This is part II of John Sweeney’s “The Dark State” from his book Big Daddy published by Silvertail Books. "The Dark State Part I" can be found in New Eastern Europe 1 (VI)/2013. Or download the whole book available in e-format on Amazon Kindle.
By and large, the world does not pay attention to Belarus. That is good news for Lukashenka, in power for almost two decades, smarter than he looks, a survivor with a peasant’s deep cunning. You won’t see vainglorious posters of the strong man dotting Minsk, as Saddam’s moustache decorated Baghdad or Gaddafi in his various guises – gangster, horse dealer, Mother Superior in The Sound of Music – illuminated Tripoli. Unlike Mao in China, Lukashenka is not on the back of the banknotes either. They put small animals on the banknotes, starting with a hare for one Belarus rouble. Then super-inflation kicked in, and the animals got bigger and bigger and they ended up with a bison (the European edition) and then as more and more zeroes were needed they dumped animality and moved up to buildings, edifices, monuments. Space will be next. But switch on the telly and there’s no escaping Lukashenka on all three state channels. Shame about how he looks, mind.
A strong man, in the sense of a dictator, should not be mocked, so it must be regarded as something of a misfortune that Lukashenka, although a big, strong man – he plays ice hockey, looks physically fit – boasts a Donald Trump-style comb-over, a comedy villain’s moustache, Saddam-like in shape, Adolf-black in colour, and the crest-fallen face of a clown after he has been socked in the mush by a custard pie; worse, for British people of a certain age, he is a dead ringer for the hapless authoritarian bus inspector Blakey from the 1970s ITV sitcom On The Buses whose catchphrase was “I ‘ate you Butler.” Lukashenka not only looks like Blakey, he talks like him, his voice high-pitched, nasal, querulous.
Lukashenka is, some say, the last dictator in Europe. Read Andrew Wilson’s Belarus: the Last European Dictatorship (Yale, 2011) and Brian Bennett’s The Last Dictatorship in Europe: Belarus under Lukashenka (Hurst, 2011). I quarrel with the titles but not the content of these honest, scholarly and witty books. Bennett was the British ambassador to Belarus from 2003-2007, and is drily contemptuous of the regime: “Lukashenka’s true legacy is a political and economic structure which is fundamentally the same as that revealed as bankrupt in 1989, a command economy dependent on one man.” Wilson is an academic but an unstuffy one, equally critical of the regime as the ambassador: “Lukashenka’s continued rule will depress anyone concerned with human rights in a neglected corner of Europe.”
But after my time in Belarus, I quarrel with Stewart Parker’s The Last Soviet Republic: Alexander Lukashenka’s Belarus (Trafford, 2007). Parker opens the book with a quote from A.G. Lukashenka: “Belarus, with its clean lakes, natural forests, with the unplundered natural economy is attracting avid interests from all sides.” He rubbishes the concerns of Amnesty International and others over human rights in Belarus and reprints Lukashenka’s call to the UN General Assembly that Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic should be released to fight for their honour, without, it seems, ironic intent.
Some question whether Lukashenka is the “last dictator in Europe” for two reasons, firstly, because it assumes that another strong man won’t pop up somewhere in our continent and secondly, it pays a kind of back-handed compliment to Vladimir Putin. The post of leader of the opposition in Russia does not exist. I have given two awards to two fantastically brave women writers, Anna Politkovskaya and Nastasha Estemirova, both of whom were shot dead, and their killers have never been found. Neither praised Putin. Neither remotely thought he was a democrat. But there is no doubting that Lukashenka’s rule in Belarus, with around ten million people, less than a tenth of the population of Russia, is more saurian, more dictatorial and more authoritarian than Putin’s rule in its vastly bigger neighbour.
Lukashenka speaks Russian self-importantly with the register of an uneducated pig farmer discoursing on world politics and Belarusian which, in the old days, used to be called White Ruthenian, clumsily. What comes out of his mouth is a crude yokel patois, haystack-speech, which locals call trasianka, a hodge-podge of the two languages, literally “hay-in-the-straw”. Ungrammatical and inept, he delivers with force and a kind of suppressed frenzy – an unusual blend of Worzel Gummidge and Adolf Hitler. For example, he once said of opposition protesters: “We will wring their necks, as you’d ring a duck’s neck”, a phrase both silly and nasty at the same time. (This thug-speak is popular. Next door in Russia, Vladimir Putin rose to power by saying of the Chechens: “We’ll rub them out on their bogs” in the schoolboy meaning of the word.) Lukashenka frequently appears at Presidential events sporting a Soviet-ische hat which is too big for him and makes him look Ruritanian. His troops goose-step in perfect unison, the better to express his power, but somehow the effect is not heroic but comic-opera.
