My Name Is Luka

Luka holds court in Vilnius

Luka holds court in Vilnius

It’s not often you get a chance to see a proper dictator up close these days. Not that Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko is a dictator, you understand. Just like Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gadaffi, he is in charge (and has been since 1994) simply by dint of being democratically elected. The Minsk parliament contains not a single opposition MP.

Indeed so democratic is Captain Combover, he is on record as saying he actually decreed that the total number of votes cast for him in his election victory should be revised downwards. You can’t get more democratic than that, can you?

Lukashenko paid a visit to Vilnius on Tuesday and Wednesday with his five-year-old son in tow as usual. While little Kolya – whom Lukashenko says made the pope cry tears of joy – was treated to a shopping spree and water park visit, Dad turned up at the 5th Lithuania-Belarus business forum to sell tractors and steal a few headlines.

His main messages were that Belarus has a great economy and can’t be played off against Russia by the European Union.

“We are not going to mess about,” Luka said, “A lot depends on Belarus, including the EU’s security.”

“I want the Europeans to understand we cannot be pushed about,” he added.

On the economy, everything in the Belarussian garden sounded so rosy (“We have doubled our GDP – no-one else has done this”), it is hard to understand why Luka has asked the IMF for a 3.5 billion dollar bailout package.

But Luka was more about spectacle than soundbites, really. Every time he started to sound vaguely reasonable, a bit like any other politician, he would start referring to himself in the third person, that tried-and-tested sign of egomania unbound.

“If you don’t like Lukashenko, fine – you can take action against Lukashenko,” said, er, Lukashenko.

Lukashenko walks while others run

Lukashenko walks while others run

The expectation was that The Moustache would deliver his piece and disappear, sharpish. Amazingly, he didn’t even hang around to listen to the next speaker, Prime Minister of Lithuania Andrius Kubilius, before leaving the podium and exeunting stage left.

One couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for Kubilius as he commenced his own speech as the press pack, TV cameras, Luka’s flatteringly large entourage and a sizeable number of delegates all
scrambled for the door.

What did Kubilius say? No-one knows and probably never will.

But you can’t keep a good man – or a bad one – down. Against expectations, Luka reappeared in the foyer twenty minutes later and staged his own impromptu press conference. He clearly relished the task and his undeniable presence (“charisma” would be the wrong word) seemed to over-awe most of the journalists, whom he dealt with in a barnstorming manner while his toadies laughed just that little bit too much at his jokes.

It says a lot about his self-confidence that Lukashenko was able to hold his audience as long as he did – getting on for half an hour – without the aid of a rostrum, microphone, moderator, notes or other props.

As befits a man who still runs his country on Soviet principles, he exhibited an old-fashioned ability to cow the press into meek acquiescence by looking them straight in the eye and questioning their own right to ask questions.

The press’ idea of its own importance is an often-overlooked thing. Once that’s called into question, many journalists find themselves flapping around a bit aimlessly, aware that they probably aren’t as well briefed as their subject on whatever matter they happen to be tackling.

Luka takes 'em all on - and wins

Luka takes 'em all on - and wins

A question-and-answer session relies on an unspoken contract concerning the right of the questioner to ask questions and the obligation of the answerer to provide an answer. Once that breaks down, you end up with a battle of egos and in such a scenario there’s only ever going to be one winner.

Thus Lukashenko cleverly appeared to trump the “liberal” and “democratic” media at their own game – a point he actually made himself several times. They complained that he was autocratic, not answerable, living in a different world. Well, here he was, on his own, available to anyone with the guts to go toe-to-toe with him.

Of course it was a con – there’s a big difference between real accountability and the willingness to give an account of yourself – but it was a definite case of: Luka 1, Media 0.

He may not be a nice man, but he is certainly a formidable one – and he’s probably right when he says Belarus won’t be pushed around while he’s in charge.

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