It's Lonely At the Top In Belarus

Seven years ago, a tall, 40-year-old collective farm director with a piercing gaze and trimmed moustache rode the wave of his people's genuine infatuation to become president.

Since then, Alexander Lukashenko has managed to turn Belarus into an economic wasteland and the last vestige of unchecked authoritarian rule in Europe. Even so, he remains a genuinely popular father figure in a nation not ready to face the risks of political and economic reforms.

But he is an increasingly lonely ruler, whose unpredictable and offensive style has alienated many members of his administration. Disliked by his bureaucrats, Lukashenko bases his power on a combination of cheap populism and expensive security services.

The size of Sunday's victory, observers said, is a measure of his fears.

"He probably could have won without fraud or intimidation, albeit with a smaller margin," said Alexander Tomkovich, the editor of the independent Den newspaper. "But politically, he could not afford such a victory." Only with the certainty of a big first-round victory could Lukashenko be sure of keeping his hold over state officials, he said.

Lukashenko was declared the winner with an overwhelming 75.6 percent of the vote, although various opinion polls of varying reliability had showed the race to be much closer. International election observers and Lukashenko's challenger, Vladimir Goncharik, said the results were rigged.

During the past seven years, the Belarussian president has developed a peculiar style of running the country.

Cabinet sessions presided over by Lukashenko and aired on national television look more like a gathering of schoolchildren reporting to a strict headmaster than a meeting of high state officials. Looking cowed and uneasy, the ministers listen to Lukashenko's often scathing criticism and promise to fulfill his demands, which sometimes include solving a local crisis at a particular kolkhoz or factory.

On some of these occasions Lukashenko has sacked ministers in front of the television cameras and once even personally handcuffed a minister and dispatched him to jail on corruption charges.

This style has kept Lukashenko popular with the people, but left him with almost no one he can trust, Tomkovich said. "He is surrounded by people who could switch sides at the first occasion if given a guarantee that they would keep their posts. A landslide first-round victory is a must -- one can never know if the bureaucracy would change its mind in between the two rounds."

According to a poll conducted shortly before Sunday's election by the Independent Institute for Social and Economical Studies in Minsk, Lukashenko had reason to worry. Of the state bureaucrats polled, only 28.5 percent said they had a "positive attitude" toward Lukashenko and as many as 60.7 percent described their attitude as "negative," said Alexander Sosnov, deputy director of the institute and a former welfare minister, who fell out with Lukashenko in the early years.

The former head of the presidential administration, Ivan Titenkov, said in an interview with the independent Belarussian press this summer that the president "trusts no one." According to Titenkov, Lukashenko has spent large sums of money on special listening equipment and has essentially bugged anyone that matters in Belarus.

The only thing Lukashenko may feel he can count on is the presidential security service, which he has been building up in the last couple of years. It is the security forces who Lukashenko said will "defend him to the end" if the opposition attempts a forceful takeover after the election.

These forces have been accused of helping make several of Lukashenko's political opponents disappear, most prominent among them Viktor Gonchar, the former head of the Belarussian Supreme Soviet. Gonchar belonged to the "young wolves," -- a circle of Lukashenko's close allies who helped him rise to power only to fall out with him in the first years of his government.

"At the time, we thought he would be the popular reformer, our own Lech Walesa," said Alexander Feduta, another of the "wolves." With his "man of the people" image, Lukashenko looked to be the perfect man to rally the nation behind him for the difficult task of reforming the Soviet-style economy, he said.

"We couldn't have been more wrong," Feduta said. "We forgot that when Walesa became Poland's president, he was already a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an experienced politician. Lukashenko was just a kolkhoz director."

Feduta still finds it hard to believe that Lukashenko could have been behind his friend Gonchar's disappearance. "It's very, very difficult to believe the man you knew could be either covering up for the murderers or the murderer himself," he said.

Belarus is a country turned into a state-run organization. The command economy is back and so is price regulation. Dubbed "lice-ridden fleas" by Lukashenko, private businesses have been systematically obstructed. State-run companies enjoy large benefits and budget subsidies, and the president sometimes personally names their directors.

"He quickly realized that it's much easier to hold onto power in a country where there are no economic freedoms," said Vasily Leonov, the former minister of agriculture who was publicly handcuffed by Lukashenko. "When I was a minister, he was thinking of abolishing kolkhozes, but now he understands that's where his power base is."

Leonov, who spent several years in prison, headed the campaign staff for opposition candidate Goncharik.

"Lukashenko sees the country as one giant kolkhoz with him as its director," said Sosnov.

But this seems to satisfy many of the people in Belarus, where salaries, however low, are paid on time. "He prevented our factory from collapsing, made it run again and didn't fire even one single person," said Nikolai, a 58-year-old worker at the tire factory in the town of Bobruisk, some 140 kilometers south of Minsk. "What a fine fellow he is!

"And anyway, a country should be run like a kolkhoz," he added. "If the president is changed every four or five years, the country would plunge into chaos and we would have to start anew every time."

Tomkovich said this mentality is why Lukashenko is able to stay in power. "Lukashenko is not the cause, he's the symptom of our troubles," he sighed. "Our society is not ready for reforms, it's panically afraid of them. That's where the real problem lies."

Andrei Vardomatsky, director of the independent NOVAK sociological research center in Minsk, said Lukashenko is "a mirror of Belarussian mentality."

"He speaks the language they understand, he offers them simple solutions for complicated problems. His personality, his looks, it all fits our public perfectly."