MINSK, BELARUS — He reminisces about the Soviet era, admires Hitler, jails his opponents, and has alienated Western governments by kicking ambassadors out of their residences.
Indeed, President Alexander Lukashenko is rapidly becoming an international pariah for his harsh rule in Belarus, nestled in Eastern Europe between Russia and Poland.
Since he came to power in a 1994 landslide victory, this former state-farm boss has systematically pulled his country back to the Soviet days when dissidents were harassed, the news media were stifled, and economic privatization was anathema.
"He is power thirsty," says Andrei Sanikov, an official of the recently formed human rights group Charter 97, based in Minsk. "The atmosphere of control and fear is like the Soviet Union in the 1970s."
Mr. Sanikov resigned from his post as deputy prime minister in 1996 following a referendum used by Mr. Lukashenko to widen his presidential powers, weaken the judiciary, and muzzle the media.
Meanwhile, the president earned few friends when he defended his military after it shot down a gas balloon in September 1995, killing two Americans on board.
But his tough-guy image and rousing nationalist oratory have won the mustachioed president popularity among many of the nation's 10 million citizens. His desire to reunite with Russia and fellow Slavs strikes a chord among rural folk nostalgic for Communist glory (see story, below).
Those yearning for the days before the Soviet Union collapsed would savor the air in the capital, Minsk, and not just for the soulless heavy architecture. Political critics refrain from sensitive phone conversations because of bugs, complain of being followed, and wonder when their next stint in jail will be.
The capital felt frozen in time during holiday celebrations last week. Tanks rumbled through the streets, red banners festooned the city, and schoolchildren were deployed to sing patriotic songs.
Such displays did nothing to dampen the outrage of foreign governments, nine of whom withdrew their ambassadors when Lukashenko turned off the water and electricity in their residences last month.
It was dubbed the "sewer war" in the press. Lukashenko said he needed to carry out plumbing repairs in the luxury houses located in an area of Minsk known as Drozdy. But the buildings happen to stand near his house, and the common assumption is that he wants them for his friends.
The ambassadors left in a huff "for consultations," muttering about increased international isolation and violations of the Vienna Convention. Particularly angry was the US, which recently spent $800,000 on repairs for its building.
Lukashenko, however, portrays his small country as victimized by a bullying West. He insisted in a holiday address last Friday that Belarus should be taken seriously.
"We have bravely joined big-time politics on an equal footing, not as someone's vassal," he said. "The choice made by the republic may be unpleasant to some people, but in our country everything is done for the benefit of Belarussians."
Analysts agree that Lukashenko appears to have won the recent spat with foreign governments.
International leverage is minimal, short of imposing economic sanctions. And the US, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European donors have suspended aid, with little political effect.
Western governments feel they have to keep embassies open to maintain the minimal dialogue.
"Belarus is strategically placed between Russia and the West," says one diplomat. "It is an unstable region. Rights abuses are being committed. We have to keep channels of communication open and hope that dialogue works."
Many analysts believe that Russia is the only country that can wield any clout on Lukashenko, due to common security concerns, a shared past and language, and a sense of Slavic brotherhood.
Russia is toeing a delicate line, however, unwilling to alienate Belarus, which is one of its closest allies in stemming NATO's eastwards advance.
Diplomatic relations, although better now, were tense when Pavel Sheremet, a reporter for Russia's ORT television, was jailed after investigating smuggling on the Belarussian-Lithuanian border.
"I've been released. But I certainly don't feel safe," he says.
Furthermore, Russia is the only country with a Drozdy residence that kept its ambassador in Minsk, although it did not hide its displeasure about having to relocate him to an apartment. Such incidents will probably not do much for Lukashenko's bid to eventually become president of a unified Belarus-Russia.
Foreign pressure is the main hope of local human rights officials, who estimate that there have been 2,000 political prisoners since the referendum - and 300 so far this year. According to human rights groups, dissidents not jailed are beaten, kidnapped, or threatened.
Nongovernmental organizations have been chased out of town, including the foundation of philanthropist-financier George Soros.
A report released last week by Human Rights Watch, based in New York, details a litany of new arrests and harassment of opposition journalists and politicians. It notes that six opposition publications were suspended so far this year. A new bill envisions prison sentences of up to five years in jail for "insulting statements" about the government.
"President Lukashenko is truly turning back the clock on rights," the report said.
BELARUS AT A GLANCE
Area: 80,153 square miles (slightly smaller than the state of Kansas).
Population: 10.4 million.
Gross domestic product (1996): $51.9 billion.
Government: Alexander Lukashenko was elected Belarus's first president in 1994. Following a 1996 referendum to amend the Constitution, he has broadened his powers and repressed opponents. He has also been accused of egregious human rights violations by international groups.
Sources: United States Department of State, World Almanac, International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, CIA World Book of Facts.