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A Little Filthy Lukashenko

Alexander Lukashenko, the wannabe despot in charge of Belarus, has fairly been described as "Europe's last dictator". Of course, like any self-respecting authoritarian these days, he is fond of the veneer of accountability, and does submit himself for re-election now … Read More

By / October 23, 2007

Alexander Lukashenko, the wannabe despot in charge of Belarus, has fairly been described as "Europe's last dictator". Of course, like any self-respecting authoritarian these days, he is fond of the veneer of accountability, and does submit himself for re-election now and again; at the last one, in March 2006, he won well over 80% of the vote, albeit with the help of a compliant state-run media that refused to mention his opponent, Alexander Milinkevich (who coincidentally has a strange tendency to get picked up by police every few weeks, accused of everything from drunk driving to drug trafficking). With admirable frankness, Lukashenko later admitted to rigging the elections – but claimed, brilliantly, that he'd had no choice but to fiddle the numbers, because the true figure – 93.5% – was just too embarrassing.

Lukashenko has shut down opposition newspapers, used the riot police to break up unlicensed rallies (try getting a license), and rewritten the constitution to remove term limits from the Presidency which he has now graced for 13 years. He presides over a Soviet-style command economy and a secret police that would have Vladimir Putin drooling. And he gives good megalomaniac, too; TV stations get memos advising them on approved colour schemes for their news sets, and his official website is a joy to behold ("A.G. Lukashenko is notable for his in-depth understanding of events, hard work, sense of duty, realism, fairness and fidelity to principle"). Yep, when it comes to tinpot dictatorship, ‘Lucky' Lukashenko is old school.

He's also resolutely anti-capitalist and anti-American, which explains why he likes to seek out the company of nutballs like Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it is therefore unsurprising that a small but vocal group on the fringes of the Left are quite fond of him. Witness Jonathan "Darfur ain't that bad" Steele in the Guardian newspaper before last year's rigged election, bigging up the moustachioed strongman:

Would you expect a European leader who has presided over a continual increase in real wages for several years, culminating in a 24% rise over the past 12 months, to be voted out of office? What if he has also cut VAT, brought down inflation, halved the number of people in poverty in the past seven years, and avoided social tensions by maintaining the fairest distribution of incomes of any country in the region?

Of course not, you would say. In Bill Clinton's famous phrase, "it's the economy, stupid". Unless there are overriding issues of political or personal insecurity – incipient civil war, ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, pervasive crime on the streets – most people will vote according to their pocketbooks. And so it is likely to be in Belarus in nine days' time.

Why, then, are western governments, echoed by most western media, developing a crescendo of one-sided reporting and comment on one of Europe's smallest countries?

And so on. Even Steele doesn't go so far as to suggest that Lukashenko is a socialist's wet dream, but the message is pretty clear; my enemy's enemy is my buddy, and what's a couple of jailed opposition leaders between friends?

Well, Lukashenko's back in the news this week, but not, sad to report, for the reasons he might have chosen. No matter; among the lunatic left, his kudos is unlikely to have been harmed too much by the unguarded comments he made to journalists last week.

Talking to a group of Russian journalists on October 12 about the past living conditions of the southeastern town of Babruysk, Lukashenka said, "It was scary to enter, it was a pigsty. That was mainly a Jewish town — and you know how Jews treat the place where they are living."

"Look at Israel, I've been [there]. I really don't want to offend anyone — but they don't care much about, say, grass being cut, like in Moscow," Lukashenka said, in comments broadcast live on national radio.

Lukashenka also called on Jews "with money" to return to Babruysk, once a thriving Jewish center. Last year, the town, as the host of a harvest festival, received a large injection of state cash. [...]

Valeri Karbalevitch, a political commentator at RFE/RL's Belarusian Service, said Lukashenka has made anti-Semitic statements in the past, for instance comparing dishonest oligarchs with Jews, or likening his critics to people with "hooked noses." [...] But this time, Karbalevitch said he believes that Lukashenka's comments were "simply a slip of the tongue."

No doubt those who rushed to condemn Martin Amis for his rather unreconstructed comments about Muslims will be equally quick to decry Lukashenko's "slip of the tongue". Or maybe they'll claim that he was mistranslated; he didn't say "pigsty", he said "manger", it's all a State Department conspiracy, actually a charming fellow, blah blah blah. You know the drill. Anyway, it's not anti-Semitic to point out that the Zionists don't maintain their gardens properly. (I mean, what?)

The fallback position will no doubt be that Lucky is more Borat than Ahmadinejad; a casual anti-Semite, not a potentially dangerous player on the world stage. (Which of us, after all, has not accidentally referred to hook-nosed Jews living in ‘pigsties' from time to time?) Well, maybe. Oh, wait, here's something interesting; a speech he gave last Thursday.

Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko on Thursday declared his government 'willing to consider' a return of nuclear weapons to the country, and hinted a US plan to deploy missiles to Central Europe might well serve as a catalyst. Asked about his attitude towards a Washington proposal to base anti-missile missiles in East Europe, Lukashenko responded: 'Belarus would react extremely negatively.'

Great.

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