Belarusian President Alexander Lukachenko is fond of posing as an athletic competitor. The 56-year-old is anything but shy about squeezing into skin-tight cycling outfits and will occasionally take to the ice for a bit of hockey. But, revealed Vladimir Parfenovich, an Olympic kayaker who medalled for Belarus in the 1980s, "one is not allowed to touch him during ice hockey games. And you must not overtake him when skiing."
The man who has been ruling Belarus with an iron fist for the past 16 years takes pains to present himself as a man of the people. But he is even more focused on ensuring that nobody endangers his position of power.
When casting his ballot in Sunday's presidential elections, Lukashenko brought along his young son Kolya. Immediately afterwards, he left for a short ski vacation. He was sure, he said, that "nobody will go out into the streets tonight." But he had taken precautions in the event that he was wrong. Already on Thursday, columns of armored vehicles belonging to the Interior Ministry had rolled into Minsk under the cover of darkness.
'With Two Wings'
When demonstrators did ultimately take to the capital's streets on Sunday, the despot had opposition politicians beaten and regime opponents arrested. The man who once said his country needed to fly, as they say in Belarus, "with two wings" doesn't like surprises. And he likes to hedge his bets.
In foreign policy, for example. Lukashenko, who was temporarily banned from entry into the European Union, sought a decade ago to form a closer union with Russia. More recently, however, he has sounded out opportunities for closer relations with Western countries -- the same nations he once accused of "trying to turn our girls into prostitutes," of "feeding our citizens with illicit drugs," and of "spreading homosexual perversion."
Soon thereafter, Lukashenko made yet another about face, claiming that Europe had "abandoned" him. He turned back toward Moscow, insisting that Russians and Belarusians were "one people." Still, the stubborn leader didn't shy away from cancelling a meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, claiming that little Kolya was ill.
Lukashenko is well aware of his economy's dependence on cheap energy from its Slavic big brother. Russian media has laconically noted that the Belarusian economic miracle has cost Moscow around $100 million (€76 million) since the collapse of the Soviet Union. After a series of conflicts over raw materials, Russia raised the price for oil and gas and Lukashenko was forced to go begging for new allies in energy, some of them offshore.
Earlier this month Minsk made a deal with the US to eliminate a stockpiles of Soviet-era highly enriched uranium that Washington feared was poorly secured and might fall into the wrong hands. At the same time, however, Lukashenko maintains close contacts with North Korea. He congratulated the country's dictator Kim Jong Il on his birthday, for example. In his note, which was published on the Belarus government website, Lukashenko noted that he was "convinced that the friendly relations and constructive cooperation between the Republic of Belarus and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea will promote the continuous prosperity of our countries."
Minsk also enjoys hosting Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader who is persona non grata in Washinton. First Chavez brought greetings from "the axis of evil." Then they reached an agreement on huge deliveries of crude oil, despite the laborious transport challenges involved. The oil would have to be brought from oil tankers to Ukrainian ports and from there overland to refineries in Belarus. Lukashenko told Russian journalists, that they would rather transport the oil in vehicles than "become yet another region of the Russian Federation … no one will force us onto our knees."
Lukashenko's attitude scores him points with large swathes of the population and with the elderly in particular. They appreciate his struggle for the self-determination of Belarus -- a significant reason that last summer's Russian propaganda campaign against its stubborn neighbor bore little fruit.
'Guarantor of Stability'
On the contrary. Belarusian achievements even command respect in Russia. Minsk regularly appears well above Moscow in international country rankings. In this year's World Bank "ease of doing business" index, Belarus took a respectable 68th place -- 60 places ahead of Russia. When it comes to the ease with which entrepreneurs can establish a business, Belarus was in the top 10 worldwide.
One of the regime's prestige projects is the Hi Tech Park in Minsk, which government representatives are touting as the Silicon Valley of Belarus. The park lures investors with a tax rate of 9 percent -- though success has thus far been limited.
"Lukashenko is a guarantor of economic and political stability in Belarus, its independence," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was forced to concede recently. Indeed, one is led to wonder whether Lukashenko would have won the weekend vote anyway -- without the media propaganda offensive and electoral fraud.