Some 25 years ago, Alexander Lukashenko was elected as president in the first ever democratic elections in Belarus. He was 39. Since then, there have been no further such elections, only clampdowns, protests, tweaked constitutions, alleged assassinations and the founding of an authoritarian system described as the last dictatorship of Europe.
But over the years, the former collective farm director, now 65, has excelled as a wily tactician and survivor. Swinging from one seemingly existential crisis to the next, Mr Lukashenko has always found a way to emerge from negotiations unscathed and emboldened.
He has balanced between Russia and Europe; joined a “union” state but refused to host Russian military bases nor recognise Crimea; benefitted from massive oil and gas preferences amounting to tens of billions of pounds from Moscow but negotiated a separate trade partnership with China.
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As a result, Mr Lukashenko has been able to build his resource-poor country in the image of his collective farm dreams: a scale model of the Soviet Union, where, almost uniquely in the region, almost everything seems to work.
Yet there is a growing sense that in negotiations with Vladimir Putin, Mr Lukashenko might finally have met his match.
The two men have famously never got on, but in recent times the relationship has become decidedly frosty, with Mr Putin looking to extract more concessions from his unreliable ally.
In his annual news conference on Thursday, the Russian president seemed to issue an ultimatum. Belarus would get no gas discounts while “union building [was] incomplete”, he said. Put another way: either Mr Lukashenko agrees to an unpopular closer merging with Russia or he faces the loss of subsidy and the prospect of a political implosion at home.
Talks in St Petersburg this weekend produced a predictable stalemate, with Mr Lukashenko facing a seemingly impossible challenge.
One man with little sympathy for his predicament is Mikola Statkevich, a former presidential candidate who has spent eight of the last 20 years behind bars at Mr Lukashenko’s pleasure.
Speaking with The Independent in Minsk on Friday, just before an opposition protest against the joint state, Mr Statkevich said the Belarusian strongman had himself to blame after “trading away” the country’s sovereignty in exchange for oil and gas.
President Lukashenko was heading for “disaster” because he refused to open up the country to reform, Mr Statkevich said: “If he does what I think he’s going to do, then Gaddafi’s fate will seem merciful. Lukashenko has many enemies, many people who have patiently hated him for years.”
On Thursday, the opposition leader reported what he claimed was an attempted “poisoning”. He described a severe “allergic reaction” which caused his throat to swell and restrict his breathing. His wife, a doctor, was on hand to administer an anti-allergic injection, and the swelling subsided. The opposition politician said he could not be sure when he was poisoned, but alleged he was not the only opposition politician to experience such strange symptoms.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” he said. “It was designed as a warning shot.”
President Lukashenko has denied such dirty tricks in dealing with opponents. In a 2012 interview with The Independent, he described himself as a “democrat” who valued “personal freedom”. But the fact remains that some of his rivals have been imprisoned for long periods of time, have disappeared or have been forced into exile.
The level of support for the opposition is unclear, with most Belarusians erring on the side of the apolitical. At the same time, there are signs that may be changing. In 2017, a controversial plan to introduce a charge on the unemployed for “lost tax” led to protests and radicalised part of the population. Unease about the prospect of a merger with Russia has raised the stakes further.
Plans for a joint state are the product of a different era. Signed in the mid-Nineties, they were the expression of a close relationship between Mr Lukashenko and the ailing Russian president Boris Yeltsin. They envisaged merging of fiscal rules, national institutions, and even the military. They have never been fully enacted.
It seems probable Mr Lukashenko once imagined a role for himself atop the superstate. Two things conspired to work against that prospect: opposition protests over 1999-2000, which he dealt with clinically but which damaged his reputation; and the emergence of Vladimir Putin in Moscow. There was no room for two such strong personalities at the top.
Some have even speculated that Mr Putin may now himself be eyeing presidency of the unified superstate as a way to stay on after his term expires in 2024.
Even if true, such considerations probably play a secondary role to geopolitics. They are, at most, a fortuitous “side-effect”, said Arsen Sivitski, director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, a Minsk-based think tank. Instead, the main rationale behind Moscow’s strong-arming was to keep Belarus, its closest ally, “within a manageable orbit”.
“The Russian intelligence community sees a threat that Minsk may tilt towards Europe, and they will be left with the same problem they had in Ukraine,” Mr Sivitski said. “So Moscow is acting preventatively, as it sees it. It wants to have institutional instruments in place to control things if they get out of hand.”
A large proportion of the 200 or so who turned up to a protest against a closer union with Russia on Friday said it was the Ukrainian scenario that they were most afraid of.
“Russia says it a brotherly country, but it hasn’t been very brotherly with Ukraine,” said Svetlana Kovalenko, 40, an economist.
“Maybe they won’t need tanks with us. Maybe they will swallow up our country gradually by signing documents.”