MINSK, Belarus — This past Sunday, July 3, was Independence Day, as good a time as any to witness the extraordinary levels of both bizarreness and brutality that characterize Belarus, the country that everyone loves to call "Europe's last dictatorship." On the damp, overcast morning, a parade of ballistic missiles on trucks, thousands of troops in lock step, and a man dressed as a giant basketball was overseen by a 6-year-old boy in full military regalia. In the evening, over 200 people were arrested, and many of them beaten up, simply for applauding. Welcome to Minsk.
The parade was standard post-Soviet authoritarian military pornography, with plenty of tanks and phallic hardware paraded through the streets, as well as flyovers by helicopters and military jets. Thousands of costumed schoolchildren performed synchronized dancing routines (that wouldn't have looked out of place in Pyongyang) to patriotic music piped through loudspeakers. Then things really took a turn for the surreal, as the Belarusian national break-dancing team jigged their way past the podium, followed by hockey players and farm tractors festooned with novelty hats (the man tractor) and luscious lips (the lady tractor).
If any further evidence was required of just how out of touch with reality the regime is, it was to be found on the podium itself. There was President Aleksandr Lukashenko, in full military uniform, and alongside him several grizzled army generals, all giving salutes to the passing columns of tanks. But at his hip was his 6-year-old son, Nikolai, probably born to Irina Abelskaya, the dictator's personal doctor. Lukashenko doesn't get invited abroad often, but when he does, Nikolai goes with him -- he sat in on a meeting with the pope in 2009. The child has also taken part in cabinet meetings, and the 56-year-old Lukashenko has hinted he is grooming him for an eventual takeover.
If things keep going the way they have been, though, little Nikolai is unlikely to get his chance. A crippling financial crisis has seen purchasing power halved, prompting increasing waves of protest in the tightly controlled country. The panic buying of months ago has abated, but the country is in desperate need of currency and it's unclear where it will come from.
"Lukashenko is in a difficult position," says Alexander Feduta, an analyst who in the 1990s briefly worked on the president's team, but ever since has been part of the opposition and spent three months in jail this year. "Europe won't give him money without democracy, which he can't do, and Russia won't pay without gaining control of state assets, which he also doesn't want to do." Belarus has also been sniffing around the IMF for a loan, but this will not be forthcoming without major changes to the neo-Soviet structure of the country's economy.