Every evening, at the entrance to the Red Church in the centre of Minsk, a dozen or so citizens, with bright red and white scarves hanging from their necks, gather around the imposing sculpture of Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Belarus. Cast in bronze, the angel wears an expression of righteous fury as he runs his spear through the mouth of a vanquished dragon. Those assembled at his foot begin with a silent prayer. Then they join hands and sing a hymn. At the end of it, someone reads from a small notebook: a memorial roll call for the friends, sons, daughters, mothers and husbands who have been killed, imprisoned or simply disappeared for opposing president Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarus. Flat, forested and landlocked between Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia, it resembles not so much a country as a desolate captive. Absorbed into Bolshevik Russia in 1919, it re-emerged as a sovereign state from the detritus of the Soviet Union seven decades later. But what seemed like the end of history to triumphant spectators in the West was, for many Belarusians, the beginning of an inscrutable future. "The popular view", Brian Bennett writes in his authoritative new book on post-Soviet Belarus, The Last Dictatorship in Europe: Belarus Under Lukashenko, "was that the break-up of the USSR had brought uncertainty."
As Britain's ambassador to Minsk from 2003-2007, Bennett studied Lukashenko closely. His book offers an unsparingly detailed account of his rise from obscurity and his ruthless accretion of power. Appointed in 1993 as chairman of a committee investigating corruption, Lukashenko seized the day. A populist by instinct, he "made a rousing speech vowing to recreate the Soviet Union on a new, higher plane". He was energetic and youthful, not yet 40. Politicians "sensed that Lukashenko was not someone to mess with", although dictatorship seemed a distant prospect, given that the speaker of the Supreme Soviet (the interim parliament of Belarus) was averse to the idea of a presidential system. Then, in January 1994, Bill Clinton, the US president, visited Belarus and members of the Supreme Soviet, seduced by the presence of a young and charismatic leader, sidelined the speaker and opted for a presidential system.
In July, six months after Clinton's visit, Lukashenko won a run-off election. One of his first acts as president was to order the shooting down of two Americans who had strayed into Belarusian airspace in a hot-air balloon; their deaths were described as an accident at the time, but Bennett discloses that those involved in the shooting "were decorated".
Within Belarus, Lukashenko moved rapidly: he issued 350 presidential decrees in not much more than a year after assuming office. By 1996, he had consigned the constitution to the rubbish bin, introduced the death penalty, had his opponents arrested and consolidated his control over the media. Parliamentarians who refused to rubber-stamp his laws had their salaries withheld. Lawyers who opposed him were disbarred. A former speaker of parliament who did just that was refused a licence because he had a criminal record: "He had stepped off the pavement and onto the road during a demonstration in 1997."
By 1999, several prominent figures in the Belarusian opposition had disappeared. Quoting from suppressed official reports, Bennett establishes that the dates on which the official execution pistol was signed out corresponded with the dates of the disappearances. The orders came from the top.