What's so good about democracy anyway? An audience with the last dictator in Europe
It is said you can judge a man by the company he keeps. If so, Alexander Lukashenko Ц President of Belarus for the last 18 years Ц is sending out worrying signals.
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President whose regime has overseen the massacres of Houla and Daraya, is described as "wonderful" and "an absolute European, civilized man". Colonel Gaddafi is name-dropped, as is Saddam Hussein.
Sat amid the faux grandeur of his offices in Minsk, he recalled the cosy chats he once shared with the former Libyan autocrat Ц "I told him: 'Muammar, you need to sort things out with Europe yourself!' Then he told me about his relationship with Sarkozy" Ц and more darkly about how the West turned on his old Iraqi confidant.
"American envoys came to see me before the crisis in Iraq and asked me to say that there were nuclear weapons in Iraq. I refused. They even told me that things would go well for Belarus in terms of investments, etc. All I had to do was to support them.
"I told them that I couldn't do it because I knew that there were no nuclear weapons there. And, after talking to Hussein back then, I told them that Hussein was ready to come to an agreement with them regarding oil, if that's what they were after, and other things. Just don't bomb; don't destroy the country! He was ready to show Ц and showed Ц all these [alleged WMD] sites.
"Their answer was: 'We believe you, but the war machine's engine is already running too fast.' I swear to you that this conversation took place and that a man came to see me and we were discussing this matter in this very room."
With that he leant back and stared intently at me. An imitation fire flickered in the hearth, the plastic logs casting a febrile glow across the left-side of his face.
"It's a double standard," he insisted with some justification. "Americans want to make us democratic. Go make Saudi Arabia democratic! Do we look like Saudi Arabia? Far from it! Why not make them democratic? Because he is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.
"You're bandits. Democratic bandits. You've destroyed thousands, maybe millions of people [in Iraq and Afghanistan]." He exclaimed: "I'm living through being democratised with a truncheon on the head by the West every day. Who needs that kind of democracy?"
Authoritarianism is still prevalent in former Soviet states. It was why I had wanted to visit Belarus and meet its leader. I wanted a reminder of where we had come from. To my disquiet, what I found was a warning of what might happen if other ex-Soviet countries in the region turn away from Europe and back towards the past.
Google Lukashenko and the prefix you find most given is "Europe's last dictator". It was a moniker coined in 2005 by the United States when it called on the people of Belarus to cast off the "yoke of tyranny".
In the years since being elected in July 1994, he ruthlessly Ц albeit with political skill Ц consolidated power by usurping parliament and the judiciary, while simultaneously shackling the media. Not one national vote since '94 has been found by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to have met its standards for free and fair elections.
In late 2010 there was hope of a thaw when, in the run-up to the December presidential vote, restrictions were loosened to enable an unprecedented nine opposition candidates to stand. This hope did not survive election day. As demonstrators gathered to protest against Lukashenko's victory Ц a victory international observers attacked as a fraud Ц the security services were sent in, batons and all.
Lukashenko is unrepentant. "Unlike in the UK, or France, or America, we've never used water cannon for mass riots dispersal. Even when they attacked the House of Government and broke the door, smashed the windows and tried to occupy the House of Government, we didn't use any water cannons, nor CS gas. We brought in police and special forces. Then the gawkers all ran, and the only ones left were their activists: 400 people who were detained, those who were breaking the door."
He insisted that this merely showed how a government's most important responsibility was to preserve stability. As proof of what could happen if it did not, he was happy to recall in detail the social and economic chaos with its "riots and fights" that followed the Soviet Union's collapse.
"These were terrible years of anarchy, and not only in Russia," he said, before warming to his theme: "I don't need your democracy! Belarusians don't need this democracy if there's no economy. If a man can't work in his own country and earn his living, if he can't take a piece of land, if he can't build a house, plant a tree, raise his children because he's scared to let them go outside."
Russia in the 1990s was indeed anarchic. Business rivals took each other out with guns. Corruption became endemic. Life expectancy slumped as hospitals ran out of supplies and the mass of newly unemployed people turned to drink and drugs to forget their sorrows. In comparison, Belarus was stable and moderately prosperous Ц a notable boon.
IISEPS, the only independent Belarusian polling company, found in the 2006 presidential election that Lukashenko gained 54.2 per cent of the vote against 15.8 per cent for his nearest rival. The problem, however, was that the official figure for Lukashenko was 83 per cent. Even when the Belarusian people were willing to reward their President with a popular mandate, he could not resist doctoring the figures.
Amnesty International highlights in its latest annual report recent claims of torture and ill-treatment in Belarus, as well as how hundreds of people were detained for "silent protests" in which they demonstrated opposition by gathering in public places and then either applauding or ringing their mobile phone alarms. Human Rights Watch warns that students are now being thrown out of university for criticising the Lukashenko regime. Civil servants have been fired for the same offence.
Yet when I questioned the President on his human rights record it was notable how much more shaky his memory was compared to his earlier recall of the post-USSR social and economic collapse.
I asked how many journalists had been arrested in recent years and the answer was "no idea". But what about the case of Iryna Khalip, a campaigning reporter for Novaya Gazeta, the crusading Moscow newspaper supported by my family? She has been held in Belarus under forms of house arrest for two years. When I first raised the issue, Lukashenko denied knowledge of the details of the case and how she could not leave for Moscow, saying "this is the first time that I've heard that".
However, when pressed, he agreed to lift the restrictions on her right to travel. He would have "everything arranged", he promised, later confirming his pledge. "I've already made a decision," he told me. "You see, dictatorship is a good thing too. No other president would have made a decision straight away, and I have."
