How do dictators survive? The Arab Spring has culled a few, but fewer than once predicted. On the other hand, there are plenty of nervous rulers, notably in Europe’s neighbours to the east, such as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, long dubbed the “last dictator in Europe.” His economy is bust and his country isolated, as James Sherr reported in July’s Prospect. UK lawyers are even attempting to launch a string of private prosecutions against him, on behalf of protestors and candidates imprisoned after the rigged elections in December 2010. But Lukashenko is a great survivor, who has held onto power for nearly two decades. Has he developed survival strategies that other dictators have not?
Lukashenko’s regime is not founded on natural resources or isolationist nationalism. In fact, Belarusian national identity is famously weak. Lukashenko’s speciality is an adapted “neo-Titoist” balancing act, which allows him to extract resources from both east and west. In its classic Cold War-era, Yugoslavian form, this tactic worked best for states stuck between two blocs, as they could sell marginal advantages to either side. But the old blocs are now gone: Russia might care about Belarus’s geopolitical positioning, but on the whole the west does not.
Lukashenko has had to be more creative. He sold Yeltsin his country’s role in recreating a would-be “Union State” in the 1990s, promised Russian oligarchs an “offshore oil state” in the early 2000s, and acted as a bulwark against the “colour revolutions” of Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004.
But Russia is now much more utilitarian: it pays less and expects more. Putin has become increasingly irritated by Lukashenko’s brazen leeching and boasting about the superiority of a Belarusian social system paid for with Russian money. In 2007 Lukashenko accordingly announced a “many-winged” foreign policy, the sole purpose of which was to scour the global dictators’ club for rents. It worked, bringing in almost $10bn in credit lines and loans from China, $300m from Azerbaijan, half a billion from Venezuela, and most recently $400m from Iran.
Belarus was also forced to begin limited economic reforms in 2007—fortunately just before it was hit hard by the global economic crisis. He played up the myth that the country’s efficient bureaucracy promoted “authoritarian modernisation” to…