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UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT MOVES TO BAN GROUP HYPNOSIS. The Verkhovna Rada on February 7 approved in the first reading a bill that would ban the hypnosis of a group of people for any purpose, Interfax-Ukraine and dpa reported. The bill was supported by 392 lawmakers. In particular, the postulated ban reportedly targets the use of hypnosis at mass events for healing purposes and religious practices. JM
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently made headlines by disrupting Russian oil supplies to Europe during a row with Moscow over energy price hikes. The standoff capped a season that saw Lukashenka throw his weight behind a number of proposals certain to damage ties with Moscow -- a union state with Ukraine, a transit-country alliance meant to counteract Russian pressure, and even eventual eurozone and EU membership for Belarus. What motivates "Europe's last dictator" to taunt a massively powerful neighbor that is also one of his few remaining allies?
Anybody seeking to understand Lukashenka's political behavior could get a good start by reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterful 1975 novel, "The Autumn of the Patriarch." Although Garcia Marquez based his fictional hero on a number of real-life autocrats from Latin America, the resulting picture is that of an archetypical dictator and patriarchal nation suffering the consequences of concentrating all possible power in a single man.
Lukashenka's life and career appear to emulate those of Garcia Marquez's protagonist in a number of ways -- some deeply fearsome and some irresistibly comic. By a strange twist of fate, the only Russian-language translation of "The Autumn of the Patriarch" was made by two Belarusian writers in 1978. It was as if fate decided that, of all the Soviet nationalities, it was Belarusians who needed most to look into the mind-set of people living under dictatorial oppression.
The similarities between Garcia Marquez's creation and the real-life Lukashenka begin, fittingly, with their fathers -- or lack thereof. Lukashenka's official website (http://www.president.gov.by) is laconic on the topic, saying only that the president "grew and was brought up without a father."
In fact, the identity of Lukashenka's father has never been disclosed. The president's patronymic, Ryhoravich, indicates his father was called Ryhor, or Grigory in Russian. One somewhat questionable account maintains the mysterious Ryhor may have been a one-eyed married man who saw his son as a small boy just a handful of times.
Details about Lukashenka's mother, Katsyaryna Trafimauna Lukashenka, have been somewhat easier to uncover. Journalists in the 1990s reported that Katsyaryna spent the early 1950s working in a flax-processing factory in the city of Orsha. She then returned to her native village of Aleksandria in eastern Mahilyou Oblast, her 2-year-old son, Sasha, in tow.
Lukashenka would later refer to Aleksandria as his birthplace. His official biographers have since offered a third version, saying he was born in nearby Kopys, in Vitsebsk Oblast.
Young Sasha -- the boy destined to become Belarus's first president -- was reported to have had a difficult childhood. He was deeply disliked by his peers in the village, who tormented and mocked him as an extramarital scion and a bastard. Sasha repeatedly pledged to take revenge on all of them as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
As an adult, Lukashenka has been prompted to describe his childhood only on rare occasions. Apart from his mother, he has never mentioned the name of a single friend or relative from that time. "In my childhood I grew up among animals and plants," he once confessed, and recalled helping his mother, a farm worker, to milk cows.
In his early years, Lukashenka dreamed of becoming a tractor driver. His thoughts later turned to a musical career after his mother bought him an accordion. In a propaganda film meant to boost his image in Russia in the second half of the 1990s -- when he still nurtured dreams that a Russian-Belarus union would propel him to the post of Russian president -- Lukashenka is shown in casual dress, amateurishly playing an accordion and singing a sentimental tune.
In 1971-75, Lukashenka studied history at the Pedagogical Institute in Mahilyou. After graduating, he married Halina Zhaunerovich, a childhood acquaintance, and fathered two sons, Viktar and Dzmitry. (His wife, who has never served in the capacity of first lady, was eventually dispatched to a lonely home in the country. Lukashenka is believed to have spent his recent years living with a mistress, with whom he reputedly has a child. "I'm not a family man," he has confessed, "because I've devoted my life to my work.")
Despite his teaching diploma, Lukashenka never pursued a teaching career. He went on to graduate from the Belarusian Agricultural Academy and from there took up a number of low-profile, politically flavored jobs in the provinces. He alternately worked as a Komsomol instructor; a "politruk," or political propaganda officer in Belarus's KGB border-troop unit; deputy director of a construction-materials factory; and deputy director and party secretary of a series of collective farms.