At this moment, however, we are still waiting to discover if he will be true to his word. Khalip, at the time of writing, remains under just the same restrictions as before Lukashenko's promise.
When challenged about the way the death penalty was administered in Belarus Ц by a bullet to the back of the head, with families often not notified of the execution or returned the body Ц the response was: "I don't know how the execution is carried out Е it would be improper, indecent even, of me to inquire."
Not that he was against the idea of executions. Indeed he was keen to stress that if there was a referendum on the issue he would be enthusiastically for. He has seen the case files of those whose death warrants he signed and so he had no doubt they deserved it. "Photos, investigative notes, etc. Someone's child, a 12-year-old girl, raped, dismembered, hacked up, drowned, body parts everywhere. All this comes to my desk. What are your feelings? Especially if it's a child."
Belarus traditionally did well economically under his rule. It was consistently one of the top-performing former Soviet states in the United Nations' Human Development Index, and back in 2005 the IMF confirmed that over the previous seven years his government had halved the number of people in poverty and maintained the fairest distribution of income of any country in the region. Healthcare was free, and education universal.
This was achieved, Soviet-style, by keeping 80 per cent of industry and 75 per cent of banks in state hands. It was also achieved, Soviet-style, at the expense of basic freedoms. Arriving in Minsk is like stepping into a world that, in the rest of the former Soviet Union at least, disappeared two decades ago.
I was a child when the USSR collapsed but I can still recall, particularly compared to what came next, how clean the streets were and how few the cars on the road. Minsk is like that still: spick and span and empty. The echoes it elicits are only heightened by its appearance. Almost totally reconstructed by German POW labour after being destroyed in the Second World War, there are rows of elegant Stalin-era apartment blocks and broad, windswept boulevards. It is like a picture from one of my parents' old photo albums.
The resemblance is not merely cosmetic, however. It is also in the political emanation of the place: the plain-clothed security officers who can be seen watching at the airport, public places and even some bars; the central position of the intelligence services Ц in Belarus still called the KGB Ц with its block-sized neoclassical HQ in the heart of the capital; the prominently situated statue of Lenin and the bust of Dzerzhinsky.
Not that Lukashenko minds these ghosts in his midst. He was a member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet in 1991, and supposedly the only member to vote against the motion to end the USSR. It was, he told me, a "catastrophe" to dissolve the Soviet empire.
Nor does he deny the controlling nature of his regime. Although insistent that he was not a dictator Ц "it's all lies; it's not true" Ц he willingly admitted to its authoritarian aspects, even claiming how exhausting it was when "you are responsible for everything".
The fact is, meeting him is like finding yourself with a cameo in a John le Carré story, one filled with Cold War suspicion. The West was out to get him. Fifth columnists plotted to destroy his achievements. The Poles wanted to seize control of the west of his country ("It's even printed on their maps!").
The OSCE's findings on irregularities in the 2010 poll were a pre-planned stitch-up, he said. "A month before the election there was an OSCE report on my desk about the results of the presidential election in Belarus," he claimed. "Explain that to me! Our intelligence service got hold of that document and gave it to me. I couldn't believe it. And after the election, they published the same report exactly."
Such obsessions can make him an easy figure for mockery. For example he so dotes on his young son, Kolya, that he takes him to cabinet meetings and introduces him to international leaders, most recently Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Lukashenko denies reports he is grooming the boy as his successor. But he defends his right to have him at international summits, saying it merely demonstrates what a loving father he is. "When I'm negotiating with a president, and the poor kid is sitting outside the room, he can't really stand it when he doesn't see me. So he bursts in through the door, the security service let him go so he wouldn't start to cry," he insisted. "If you get a child when you're 50, you'll understand what children are."
Nevertheless he readily concedes his son's upbringing is a world away from his own. He was brought up by a single mother working on a dairy farm. It was "catastrophically difficult", while Kolya, he said, lives in a "golden cage".
The cage for most people in Belarus is far less golden, particularly now that the global economic crisis has hit the country badly and threatened the "Belarusian Miracle" that Lukashenko had long trumpeted. It was this social contract Ц that he would provide some of the best healthcare, education and security in the region in exchange for agreeing to give up some political rights Ц that had long been the basis of the justification he cited for his rule. Now the currency has devalued three times and inflation has risen sharply. Gas subsidies from Moscow, a key plank in keeping the country's economy afloat, were threatened when Russia suddenly raised prices. In response Lukashenko had to approve the selling of pipeline owner Beltransgaz, one of the crown jewels of the Belarus state, to Gazprom to secure further discounts.
It is the resulting discontent caused by these tough times that has prompted the increased repression highlighted by the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports. The opposition's resorting to silent protests was a reaction to the speed with which the authorities had started to crack down on any demonstration at which slogans were chanted. Not that it provided any protection. You can see on YouTube the footage of the police dispersing such gatherings. It is not pleasant to watch.
"So Lukashenko is a bad guy!" Lukashenko retorted when questioned on such behaviour. "Go out on the street, look around Ц everything is clean, neat, normal people walking around. There's no way that the dictator can't take at least some credit for that."
He expanded on his right to rule: "A president has Ц and I had it even before I became president Ц a very special relationship with the people, a connection based on feelings. Even if I try to lie to the nation right now, people will feel it that I am lying, in the same way that I am very receptive of people. These qualities were probably a gift from God to me. People felt my wish to help, felt it and appreciated it."
And were there mistakes made? Would he have done anything differently during his near two decades in power? "There were no systematic errors," I was told, "since I don't remember them.