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Alexander Lukashenko

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Аляксандр Лукашэнка
Alexander Lukashenko
Image:Lukashenko.JPG
Became President: July 20, 1994
Predecessor: incumbent
Date of Birth: August 30, 1954
Place of Birth: Kopys, Vitsebsk voblast

Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko (Lukashenka) (Russian: Алекса́ндр Григо́рьевич Лукаше́нко, Belarusian: Алякса́ндр Рыго́равіч Лукашэ́нка, Alaksandar Ryhoravič Lukašenka) (born August 30, 1954) is the current President of Belarus. First elected in 1994, his rule has been controversial: his supporters argue that his policies have spared Belarus the worst effects of post-Soviet capitalism, while his opponents, at home and abroad, accuse him of being dictatorial. Lukashenko's external and internal policies has led Belarus to be barred from joining the Council of Europe.

Contents

Early career (to 1994)

Lukashenko was born in the village of Kopys in the Vitsebsk voblast of what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Repubic. He graduated from the Mahilyow (Mogilev) Teaching Institute in 1975 and the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in 1985, qualifying as a teacher of history, social science and economics. He served two terms in the frontier troops of the Soviet Army between 1975-1977 and 1980-1982.

He then held a series of minor posts in the Komsomol (Young Communist League), leading a Komsomol chapter in Mahilyow from 1977-1978. After leaving the army, he became the deputy chairman of a collective farm in 1982 and in 1985 was promoted to the post of director of the Gorodets state farm and construction materials plant in the Shklov district.

In 1990, Lukashenko was elected as a Deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus, his first step as a politician. He founded a faction called Communists for Democracy, which advocated a democratic Soviet Union run on communist principles. He claims to have been the only deputy of the Belarusian parliament who voted against ratification of the December 1991 agreement that dissolved the Soviet Union and set up the Commonwealth of Independent States in its place. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR, Lukashenko briefly returned to management of a state farm.

Having acquired a reputation as an eloquent opponent of corruption, Lukashenko was elected in 1993 to serve as the chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusian parliament. Although he maintained a close association with leftist Communist factions, he fell out of favour with much of the Belarusian Communist Party for his attacks on the corruption and privileges of the Communist nomenklatura. In late 1993, he accused 70 senior government officials, including Stanislav Shushkevich, the speaker of the parliament and the acting president, of corruption including stealing state funds for personal purposes. Lukashenko's accusations forced a vote of confidence which Shushkevich lost. Later the accusations of Shushkevich proved to be without merit.

A new Belarusian constitution enacted in early 1994 paved the way for the first democratic presidential elections, held in July that year. Six candidates stood, including Lukashenko, who campaigned as an independent on a populist platform of "defeat[ing] the mafia." Shushkevich and Vyacheslav Kebich also ran, with the latter regarded as the clear favourite. In the event, Lukashenko won 45% of the vote against 15% for Kebich and only 10% for Shushkevich. A second round was held on July 10 in which Lukashenko won over 80% of the vote.

First term (1994-2001)

Lukashenko's victory came as a surprise to many in Belarus and abroad, given his youth and lack of experience. His manifesto during the campaign included establishing a clean government; removing corrupt officials from office and bringing to trial those who had abused their positions; maintaining pay and working conditions in what was still an almost entirely state-run economy; and moving towards greater integration between Belarus and Russia.

Although he won substantial popular support due to his proclaimed opposition to privatization and market reformers, much of his electoral platform was focused on the corruption of the Belarusian government. He claimed during the campaign that he was facing a constant threat of assassination and that he had even been shot at. He attacked his opponents in lurid terms, promising to expel them "to the Himalayas" if he was elected. Many domestic and foreign observers drew a comparison between his approach and that of the Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, although the two men's politics were very different.

