Lukashenko: the unpredictable strongman on Europe's borders

·4-min read
Alexander Lukashenko (L) was accused by Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of using 'state terrorism' (AFP/JOE KLAMAR, JOHN THYS)

The stranding of hundreds of migrants on Belarus's border with Poland is just the latest brazen gambit in strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko's nearly three-decade tenure as Europe's most unpredictable neighbour.

Belarus's loyal state media has for days been sending out images of refugees huddling around makeshift fires in near-freezing temperatures next to rows of barbed wire and columns of Polish border guards refusing them entry.

The EU accuses Lukashenko of luring the migrants to his country to send them across the border. When the bloc with responded with plans for sanctions, he threatened to cut off Russian gas flowing through Belarus to Europe.

The move on migration -- an attempt to embarrass Europe on human rights and pile pressure on the bloc over the historically sensitive issue -- is in a long tradition of unexpected surprises from Lukashenko.

"He's unpredictable in his tactics -- he uses every opportunity available to him," said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst at Moscow's Centre for Political Technologies.

"But he is predictable in terms of strategy -- to hold on to power at any cost. And he will fight to the end," Makarkin said.

Lukashenko is the longest serving leader in any ex-Soviet country and has ruled Belarus with an uncompromising hand since coming to power in 1994.

- 'Clearly disturbed' -

After just one year in charge, he was firmly on the radar of the West when he dispatched a military helicopter to shoot down a civilian air balloon over Belarus, killing two American citizens on board.

Little has since changed.

In May this year, the rogue 67-year-old who likes to be known as "batka" -- a colloquial term for dad -- alarmed Europe again by dispatching a fighter jet to ground a Ryanair flight with an opposition activist onboard.

"I will not suddenly leave the presidency," mustachioed Lukashenko said last year in the wake of historic anti-government protests.

"I have nothing but Belarus, I cling to it and I hold it".

According to leaked cables, US diplomats had come to that same conclusion in the wake of elections in 2006 that the opposition saw as rigged.

American diplomats concluded that a "defiant Lukashenko intends to stay in power indefinitely and sees no reason to change his course".

They also described him as "clearly disturbed".

In 2009 he made the characteristically bizarre admission that he had fixed the 2006 polls to lower his popularity.

"I gave the order for it to be not 93 percent, but something around 80, I can't remember how much. Because when you get over 90, this is not accepted psychologically. But it was the truth," he said.

With the latest move to mass migrants on his frontier with the EU, Lukashenko is signalling to Europe that he has no plans to capitulate, said Konstantin Kalachev, a political scientist who heads Russia's Political Expert Group.

"He is showing Europe that it's better not to mess with him and that he should be accepted as he is," Kalachev.

Lukashenko, wedged between east and west, previously has "played a double game," Makarkin said, currying favour with both Moscow and Brussels and playing them off each other for his own gain.

- 'Double game' -

"He told Europe: 'if you don't make friends with me, I will go to Russia,' and he said to Russia: if you don't give me money, I will go to Europe," Makarkin said.

In an unlikely diplomatic coup, Lukashenko thrust Minsk into the spotlight in 2015 as a middleman, hosting Ukraine conflict negotiations with Russia, Germany and France.

And as recently as 2020, he hosted then-US National Security Advisor John Bolton in what was the most senior visit of an American diplomat in nearly two decades.

But, Makarkin said, this balancing act between east and west "no longer works".

Another presidential vote in August last year was a turning point in Minsk's ties with the outside world.

Lukashenko responded to historic anti-government rallies after his claim to a sixth presidential term with a brutal crackdown on protesters, journalists and rights groups.

During one massive rally in the centre of the capital Minsk last year, he disembarked from a flyover over the protest carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle and referred to the demonstrators as "rats".

Western officials hit back by refusing to recognise the vote and imposing sanctions, which Lukashenko is now seen as retaliating against.

"Europe no longer recognises him as president, and now he is blackmailing Europe with the migration crisis," Makarkin said.

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