He is a pariah in the west, viewed suspiciously by Russia and loathed by opponents in exile or jail, but the Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, is relishing his notoriety as Europe‘s last dictator.
After 18 years in power, the blunt, forceful and heavily built former state farm manager shows no sign of bowing to western pressure to relax his grip on the former Soviet republic squeezed between Russia and the European Union.
Always defiant, often cantankerous and sometimes provocative, Lukashenko has added irony to his armoury to deflect western politicians’ criticism, touting their dictator tag as a badge of honour.
“I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world,” he told Reuters in a rare interview in the Belarus capital, Minsk.
“You came here and looked at a living dictator. Where else would you see one? There is something in this. They say that even bad publicity is good publicity.”
Lukashenko’s words are delivered with a wry grin and a wave of his immense hands, and appear intended to taunt the critics whose calls for more economic and political freedom have gone largely unheeded since he first became president in 1994.
The 58-year-old leader does not tire of telling guests that Belarus is the geographical centre of Europe. But the country of 9.5 million does not share the same democratic values as its western neighbours.
Minsk’s broad thoroughfares are still lined with monolithic Soviet-era buildings. There are streets named after Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, though some may now boast smart western shops, such as a Porsche showroom and McDonald’s.
There is not a single opposition deputy in parliament. Lukashenko, if re-elected, can rule indefinitely following a referendum that allowed term limits to be lifted, and the opposition has been all but crushed into submission.
His strongest rival, Andrei Sannikov, once a deputy foreign minister, took political refuge in Britain last month after 16 months in prison in which he said prison staff tortured him and tried to get him to kill himself.
Years of diplomatic spats with the west have left Belarus isolated, but a European Union travel and assets ban on people and companies associated with his government has had no obvious impact on Lukashenko’s policies. He is promising to modernise the largely state-run economy and possibly one day build a party-based political system. But he scoffs at talk of rapid change or the possibility of upheaval like the “Arab spring” that swept away Middle East leaders.
“Every day we have changes here. There is no scope for revolutions coming to Belarus,” he said.
In mid-2010, after signs Lukashenko was easing pressure on the political opposition, it seemed western governments might be ready to relax their harsh criticism of him. But that ended in December 2010 when, after he was voted in for a fourth consecutive term, riot police broke up protest rallies by tens of thousands of people unhappy at his re-election.
Several politicians who ran against him for office, including Sannikov, were detained by security forces, and scores of opponents were picked up in their homes. The EU and the US tightened sanctions on Lukashenko and his inner circle.
This week, the justice ministry closed down the Minsk office of the human rights organisation Viasna, whose head, Ales Beliatski, is serving a four-and-a-half-year-jail term after a trial for tax evasion described as unfair by Amnesty International.
Lukashenko’s message to the west is one of defiance, coupled with a sense of seething injustice at being ostracised for not following western-style policies.
“You [Europe] do not like the course Belarus is taking. You would like everything here to be sold off – in the interests of Russia or in the interests of western companies,” he said, shifting forward in his chair and almost shouting.
“You do not like the fact that we have good relations with Russia. This is determined by our history. During the last war we fought together in the trenches against the Nazis. We saved you, Europe, from being slaves to your own fuhrer.”
In a veiled threat to stop “choking” Belarus, he reminded Europe that it receives much of its oil and natural gas from Russia via pipelines that run through the country. “Who needs these double standards? Who needs instability in the heart of Europe? Not you, not us, not Russia. Let’s talk, we are people,” he said.
Lukashenko rejected western charges of holding political prisoners, saying specific cases raised by the west relate to people who committed criminal offences. Asked about alleged abuse of human rights, he waved the question to one side, saying he was the guarantor of the most important right – the right to live.
Lukashenko has kept the loyalty of workers in big factories by awarding them pay rises when economic times get hard, even though critics say this has contributed to the country’s economic problems and rising debts.
He seethes, too, as he recalls a pro-democracy stunt by a Swedish PR company in which hundreds of teddy bears were dropped from a light airplane over Belarus last July. “You recently sent over a plane with humorous toys and this was a violation [of Belarus’s air space]. And what if the military had opened fire and people had been killed?” he said.