One night in April 1995, Siarhiej Navumchyk found himself held by his arms and legs, while four masked men used his skull as a battering ram to open a door in the Belarusian parliament.
Navumchyk was one of 19 Belarusian MPs holding a sit-in protest against a referendum that the new president Alexander Lukashenko wanted to hold on a series of questions, including changing state symbols and closer ties with Russia. In the early hours, green-clad men entered the parliament, beat the politicians and forcibly ejected them.
Lukashenko claimed he had ordered the MPs to be evacuated for security reasons after a bomb threat and that there had been no violence. But for Navumchyk, it was the crossing of a red line. “Beating deputies in the parliament — that had never happened before, in Belarusian history,” he says. “It made clear that if Lukashenko could do this with MPs . . . then he’d do whatever he wanted to ordinary people.”
In the years since, more red lines have come and gone. Since winning Belarus’s first, and only, free election in 1994, the moustachioed, thickset former collective farm boss has locked up opponents and crushed independent media. When huge protests erupted last year after he claimed a landslide win in a flawed election, Lukashenko sent his security forces to beat protesters into submission, and forced his rival, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, into exile.
This week he crossed another spectacular Rubicon, dispatching a fighter jet to force an intra-EU flight to land in Minsk, just so that he could arrest Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist-activist, who played a key role in last year’s protests.
The episode has driven relations between Belarus and the west to a new low. But diplomats say that this is a price that the pugnacious 66-year-old is prepared to pay as he battles to reassert his authority. “I think the chance of any normalisation of relations with Lukashenko in charge is gone. And I think he has understood that as well,” says one western diplomat. “The main message of this exercise was ‘he can catch you anywhere’. The old KGB message.”
Born in 1954, Lukashenko was raised by a single mother in eastern Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union. After working on collective farms, he entered politics as the USSR disintegrated, joining the Belarusian parliament’s anti-corruption committee, a springboard for his presidential bid in 1994.
From the start, he was a hardliner. In 1991, he backed a coup attempt against liberalising Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. By 2004, he had neutered Belarus’s parliament and won a referendum to abolish presidential term limits. He revels in bellicose rhetoric, branding opponents “rats”, “traitors” and “terrorists”. An Orwellian presidential website profile describes him as “adamant”, “firm” and “uncompromising”.
For a while, many were prepared to put up with Lukashenko’s authoritarianism in exchange for the relative economic stability he provided — particularly as neighbouring Russia and Ukraine underwent a tornado-like transition to capitalism. Lukashenko’s repressiveness also underwent periodic thaws when he needed to offset Russia’s influence by making overtures to the west — notably after 2015, when he freed political prisoners and criticised Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
But beneath the surface, his model has long been unravelling. After a decade of growth, the economy, still dominated by lumbering state-owned companies, has stagnated. A younger generation with access to the internet and ability to travel has tasted the alternatives to Lukashenko’s Soviet-lite state. And the modest reforms that Lukashenko did allow helped build the middle class that led last summer’s protests.
“He let the middle class grow, and it was very obvious that, sooner or later, it would turn and fight the authoritarian state,” says a European diplomat.
Lukashenko faced protests after dubious election wins in 2006 and 2010. But last year’s were on a different scale. Frustrated by economic stagnation, and angered by his response to coronavirus — which he dismissed as a “psychosis” and recommended treating with vodka — hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the biggest protests in the country’s independent history. Lukashenko’s response has been brutal. Rights groups say that in the nine months since, about 35,000 people have been detained, many of whom allege they have been tortured. More than 400 have become political prisoners.
“The majority of Belarusians . . . voted against Lukashenko and he cannot forgive them for this,” says Pavel Latushka, who was a minister and diplomat under him before joining the opposition. “It may sound awful, but he decided to punish the whole nation.”
For Navumchyk, the crackdown is a grim throwback to the 1990s, when Lukashenko’s police state was at its most virulent, and a confirmation that the post-2015 thaw is ancient history. “Until last August I would have said that psychologically [Lukashenko] changed. He became calmer, more respectable, a retired dictator . . . He was like an old lion with prey running around him while he’s lying down, thinking: ‘To hell with it, I can strike you all and kill you if I feel like it, but why bother, I’m a lion, aren’t I?’” he says.
“But now in these last months, he is exactly the same as he was [in the 1990s]. A person full of energy, but energy of hate. He is prepared to do absolutely anything with any of his opponents. He has no limits.”