MINSK, Belarus — In an age of ascendant strongman leaders, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is suddenly looking surprisingly weak.
As protests against his rule have grown and intensified over the last week, the man known as “Europe’s last dictator” turned in desperation Monday to the once reliably loyal workers at a tractor factory. But instead of being showered with their support, he was shouted down with chants of “Go away! Go away!”
Until he claimed a landslide victory on Aug. 9 in a fraud-tainted election, few leaders appeared stronger and more secure than Lukashenko, a former state farm director who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, backed by an expansive, brutal and unwaveringly loyal security apparatus.
Now, in scenes recalling the popular uprising that came out of nowhere to topple Romania’s seemingly invincible dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, the Belarus capital of Minsk, long known for its cowed calm and order, has shed decades of fear and raised its voice with a simple, insistent demand: The dictator must go.
“At the moment, the only issue that matters to us is the president,” said Sergei Drilevsky, the leader of a strike committee at the Minsk Tractor Works. Calls for a new election, the release of protesters detained last week and other demands all flow from the need to address “the dictator’s attempts to stay in power,” he said.
Former bastions of support for Lukashenko, like state-owned factories and state-controlled television stations, are now wavering, outraged by a frenzy of police violence last week directed against those protesting the blatantly rigged presidential election.
Flailing around in search of a savior, Lukashenko has turned for help to a fellow strongman, President Vladimir Putin of neighboring Russia. The two leaders spoke twice over the weekend by telephone.
But Putin, while anxious to avoid Belarus going the way of Ukraine and embracing the West, has so far shown little interest in throwing Lukashenko a lifeline. He did promise help if Belarus should be attacked by foreign armies. But that possibility is considered so unlikely that, despite claims by Lukashenko of NATO forces gathering on the border, Putin provided scant real comfort.