Lukashenko’s nightmarish grip on Belarus, as told by an ex-government insider

Ukraine: Lukashenko’s priority is to ‘preserve power’ says Lavaleuski

Alexander Lukashenko has become an improbable winner from the fallout between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin.

After threatening a mutiny, Prigozhin, the boss of the Wagner Group, renounced his hopes of taking the fight to Moscow and entered a deal with Putin that saw him exiled to Belarus.

It is believed that the Russian presidential administration was initially negotiating with Prigozhin himself, but in a twist of events, Lukashenko ended up as chief deal broker, coming in at the last minute to save the day.

His public relations team have lapped up the opportunity to cast him in a favourable light. Belarusian propagandist Yevgeny Pustovoy described him as the “peacemaker of Slavic civilisation”, while others said Prigozhin immediately picked the phone up when he saw it was Lukashenko calling.

What exactly happened is unclear. But Lukashenko’s control over Belarus is fragile, frantic, and bitterly desperate, as learned from a person who recently worked at the heart of the regime.

READ MORE Belarus is de facto prison for Prigozhin who ‘won’t ever be safe’ from Putin

Pavel Slunkin worked at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry between 2014 and 2020. He was just six years old when Lukashenko was elected in 1994.

In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Lukashenko changed his tune. He feared reprisals from the European community for supporting Russia, and so distanced himself from Putin. In the process, a window of opportunity opened, and many relatively liberal reforms were made.

By 2020, those reforms came crashing down. Mr Slunkin was present for the short-lived change but remembers how difficult it was working in Minsk.

“The years I was in the foreign ministry were the most liberal ever, and we were lobbying for a pro-Western direction,” he said.

“But things were frustrating. Lukashenko was and is the main decision-maker. He’s the guy that you had to persuade to have decisions made.

“I could do something on my level, but when you reach a certain level, then the decision comes through him.

“In short: you have an idea, you have an explanation. You have to know how to talk to Lukashenko to persuade him, and then he decides.”

Mr Slunkin talked of a battle between his ministry and others that contained older, Soviet-era figures, who were against liberalisation.

“All the time, it was a fight for Lukasehnko’s ear,” he said. “Once, the foreign ministry tried to persuade Lukashenko to roll out a visa-free regime for tourists. But the Belarusian KGB strongly opposed this because they wanted to control every Westerner that enters the country.”

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The siloviki, Lukashenko’s inner circle, tirelessly campaigned to keep the population reliant on the government so it would be forced to move in whatever direction it chose, Mr Slunkin explained.

He said little had changed since the time he left, and that now, “the siloviki rule the country”.

He continued: “Those liberal ministries like the foreign ministry and the civil ministers, they don’t have influence anymore. They’re just doing what Lukashenko agrees with, and they are afraid to suggest anything outside this.”

In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, Mr Slunkin had a choice: he could either keep his job and tow the government line, or resign in protest. He chose the latter, and today lives in exile in neighbouring Poland. Should he have stayed, he risked being taken away from his family and imprisoned.

Many were in similar positions in the election’s aftermath. previously spoke to Valery Kavaleuski, who, after returning to Minsk to participate in the protests, fled the country.

A former diplomat in the Belarusian foreign ministry, he today lives in exile in Lithuania after joining opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who is believed to have won the election.

Of Belarus’ future, Mr Kavaleuski said: “Lukashenko knows well that Belarusians have not given up on the idea of getting rid of him and bringing democracy to Belarus.

“So people are now in waiting mode. They’re waiting for the chance to come back to the same intentions they had, that they want to get rid of Lukashenko and want to take power back to people.”

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