Who is Alexander Lukashenko? What to know about Belarus' authoritarian leader, Putin ally

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WASHINGTON — When the Belarusian government said on Monday that over half the country's voters supported a constitutional amendment allowing authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to stay in power until 2035, opposition leaders and foreign election watchdogs immediately called it a sham.

The Sunday vote – which took place only days after Belarus' close ally Russia invaded their mutual neighbor Ukraine – also expanded Lukashenko's ability to coordinate with the Russian military. On Tuesday, Lukashenko announced he would deploy more troops to the Belarus-Ukraine border.

"Those are well-trained rapid deployment groups which are ready to stop any provocation and any military action against Belarus," Lukashenko said in a press conference.

Belarus now hosts more than 30,000 Russian troops situated a little over 60 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. In one viral video, Lukashenko can be seen showing Belarusian troops battle maps that imply they'd join the Russian onslaught.

An authoritarian and kleptocrat who has referred to himself as "Europe's last dictator," Lukashenko once held Russian President Vladimir Putin's government at arm's length to preserve his own autonomy. Now, many analysts point to his authoritarian government as the model vassal state Putin wishes to implement in Ukraine.

Here's what to know about one of Russia's few allies in the conflict against Ukraine:

Who is Alexander Lukashenko?

Raised by a single mother in rural eastern Belarus, then a subset of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko secured himself financially by enlisting in the military and later managing a collective farm.

He joined the Belarusian parliament in the late 1980s and made a name for himself by supporting the attempted coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by Soviet hardliners.

How long has Lukashenko been president?

In 1994, Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus after leading an ostensive anti-corruption initiative in the parliament. He has since consolidated power by suppressing independent media and arresting critics.

Belarus' relationship with Russia

Lukashenko has had a hot and cold relationship since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

He initially signed onto a "union state" with the Russian Federation, then led by Boris Yeltsin. The two countries diverged after Putin came to power in 1999 because Lukashenko feared Russia would again come to dominate the country.

Lukashenko has long been a critic of the European Union and liberal democratic states, a feeling that many European leaders reciprocate with him.

"I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world," Lukashenko mocked during a 2012 Reuters interview after EU and U.S. officials lambasted his authoritarian crackdown at home.

Pro-democracy movement rises after fraudulent election

In 2020, Lukashenko faced the most significant challenge to his power. While in previous years the government had rigged the votes in presidential elections to little protest, a burgeoning pro-democracy movement had grown in the country in recent years.

When pro-democracy activist and opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky was jailed during his run for president, his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, ran in his place. The opposition then rallied around her and galvanized a national campaign to defeat Lukashenko at the polls.

The August 2020 election results showed that Lukashenko had won with 80.1% of the vote, a number immediately challenged within the country and from abroad. Protests broke out in Minsk, Belarus' capital, and across the country calling for Lukashenko's ouster.

Tsikhanouskaya fled the country the next day with her children, fearing for their safety. Lukashenko then called in for security aid from Putin, who supplied security forces and technical support to crush street protests and jail the opposition.

Related: Biden: Arrest of dissident journalist by Belarus 'a direct affront to international norms'

Journalist captured, sparking global backlash

In June 2021, Roman Protasevich, a popular Belarusian journalist who opposed Lukashenko and was living outside of Belarus, boarded a commercial flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. While the plane was flying through Belarusian airspace, a military jet scrambled its flight path and ordered it to land due to a bomb threat.

When the plane landed in Minsk, Protasevich was taken into custody on trumped-up charges. The government later released a video where Protasevich, who appeared brutalized, admitted to crimes against the government.

The situation enraged the EU and U.S., which slapped sanctions on Belarus for interfering with a commercial flight on a European airline, Ireland's Ryanair, between the capitals of two EU members. The situation further isolated Belarus in Europe but brought Lukashenko closer to Putin, who was still supporting his government by suppressing dissent in the now solidly autocratic country.

Follow Matthew Brown online @mbrownsir.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Belarus: Who is authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko?