‘Europe’s last dictator’ faces a fight for power like never before

Belarus’s leader has spent decades tightening his grip on Minsk. But with protests on the streets ahead of next week’s election, his security state is showing signs of weakness, writes Oliver Carroll

Sunday 02 August 2020 21:31 BST
Alexander Lukashenko marks Belarus’s independence day on 3 July
Alexander Lukashenko marks Belarus’s independence day on 3 July (EPA)

For 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko has pulled off a remarkable balancing act: between Europe and Russia; eccentricity and terror; a Soviet command economy and hi-tech globalisation. But with presidential elections a little over a week away, the man who has revelled in “last dictator of Europe” epithets – “it’s better to be a dictator than gay”, he once said – is looking decidedly wobbly on his high wire.

On Thursday, the capital of Belarus witnessed the largest opposition protest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Perhaps 70,000 people turned out in Minsk against their authoritarian leader to offer support for unity opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who until a few weeks ago was a stay-at-home mother and who only emerged after the arrest of key candidates, including her husband.

The protesters constituted 5 per cent of the capital’s electorate – remarkable given the historical dangers still associated with opposition. That context would appear to be the main explanation for the bizarre but equally dramatic “Russian terror plot” that the Belarusian president claimed to have foiled earlier this week.

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