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Belarus’ dictator isn’t going anywhere

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BACK IN 1918, WHEN Russia's new Bolshevik rulers still had the mud of the street on their boots and the knock-it-all-down, build-it-again attitude common to all true revolutionaries, they decided to do away with the czar's old-style diplomatic service.

Out went the frock coats, the top hats, the sashes, the hollow courtesies and intricate ritual of missions abroad dominated by aristocrats. The old diplomatic ranks were abolished. In came a new class of blunt, mistrustful, self-consciously anti-capitalist representatives.A few years later, when the USSR won international recognition, these people's representatives found that it hurt to be snubbed. The rest of the world still followed diplomatic conventions established in the 19th century and, as a result, the proud, fiery Soviet diplomats kept being treat-ed like diplomats of a lesser sort.

Instead of shrugging their shoulders and laughing off the folly of bourgeois protocol, the Soviets gave in. They restored the old ranks. In this, at least, they wanted to be like everyone else. They want-ed respect.

As long as the Soviet Union existed, international diplomatic norms - lately, those laid down by the 1961 Vienna Convention - were, with occasional lapses, scrupulously observed. Bouts of spy fever, when one side or another expelled diplomats on suspicion of espionage and endless attempts to bug and eavesdrop, did not harm Moscow's image as a stickler for the formal, superficial niceties of diplomatic behavior.

And so it has been, on the whole, with most undemocratic regimes. North Korea, China, Syria - even the blatant exceptions to the rule - have been just that, exceptions, like the U.S. embassy seizure in Iran or the use of the Libyan embassy in London as a sniper's nest.

Enter Alexander Lukashenko, president of the former Soviet state of Belarus. Unlike all other 14 former Soviet countries, Lukashenko has inherited nothing of the USSR's delicacy in diplomatic matters. Indeed, while he appears to have all of the bluntness of the Bolshevik revolutionaries of old, he has none of their intellectual inspiration.

He is the opposite of "diplomatic" with a small "d": He is rude. And a rude head of state is an exceptionally rare creature, one with whom diplomats were never designed to deal.

Lukashenko was not very popular outside Belarus before the latest diplomatic row, but his abrupt demand that 22 foreign ambassadors evacuate their residences in a countryside complex of buildings called Drozdy, just outside Minsk, on the dubious grounds that the plumbing needed to be repaired, brought all the old western irritations to the boil as the diplomats stormed out.

"Dictator" is a word that has often been used of Lukashenko in recent days. And he is a dictator, in the sense that he wields absolute power in Belarus, unhindered by his puppet parliament, tame courts and self-repressing people and aided by a loyal police force and unquestioning cronies. But I wonder whether the word gives those who do not know his history a false impression of what he is really worth.

Because of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Saddam Hussein, we think of a dictator not only as a totalitarian ruler but as a man with an ideological vision, a set of intellectual obsessions, usually involving different races and war. Lu-ka-shen-ko, in many ways a sad, forlorn figure whose coterie encourages his delusion that the world cares about Belarus, or could even find it on the map, is not in this league of ambitious evil.

The clue to his personality lies in the reason he wanted to get the foreigners out of Drozdy in the first place. The problem from his point of view is that he lives there, too. It offended his vanity that he had to share it with the representatives of overseas powers who have consistently looked down their noses at him and his country.

Sharing a compound with the ambassadors also inflamed his paranoia. He is convinced that Minsk is the nexus of a web of foreign plots against Belarus in general and him in particular. Having to live next door to foreigners must have driven him close to madness.

Finally, the incident provoked the bully in him. It has been characteristic of his reign that, being unable to lash out at those who offend him beyond his borders, he engages in petty acts of unpleasant revenge in the small ways he can at home. Shooting down two American sporting balloonists was one. Putting journalists from a Russian TV station on show trial on absurd charges was another. Humiliating the ambassadors was the latest.

It is a cliche to say that Lukashenko runs Belarus as if he was still running his old collective farm, but it is absolutely true. He's a swaggering, loud-mouthed young patriarch who doesn't expect his citizens - whom he treats like his employees - to answer back. He sees the wider world as a frightening, untrustworthy place that doesn't know him as well as it should and always blames the farmyard problems on someone else.

The bonus for the rest of the world is that he isn't going to advance beyond the farm gate. The sad reality for Belarus, though, is that he is only 42 - and he's going to be ruling the farm for a long time yet.