Alexander Lukashenko: a profile

By Stephen Mulvey, BBC News Online, Friday 19 June 1998, 22:00 GMT 23:00 UK

[Alexander Lukashenko]
Lukashenko: diplomatic niceties not a top priority
President Lukashenko knows precisely what the West thinks of him, and frequently makes clear what he thinks of the West. If he did not know, the country's secret police would tell him.

In 1996 he accused a group of Western diplomats of plotting together to undermine him, at a meeting held in one of their embassies. His statement revealed that someone had been listening in to the ambassadors' conversation, but the urge to vent his anger was paramount.

President Lukashenko is not a pragmatist. He does not shrink from verbal attacks against leading Russian government ministers, and has even criticised President Boris Yeltsin.

American balloonists

His security forces have arrested an American diplomat for observing an opposition rally. And when Belarussian troops shot down two American balloonists who ventured into the country's airspace they won the president's commendation.

Belarussians who anger their head of state are even more vulnerable than foreigners. Demonstrators are beaten and arrested. Politicians are harassed, fined, and sometimes detained. Two teenagers who painted anti-presidential slogans on a wall were held in jail for months before being given suspended sentences.

President Lukashenko believes in an authoritarian style of government, because the alternative, he says, is instability. He has described Hitler as a madman, but one who deserves credit for building a strong state.

Unexpected landslide

Mr Lukashenko came to power by winning a landslide election victory in 1994. He was an outsider, who unexpectedly beat a pillar of the former Communist establishment.

Voters were fed up with falling living standards, and Mr Lukashenko, a young former collective farm director, had two strong cards: as a member of parliament he had led a much-publicised anti-corruption campaign, and he spoke with the voice of a man of the people, rather than as a Soviet apparatchik. Voters believed his promise to stop prices rising.

A passion for sport

Some of Mr Lukashenko's domestic critics have suggested that his authoritarian tendencies could be the result of an unhappy childhood in a small Belarussian village. It is said that he was the victim of cruel taunts because his mother was unmarried. He himself married, but has separated from his wife.

Sport is one of Mr Lukashenko's passions. He attended the Winter Olympics as the chairman of the Belarussian Olympic Committee, even though the International Olympic Committee's rules theoretically forbid high state officials from holding such a post.

On an earlier occasion, he declined to meet the chairman of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, Leni Fischer, who was visiting Minsk, on the grounds that he had an important football match to attend. Fifty thousand fans are waiting for me, he said, I cannot let them down.