A point of contention on Lukashenka's resume is whether he ever worked as a prison warden. Opponents are fond of the theory, perhaps because of the president's appetite for incarcerating political opponents. Lukashenka, however, vigorously denies he ever held such a post.
In sum, the early, provincial years of Lukashenka's career gave the future president invaluable insight into the character of ordinary Belarusians -- collective-farm laborers and industrial workers -- who now form the backbone of his support. He mastered their natural idiom, a plebian version of Russian mixed with Belarusian syntax and pronunciation.
All this made it easy, when the time came, for him to appeal directly to the people's hearts, without bothering himself much about their minds. No other politician in Belarus -- in either the elite or the opposition -- has ever had such a forceful, almost hypnotizing, grip on an audience as Lukashenka.
Lukashenka also shared two more traits with those on the low end of the Soviet social spectrum: he was ashamed of his rural origins, and, as a result, loathed everything that was traditionally associated with them. In Belarus, this meant the native Belarusian language and indigenous culture. At the same time, however, he felt a deep-seated resentment toward the Russian-speaking urban nomenklatura, whose ranks were firmly off-limits to ambitious but insignificant country bumpkins like himself.
When he became president in 1994, the Belarusian language and the local nomenklatura both fell victim to his sense of vengeance. "The people who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speaking the Belarusian language, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian," Lukashenka famously declared -- in Russian -- in 1994. "There are only two great languages in the world -- Russian and English."
In May 1995, Lukashenka called a referendum which overwhelmingly backed his policy of integration with Russia and made Russian the second official language in the country. Belarusian, which enjoyed a brief revival in the early '90s, was enthusiastically abandoned once again by the very people who were expected to cherish it as the key component of their national identity.
The country's post-Soviet nomenklatura, meanwhile, proved indispensable -- or, more accurately, highly dispensable -- to Lukashenka during his first term. He routinely staged public humiliations of cabinet ministers and other officials, settling scores during televised conferences that showed him berating his victims for perceived economic and political errors. Often he pinned blame on them for his own fallacious decisions. At one such public display of opprobrium, Lukashenka went so far as to stage a minister's "spontaneous" dismissal, complete with handcuffs and immediate arrest.
Ordinary Belarusians watched such live programs with tremendous excitement. Lukashenka came over as a fantastic hero-leader, brandishing a sword of retribution over the heads of those they saw as their real oppressors. It was during this period that Belarusians first began to refer to their president as Batska, or "father" in Belarusian. His tough-guy approach to politics had strong appeal for a society craving authority and a firm hand -- the same society that had been overwhelmingly rural and patriarchal only a half-century ago.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Belarusians were subjected to a merciless social and cultural uprooting through the dual forces of industrialization and urbanization -- accompanied by forced Sovietization and Russification. Lukashenka lacked qualified expertise in the social manipulation of people, but he compensated with keen political instinct and a deep understanding of the national psyche. He assumed the role of father figure to a people who had lost their orientation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has been that genuine popular support, reinforced by generous Russian energy subsidies, that has allowed Lukashenka to avoid any major economic or social upheaval during the past 12 years.
Now that the subsidies seem to be over, Lukashenka's Soviet-style leadership techniques may become worthless. His recent flurry of contradictory political ideas and statements -- including a union with Ukraine and other energy-transit countries to balance Russia's increasing assertiveness in energy policies -- may be a sign that his political instinct has begun to fail him as well.
Another factor that bodes ill for Lukashenka's future is his isolation from the ruling class in Belarus. In January, at the height of his energy pricing dispute with Russia, Lukashenka appointed his 31-year-old son, Viktar, to the Security Council, granting the politically inexperienced young man a status equal to that of the KGB chief or the interior minister.
Some analysts have speculated that Lukashenka may be priming his son to serve as his successor. But the reason for the appointment actually seems to be much simpler -- the solitary president lacks qualified and trustworthy candidates to fill senior state positions and replace the battered and exhausted political veterans who have managed to remain in government.
"RFE/RL Belarus & Ukraine Report" is compiled on the basis of a variety of sources.
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