Belarus leader relishes reputation as dictator
By Timothy Heritage and Richard Balmforth
MINSK (Reuters) - He is a pariah in the West, viewed suspiciously by Russia and loathed by opponents in exile or jail, but Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is relishing his notoriety as Europe's last dictator.
After 18 years in power, the blunt, forceful and heavily built former state farm manager shows no sign of bowing to Western pressure to relax his grip on the former Soviet republic squeezed between Russia and the European Union.
Always defiant, often cantankerous and sometimes provocative, Lukashenko has added irony to his armory to deflect Western politicians' criticism, touting their dictator tag as a badge of honor.
"I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world," he told Reuters in a rare interview in the capital Minsk in which he repeatedly referred to himself as a dictator and to his rule as a dictatorship.
"You came here and looked at a living dictator. Where else would you see one? There is something in this. They say that even bad publicity is good publicity."
Lukashenko's words are delivered with a wry grin and a wave of his immense hands, and appear intended to taunt the critics whose calls for more economic and political freedom have gone largely unheeded since he first became president in 1994.
The 58-year-old leader does not tire of telling guests that Belarus is the geographical centre of Europe. But the country of 9.5 million does not share the same democratic values as its western neighbors.
Minsk's broad thoroughfares are still lined with monolithic Soviet-era buildings. There are streets named after Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, though some may now boast smart Western shops, such as a showroom for Porsche cars and McDonald's fast-food restaurants. Continued...