

He argues he has served his country well, pulling it out of post-Soviet economic confusion, bringing stability and raising incomes to 2? times Soviet levels. The economy grew 8.2 per cent last year and expansion is forecast to slow only a little to 7.1 per cent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Belarus is changing but at its own pace, he says. "If you want to change us to your standards, you can think about it but you don't need to push us to it. Maybe we can come to realise we can be 80 per cent like Germany or Great Britain. It must be our choice."

Having kept state enterprises in place much longer than other former communist states, Mr Lukashenko says privatisation is on the agenda, with up to 100 per cent stakes for sale. But he warns the price must be "fair". Greenfield investors are also welcome. "Decent" business people will even be given free land for their houses "so they can live not on the edge of Europe, as in London, but in the centre of Europe".

The Belarusan president acknowledges he has irritated Russia by not recognising the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But he does not rule out doing so in future, saying the new parliament should have a say. He rejects as "absolutely stupid" suggestions that Russia's action set a dangerous precedent for Belarus. "God forbid Russia should try and do the same against Belarus. In that unimaginable case Europe would have the full right to resist Russia with no compromise on any methods or leverage," he says.

Mr Lukashenko wants the west to be more engaged in the former Soviet Union, saying western influence was the main reason why former Soviet states declined to follow Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But what is the guarantee that, in the future, the west will be a strong enough counterweight to "the ever-increasing might of Russia and the growing influence of Russia in these countries"? A fair question but one that is not easy for the west to discuss with Mr Lukashenko.

Life in power

August 1954 Born in Kopys

1982 Becomes deputy chairman of a collective farm, having previously served in the Soviet army

1990 Elected deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus

1993 Elected chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusan parliament

July 1994 Elected president

November 1996 Wins referendum increasing his power over parliament and extending his term by two years

September 2001 Wins a further five years in office in presidential election condemned as undemocratic by western observers

October 2004 Wins referendum lifting the two-term limit on presidential rule

March 2006 Wins third term as president. Observers denounced vote as fundamentally flawed

December 2007 Announces Belarus will host Russian missiles if the US sets up bases in Poland and the Czech Republic

June 2008 Launches international tender for a nuclear power plant



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