With a grey comb-over hairstyle, chevron-shaped moustache and a strong rural accent, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager-turned-minor Communist official, was the only legislator in Soviet Belarus to vote against his nation’s independence from Russia in 1991.
Three years later, he came to power promising to “reintegrate” the two nations – but only on his own terms.
Lukashenko was only 39 years old when he won the election – an inexperienced yet determined reformer with sky-high approval ratings.
The mid-1990s were dark and desperate, with criminal gangs, galloping inflation and a paralysed economy; Lukashenko offered Belarusians “stability” as opposed to the chaotic, crime-ridden transition to capitalism in neighbouring Russia and Ukraine.
“Every [plant and factory] shut down, there were empty shelves in shops and people rallying on city squares. I remember how the price of bread once went up 18 times within a day,” he told a Russian daily in 2009.
Average Belarusians still remember his heyday – and the pledges that never came through.
“I thought he saved us from the ‘wild capitalism’ of the 1990s, and I voted for him twice,” said Vladislav, a 57-year-old Belarusian who leads a team of construction workers in a Moscow suburb.
“But Russians survived it and are far better off than in the 1990s – and than us. And we are 30 years behind,” Vladislav, who withheld his last name because he fears persecution back home, told Al Jazeera.
Lukashenko was the first Belarusian president, an office no one else has yet held.
He won a sixth term last year in a disputed election that roiled Minsk’s relationships with Western governments.
After that vote, Belarusian police and intelligence services assaulted, arrested and tortured thousands of protesters who rallied for weeks against his August 20, 2020 election victory, according to witnesses, opposition figures and rights groups.
Like the opposition, the West said the election was rigged.
The United States, European Union and the United Kingdom now do not recognise Lukashenko as a legitimate president and have imposed sanctions that hobbled the economy and isolated the longtime ruler whose sole international supporter remains Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But even when cornered and ostracised, Lukashenko boosts his bad-boy image by openly defying the West.
“I don’t give a damn about what you think of the Belarusian president in the European Union. It wasn’t the EU that elected me,” he told the BBC network on November 22 – and added that US President Joe Biden was elected “illegitimately”.
In recent weeks, the West has accused him of masterminding a migration crisis by letting thousands of refugees – mainly from the Middle East – arrive in Belarus to cross the border with Poland or Lithuania.
“His behaviour over the past year has shown that political isolation has turned him into a delusional, paranoid and petty man,” said Ivar Dale, a policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog.
“What you see is an unstable and dangerous man who is desperately clinging on to power, a power that he is convinced can belong only to him personally,” he told Al Jazeera.
But this is not the first time Lukashenko has tried to stay afloat in political hot water.
Dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” 20 years ago at a time when Putin was seen as a pro-Western political newcomer, Lukashenko is used to withstanding Western criticism and sanctions.
“He is a genius tactician – under any unfavourable circumstances he can either step back a bit or play for time until external pressure ends,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher with Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
Lukashenko’s critics have for years been silenced through beatings and arrests, rights groups have documented. Some were jailed, some fled, and some disappeared without a trace.
What helped him fight the largely urban dissidents was the cohort of police and intelligence officers mainly recruited from villagers who enjoy a higher-than-average salary, Mitrokhin said.
“He created a working system of his rule that is based on the energy of large-fisted ex-peasants who went through the army and intelligence service, who hate the ‘city slickers’ and therefore have no qualms about carrying out each order Lukashenko gives,” he said.
Under Lukashenko, Belarus remained a mini-USSR preserved in amber, and his rule rested on three cornerstones, observers say.
First, he scrupulously controlled the economy by preserving the Soviet-era collective farms, state-run plants processing discounted Russian crude, manufacturing machinery and fertiliser. The control prevented the emergence of billionaire oligarchs whose money and connections played an outsized role in Russia and Ukraine.
Secondly, he did his best to slow down the formation of the middle class – affluent, pro-Western and some of his greatest critics.
When this nascent middle class rose against him during last year’s protests, he forced hundreds of thousands to flee for Ukraine and the EU.
Thirdly, he created a symbiotic political alliance with the Kremlin.
Back in 1997, Lukashenko signed a deal to create a “union state” with Russia, with a single government, legislation and currency. He hoped to replace ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin – and stalled the merger after Putin came to power in 2000.
Lukashenko also used pro-Western uprisings in neighbouring Ukraine in 2005 and 2014 as a pretext to milk the Kremlin for countless multibillion dollar loans, trade concessions and political support.
These days, Lukashenko’s political stock has sunk lower than ever as the three cornerstones of his rule are shaking.
“Lukashenko’s crisis is caused by the nullification of these factors – he still controls the [economic] assets, but has no depth in his manoeuvring, while the creative middle class is emerging,” Aleksey Kushch, an analyst based in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.
The migration crisis and this May’s forced landing of a Ryan Air passenger plane in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to arrest a Belarusian dissident, hastened Lukashenko’s transformation into an international bogeyman.
“A year ago, Lukashenko was seen as a usurper who seized power and waged a war on his own people,” said Alexander Opeikin, who headed a successful handball club in Minsk before taking part in last year’s protests and becoming a wanted fugitive.
“Now, it is obvious that Lukashenko is a threat to regional security, a man who, based on his actions, can be called an international terrorist,” Opeikin, who fled to Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.