Lukashenko's platform was strongly at odds with the pro-reform policies backed by the leaders of Belarus' neighbours, which had undertaken radical reforms following the fall of Communism. Very little reform, however, had taken place in Belarus. Only 2% of the economy had been privatized by the time of Lukashenko's election. The end of the Soviet command economy, on which Belarus was very heavily dependent, led to a 50% drop in production between 1991 and 1994 and a corresponding fall in living standards. At the time of the 1994 election Belarus faced an economic crisis: the question was what to do about it.

Lukashenko acted quickly to "stabilize the economy": one of his first acts was doubling the minimum wage. He also reintroduced state control of prices and reversed the few economic reforms that had taken place. But he faced great problems in trying to revive a command economy in a country of 10.4 million surrounded by emerging capitalist economies. Belarus was (and still is) wholly dependent on gas and electricity imported from Russia, but most Belarusian enterprises could not pay market rates for energy. The Belarusian government's lack of hard currency to pay for Russian imports made an economic union with Russia a necessity, and one for which both Lukashenko and his opponent Kebich had campaigned.

During his first two years in power, Lukashenko faced an increasingly vocal domestic opposition. In 1995 the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suspended lending money to Belarus, citing the government's lack of economic reform. Belarus's continuing economic difficulties prompted strong criticism from the opposition, to which Lukashenko reacted angrily. In September 1995 when a hot air balloon involved in a competition was blown over Belarusian airspace, he had it shot down by a military helicopter, whose crew had been led to believe that they were shooting at an unmanned weather balloon. The two American pilots aboard died. In November 1995, he caused international controversy by claiming in an interview that Hitler's domestic policies had not been entirely bad for Germany. Many of his critics took this as implying that a similar type of authoritarian leadership could benefit Belarus.

In the summer of 1996, 70 deputies of the 110-member Belarusian parliament signed a petition to impeach Lukashenko on charges of "violating the constitution". Lukashenko responded by calling a referendum for November 24, 1996 to extend his term of office from four to seven years. It would also give him the power to close down the parliament. On November 25, Lukashenko announced that 70.5% of voters, on an 84% turnout, had approved the measure. The conduct of the referendum was widely condemned. The government banned opposition supporters from TV and radio broadcasts, prevented any opposition newspapers from being printed and seized opposition publicity material. In these circumstances, the United States and the European Union refused to accept the legitimacy of the referendum.

Lukashenko immediately used his new powers to close down the Belarusian parliament. Armed police took over the parliament building and locked out 89 deputies regarded by the government as "disloyal". A new parliament, made up of 110 hand-picked supporters of Lukashenko, was established in a building next door. His actions were widely condemned internationally by governments and human rights groups. The Belarusian Prime Minister and two other ministers resigned in protest, as did seven of the eleven members of the Constitutional Court; they were replaced by Lukashenko supporters who promptly rejected the impeachment petition. Lukashenko consolidated his power by forcibly closing several opposition newspapers and increasing the power of the Belarusian KGB (which, uniquely in the former Soviet Union, had retained its old name and status).

At the start of 1998, the Russian central bank suspended trading in the Belarusian ruble, which led to a collapse in the value of the currency. Lukashenko responded by taking control of the Belarus central bank, ordering the exchange rate to be set back to earlier levels, freezing bank accounts and curtailing the activities of commercial banks. Not surprisingly, this led to a run on Belarusian banks and a spate of panic buying. Lukashenko also blamed the country's problems on "economic saboteurs" at home and abroad. Thirty government officials were arrested - some paraded on state television - and hundreds of others were "punished". He blamed foreign governments for conspiring against him, and in April 1998 he expelled ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Japan from their residential complex near Minsk. This caused an international outcry, as diplomatic residences are supposed to be strictly off limits under the terms of the Vienna Convention. The affronted countries all withdrew their ambassadors, as did, temporarily, Russia.

Although the ambassadors eventually returned after the controversy died down, Lukashenko stepped up his rhetorical attacks against the West and took to portraying his domestic opponents as stooges of hostile foreign powers. He claimed that Western governments were trying to undermine Belarus at all levels, including the economy (ejecting an International Monetary Fund delegation and labelling them "swindlers") and even sporting (claiming that Western countries were conspiring to defraud Belarus of medals 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan).

