Lukashenko: Daddy or dictator?
By CNN's Graham Jones
MINSK, Belarus (CNN) -- To some, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is "Daddy" or "Father Luke," the benevolent family patriarch who preserved a proud nation from the same downward slide as neighbours Russia.
To others the 47-year-old burly former collective farm manager is "Europe's last dictator," a man whose 1950s-style Soviet-era rule is echoed by his Stalinist moustache.
Certainly Lukashenko's standard political initiatives are characterised by five-year plans, printing money and presidential decrees.
He once described his economic doctrine as "State regulation, I repeat, State regulation."
But his yearning for the old-style Soviet-era Russia and contempt for the West has brought him a big internal power-base -- and even fans within Russia opposed to free markets and free thinking. He was once voted Russia's third most popular politician, despite being outside the country.
Belarus, with its conspicuous lack of advertising hoardings and respect for the KGB -- which, unlike other modernising Soviet states, it has retained -- is very much the embodiment of the old days in Russia.
This is very much the work of Lukashenko, who restored the all-red Belarussian flag of the Soviet era and outlawed the white-and-red emblem of independent Belarus.
The former Soviet army ideology instructor was a humble collective farm manager when he was catapulted to power an an anti-corruption lawmaker promising stability.
As the pro-European nationalist PM Viacheslav Kebich lost public support, Lukashenko rode to power in 1994 on a backlash of popularism and pro-communism. He had been the only member of Belarus's parliament to vote against the 1991 treaty dissolving the Soviet Union.
But the man seen as ruthless in crushing dissent certainly has his fans, especially among pensioners and the rural poor who see him as a protector.
Described most commonly "authoritarian," Lukashenko found the 10 million not-very-nationalistic Belarussians (the country only became an independent state in 1991) liked a strong leader who would take instant tough decisions.
An ice-hockey fanatic who loves to practise with the national team and appear on TV in tracksuit, he found Belarussians even seemed to approve of a man who would get police to close off a main road so he could learn his skating techniques.
Lukashenko even once cancelled a meeting with the head of the European parliament to go to a soccer match, saying 50,000 people were waiting to see him.
Described as a "Slavic Robin Hood" for his habit of rounding up businessmen who regarded the market as more important than state policies, no one can doubt Lukashenko's charismatic populism.
Troops who shot down two American balloonists who had overflown Belarus territority were summoned and given commendations.
He bemoaned the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Belarussian soil, saying it was "a crude mistake if not a crime."
He vowed to be "even tougher than Russia" in opposing NATO attacks on Yugoslavia and forced through his plan to seize the homes of western ambassadors near to his own residence -- welding shut the gates of one who demurred.
But what is seen at home as strong leadership is seen in the West as something else and in 1996 Lukashenko showed his view of democratic institutions when he forced through a referendum abolishing the then parliament and extending his presidential term from five to seven years.
Human rights groups have condemned his readiness to quash opposition demonstrations with police beatings.
His control of the media has been fully exploited and extended with campaigns against the non-state media including seizure of printing presses and huge tax fines.
The United States has accused Lukashenko of running "death squads" against opponents who have disappeared. He denies the charge, calling it malicious propaganda and saying the West just wants to see his downfall.
Those who call him isolationist, he argues, fail to see that Belarus is a small nation caught in a geographical sandwich between two major powers -- Russia and an expanding NATO.
But in long speeches to the nation Lukashenko often portrays Belarus as under siege from a corrupt and decadent West. During the election, Lukashenko accused the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe of fronting an espionage campaign to topple him.
Belarussian and Russian media for their part play up to the father figure tag, saying he is "severe but fair" and a provider.
"During the years of my presidency I lived a tough and difficult life ... I tried to be honest and fair, helped the talented and those in need," Lukashenko said in his election programme.
He is married, but his wife lives in a village while the president, his two sons, a daughter-in-law and a grand-daughter live in a state residency near the capital of Minsk. Unwelcome in most Western capitals, Lukashenko has developed cordial relations with the leaders of Russian regions, China, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Libya.
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