The comedy is all the funnier, you might think, because the context is so bleak. Belarus is a small country of rare beauty sandwiched between Poland and Russia with a history more tragic and blood-splattered than any other in Europe; its people and buildings were taken over, butchered and shredded by the forces of Stalin, then Hitler and then Stalin and his heirs again. A higher percentage of the population, many of them Jews, were slaughtered in the Second World War than any other nation. Belarus drifted along as the Soviet Union slowly ossified, making tractors and arms. From 1960, for two years, Minsk was the home of Lee Harvey Oswald, an “ordinary Soviet worker” who left Belarus for Texas and eventually shot dead JFK. In 1986, over the border in Ukraine, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded, the radiation plume spreading over Belarus, leaving the land thereabouts unsafe for 20,000 years.
A brief shaft of sunlight and democracy for Belarus opened in 1989 and ended in 1994, when Lukashenka won power. He was the deputy boss of a state pig farm with a reported history of beating up employees. Belarus being a dictatorship, it’s impossible to verify that. He won the 1994 election fair-and-square on a populist anti-corruption ticket. The evidence shows he’s fiddled the results of every presidential election since.
Today, Lukashism is what passes for a state ideology, a mutant version of the Soviet Union’s deal with its people: they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work; we pretend to vote for him; he pretends that the vote is fair. True, health care and literacy rates remain better in Belarus than in many other parts of the old Soviet Union. Life in Belarus is markedly better than in, say, Uzbekistan where the regime boils people alive. But perhaps the better comparison is with former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union members in Europe. Set against life in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, Belarus is markedly poorer and pitifully unfree. And there is evidence that Lukashenka runs the country as his own fabulously corrupt piggy-bank while taking deft care to keep the corruption out of the limelight.
A new dynasty is in the making. Lukashenka has two grown-up sons through his first wife, Viktor and Dmitry. But next in line for power some 25 years hence, Lukashenka said while hobnobbing with President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, is his youngest son, his “talisman”, Nikolai – or, better, his short-form nickname, Kolya. His mother is believed to be Lukashenka’s former personal physician, Irina Abelskaia, not seen in public these days. The word is that she spent some time in a psychiatric hospital and her whereabouts now? No-one knows for sure.
Emperor Caligula was mocked for over-promoting his horse to the Roman Senate. Lukashenka rates the abilities of his son so much that Kolya is dressed up in officer’s garb, that his generals must salute Kolya and his commissars in the cabinet perform due deference to Kolya’s worldly wisdom. In Lukashenka’s police state, few dare say, actually, it is nonsense saluting Kolya or having a boy pontificate in the cabinet because he is, after all, a child. No-one is exactly sure how old he is because in a dictatorship there are no established facts about the first family. One website declares that Kolya was born in 2004.
The TV channels report the president’s comings and goings with a tedious slavishness, but the most interesting stories never make air. This is a shame, because what is whispered in the cafés lining the broad boulevards of Minsk is unutterably funny. The stories about Kolya have the feeling of what the late Paul Foot of Private Eye fame used to call “the ring of truth”. They may not actually be true but they sound like the truth, if one were able to discover it, which, in a dictatorship, of course, you cannot. One such story goes: “Air Forcesky One” was on the tarmac, bound for Moscow, the cabin doors open, two sets of stairs on either side of the fuselage. Kolya was in a strop. He ran up one stairway, through the waist of the plane, and down the other stairs and off down the runway. The president’s bodyguards clambered after him and got him back. Big Daddy saw the whole thing but said nothing. The air hostess told him off for running around on the runway. Kolya bit her finger, drawing blood, and said: “When I become a minister, I will have you executed.” She wasn’t shot but she was sacked.
A second story: one day Luka and Kolya were being filmed having lunch by three cameramen from the state TV channels – unfortunately, not live – when Luka said to his son: “Eat up your potato pancakes, Kolya, they are good for you.” At which Kolya upturned his plate, dumping the food on the floor and shouted: “I’m not eating this…” A third story: Kolya lines up the presidential security men in front of him, makes them salute him, and says: “We’re all going to play Hide and Seek. If anybody does not want to play, my Daddy will fire you.”
These stories may seem far-fetched. Look at the state’s very own approved photographs. There is one of the former Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev and Lukashenka helping Kolya holster his very own gold-plated pistol, a gift from the Russian people.
Look at the state’s very own approved TV footage. There is Lukashenka meeting His Holiness The Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, after overcoming a ten-year travel ban in Europe. At Luka’s side as he discusses matters temporal and pastoral with His Holiness is Kolya, then aged five.
Kolya Lukashenka is widely hated by ordinary people in Belarus. But he, too, is victim of his father’s monomania. Lukashenka’s shtick is that he plays Daddy – “Batska” in Belarusian – to the whole country. But there is a darkness about this comedy of Big Daddy. Because if you tell these stories about Luka and Kolya in public, your face will be smashed in. Underpinning his grip on power is fear and blood and murder.
John Sweeney is an award winning British journalist and investigative reporter for the BBC programme Panorama.