Lukashenko moved beyond rhetoric to take a more active stance of supporting countries in conflict with the West. During the late 1990s, Belarus exported about $400 million worth of armaments annually to an assortment of countries including Iran, Sudan, Iraq - which received anti-aircraft weapons and training - and Yugoslavia. The outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1999 led to Lukashenko proposing a "Slavic Union" of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Yugoslavia, an idea which received only lukewarm support and was quietly dropped. Following the Iraq war of 2003, the United States announced that several high-ranking Iraqi officials had been issued Belarusian passports.

These policies led Western governments to take a tougher position against Lukashenko. The United States was particularly angered by Belarus's arms trade with the so-called "Axis of Evil" countries and American political leaders increasingly began to refer to Belarus as "Europe's last dictatorship", comparing Lukashenko with Serbia's ousted leader Slobodan Milosevic. The European Union was concerned for the security of its gas supplies from Russia, which are piped through Belarus, and took an active interest in the country's affairs when the accession of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania gave the EU a lengthy border with Belarus. Even Russia, which established a loose economic union with Belarus in April 1998, grew impatient with the way that Belarus was implementing the union in practice. Although Lukashenko remained useful to Russia in terms of keeping his country in the Russian orbit, his tense relations with the West increasingly became a liability for the government of President Vladimir Putin.

Second term (2001-present)

Lukashenko meeting with  veterans, one of his most loyal bases of support
Enlarge
Lukashenko meeting with World War II veterans, one of his most loyal bases of support

Lukashenko's original four-year term of office ran out in July 1999 but had been extended to 2001 by the 1996 referendum. Elections were held on September 9, 2001, in which Lukashenko campaigned on a platform broadly similar to that of 1994: retention of the command economy; a full merger with Russia but no Russian-style shock therapy; strong presidential rule to maintain social order; opposition to the enlargement of NATO and the West generally. His opponent was Uładzimir Hančaryk.

Lukashenko won in the first round in what was claimed to be a landslide victory. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described the process as "fail[ing] to meet international standards" and human rights organisations reported that opposition supporters were systematically harassed, arbitrarily barred from standing as candidates or voted and were excluded from the state-run media. Western governments also criticised the elections. Russia, by contrast, publicly welcomed Lukashenko's re-election.

Despite widespread criticism, Lukashenko dismisses concerns about his authoritarian style of government, claiming it to be the only alternative to instability. He promotes himself as a "man of the people". Because of his style of rule, he is often informally referred to as baćka, which is literally translated as "father", but the word has the meaning of "chieftain" in the history of the Slavic peoples. He has appointed himself chairman of the Belarusian Olympic Committee, despite the IOC rules precluding high state officials from holding such a post.

During a televised address to the nation on September 7, 2004 Lukashenko announced plans for a referendum on whether to eliminate presidential term limits. This was held on October 17, 2004, the same day as parliamentary elections, and according to official results was approved by 79.42% of voters. Previously, Lukashenko had been limited to two terms and thus would have been constitutionally required to step down after the next presidential election, due in 2006.

It has been claimed that state pro-Lukashenko TV channels transmitted pro-Lukashenko propaganda and election day polls at midday on October 17, although Belarusian law prohibits this. The opposition and international observers (except for several CIS monitors) said that the vote was fraudulent. The OSCE mission said it "fell significantly short of international standards". An exit poll survey performed by Baltic Surveys (http://marketsdirectory.com/tmdintm/2790m.htm), a Lithuanian Gallup Organization, showed that only 48% of people voted "yes" on Lukashenko's referendum, with a margin of error of 1%. On the other hand, this poll is probably skewed, since the majority of Lukashenko supporters are in the countryside, and the poll was performed by a relatively small team (initially 200, but a significant number were banned from polling by the authorities).

