Yale, £20, 304pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship, By Andrew Wilson

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition