Book Review - Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship

Aliaksandr Lukashenka's rigid methods of state control prompted Condoleezza Rice to describe his regime as "the last true dictatorship in the heart of Europe". But how did Belarus end up with such an authoritarian ruler? This is the question at the heart of Andrew Wilson's book, the first in English to examine Belarus's history and political culture since independence in 1991. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Wilson provides a scholarly analysis of how Lukashenka, a former KGB border guard and head of a collective pig farm, rose to power and built a totalitarian state.

A sense of national identity came late to Belarus, with religious divides predominating until 1914. Wilson claims: "It was military campaigns that shifted the border backwards and forwards, rather than politicians or ethnographers." The Second World War established Belarus's current borders. Many Poles were deported or fled the region and the Jewish population was almost completely wiped out, leaving the Belarusians as the dominant ruling class.

After being absorbed by the Soviet Union, the myth of a heroic partisan movement was exploited to the full, allowing Belarus to benefit from post-war reconstruction. Its geographical position made it an important energy transit state and it was rewarded with generous Soviet subsidies.

Following the Soviet Union's collapse, Lukashenka won the first presidential election in 1994. By claiming that he was an "ardent Russophile", he ensured Russia's continued support but, in order to consolidate his power, Lukashenka systematically dismantled all the state institutions and organs set up by the previous constitution. As Wilson contends, "Divide-and-Rule and the use of masses of government informers and agents became his favourite methods of control." He also privately sponsored political candidates so that no real opposition could emerge and, later, applied the same tactics to NGOs.

Many independent organisations were closed down or replaced with Government Organised Non-Governmental Organisations (GONGOs); a perfect example of his contempt for human rights. More worryingly, in 1999 and 2000, Lukashenka's political opponents began to "disappear".

I witnessed for myself Lukashenka's repression in 2002 when, on behalf of PEN, the international writers' association, I observed the trial of newspaper editor Victor Ivashkevich and visited another journalist, Mikola Markovich, who was detained in a forced labour camp miles from his family in the remote town of Osipovichi. Both were charged with "slandering the president".

Lukashenka's flagrant abuse of human rights has not significantly diminished his baseline support – the latest poll gave him a rating of 39 per cent. Wilson focuses more on his troubled relationship with Putin. Between 2001 and 2004, Lukashenka declined to open up the Belarusian economy to Russian capital despite media support and a sizeable pre-election loan. He misled companies such as Lukoil and Gazprom, who had invested in Belarus. Not surprisingly, Russian subsidies have declined in recent years.

Wilson's depth of knowledge is impressive and his detailed analysis of Lukashenka's economic policy illuminates how he has managed to hold onto power for so long. However, by maintaining high levels of spending on welfare, education and health, external debt has increased. Wilson suggests that Lukashenka "no longer has the money to keep both elites and masses happy indefinitely".

In December 2010, around 50,000 Belarusians gathered peacefully to demonstrate against the unfair elections. Lukashenka responded with another brutal crackdown. There are no easy answers to how his tight grip on power might be weakened but, as Wilson concludes, "Lukashenka will not last forever." The economic policies and state repression that have served him so well in the past may yet be his undoing.

Originally published in the Independent on Friday 30 December 2011