Economic and political problems

Lukashenko's government has come under increasing political and economic pressure from the West and Russia. Russia has little enthusiasm for his projected political union between Russia and Belarus. Although Lukashenko has moved very gradually towards allowing a greater degree of private enterprise, he continues to oppose the privatization of larger state enterprises, and small businesses continue to suffer from restrictive, inconsistent and unstable legal system and government policy for business. In particular, an attempt of a joint venture with Ford Motors failed because of this. Few foreign markets have been found for Belarusian goods, with over 60% of the country's trade going to Russia. This has led to continued economic difficulties, with the Belarusian ruble continuing to decline in value.

Lukashenko has made much of the fact that despite having faced economic problems over the years, Belarus not experienced the same level of social dislocation seen in Russia after that country's radical reform programme. He points out that Belarus has one of the lowest Gini coefficients in the world, indicating one of the world's most egalitarian distributions of income: not a surprising fact in a country where most of the economy is state-owned and there is no entrepreneurial class. Belarus' official rates of unemployment and poverty also remain low. However, many non-Belarusian analysts believe that Lukashenko's approach is ultimately unsustainable and will ultimately require more rapid and painful reform than would otherwise have been necessary.

The human rights situation in Belarus has come under increasing international scrutiny in recent years. The most recent reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Belarus accuse Lukashenko of widespread violations of human rights. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) issued a resolution on Belarus in April 2003, in which it expressed "deep concern" about human rights in Belarus, and urged the government to release journalists and other individuals detained for politically motivated reasons and to cease harassment of non-governmental organizations and political parties.

During 2000 and 2001, Lukashenko became embroiled in a scandal that has led to widespread international criticism. Three opposition figures and a journalist disappeared in 1999 and 2000 in mysterious circumstances, after Lukashenko publicly ordered the security services to crack down on what he termed "opposition scum". Evidence subsequently emerged that implicated the Interior Ministry in the disappearances, which led to allegations that a government "death squad" had been responsible. A number of junior officials were arrested and convicted, but the government intervened to block investigations into the possible involvement of senior ministers.

International organisations continued to criticise Lukashenko's government during 2002 and 2003. In late 2002, the Belarusian authorities expelled an OSCE delegation, prompting the United States and EU to impose a travel ban on Lukashenko and several high-ranking government officials. The independent media does continue to exist, but under great pressure from the authorities; the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Belarus as among the ten "Worst Places to be a Journalist" in 2003.

In September, European Jewish leaders accused Belarus' Education Ministry of pursuing anti-Semitic policies after officials shut down an institute offering a course in Jewish studies. At the same time the only lyceum in which instruction was done exclusively in Belarusian language was also shut down before the school year ended. Nevertheless the lyceum continued studies in rented space, but the exit exams were not officially recognized. Fortunately for the graduates, a test system was introduced for entering into higher education institutions, so that the results of the exit exams were less important. Also, the neighboring countries (e.g., Lithuania and the Czech Republic) offered to recognize their lyceum diploma.

Lukashenko continues to face domestic opposition from a coalition of opposition groups, although these have tended to be weak, divided, hampered by the government's restrictions and underfunded. The United States Congress has sought to address the latter problem by introducing a Belarus Democracy Act in 2001, 2002, 2003, and finally passing it in 2004 to introduce sanctions against Lukashenko's government and provide financial and other support to the opposition. This is modelled on the support given to the opposition in Serbia, which successfully topped President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Lukashenko has been characteristically defiant, declaring that "there will be no Kostunica here" (a reference to Vojislav Kostunica, the Serb politician who replaced Milosevic). "No way! This must be clear to you and all those who count on it."

External links

de:Aljaksandr Lukaschenka es:Alexander Lukashenko fr:Alexandre Loukachenko gl:Alexander Lukashenko id:Aleksandr Lukashenko lv:Aleksandrs Lukašenko nl:Alexander Loekasjenko ja:アレクサンドル・ルカシェンコ pl:Aleksander Łukaszenka ru:Лукашенко, Александр Григорьевич fi:Aleksandr Lukašenko sv:Aleksander Lukasjenko

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