A Belarusian joke goes like this. ‘A man is going home from work, sober and quiet, without drawing attention to himself. Suddenly a police vehicle arrives and armed policemen jump out and drag him inside, hitting him with their batons.
The man shouts: “Let me go, I voted for Lukashenko!” The policeman replies, “Don’t lie, no one voted for Lukashenko”!’ The Lukashenko in the joke is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top crony Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, who crushed protests in his country against a rigged election, which made him the head of the state for the sixth time.
When the Soviet Union collapsed bloodlessly in December 1991, the vast region that had only known dictators and tyrants fragmented into 15 independent countries. By the end of 2000, some of them economically prospered and grew five times more from 1991. The Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania expanded their economies and democratic institutions. Estonia embraced free-market capitalism and its two-time Prime Minister Mart Laar followed economist Milton Friedman’s playbook to restructure the economy.
Monetary reform in 1992 made Estonia the first former Soviet republic to have its own currency. It is a country that cracks down on corruption and holds personal freedom in high regard. So does Latvia which promotes free trade and business competition.
Rated a “repressive” country in 1996, it is now “mostly free”. Georgia is a Western-style free-market democracy and has fair elections. Its economic freedom score is better than many European countries. Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova that border the European Union have seen dictators like Lukashenko and weak economic growth.
The Caucasus thrives on the proceeds of Azerbaijan’s vast oil reserves but Armenia and Georgia are two democratically opposed stories. The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan flourished on their huge hydrocarbon reserves while Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan plodded on. The three Baltic democracies also have NATO membership. Putin’s concern is that these three nations, lacking much national resources like the Caucasus, bounced back from severe setbacks because of their open economy and liberal values.
The ‘Stans’ now stagger under severe economic distress, civil discord and corruption. Suppressed social rifts between pro-European sections and Communist loyalists have created conflict in Ukraine and Georgia. Putin’s fear is that other Russian satellite states will follow Ukraine if it enters the Western sphere completely.
He sees them as Soviet legacies and is loath to allow them Western notions such as democracy, free
media and independent international policy. The paradox is that these dictatorships were not new, since they employ the same template and methods of the Soviet totalitarian state. Dissent and free press are criminalised. Elections are a sham. One person holds absolute power. Some like free Kazakhstan’s first President Nursultan Nazarbayev started as leaders who accommodate Opposition but soon turn tyrants and exterminate all opposition.
He first opened up the economy and used national resources—Kazakhstan has the second-largest oil reserves among the former Soviet republics after Russia—to bring stability. However, he changed the constitution to his benefit, rigged elections, and cracked down on reform movements. Senior opposition leaders were murdered in mysterious circumstances.
In 2010, parliament granted Nazarbayev special status as “father of the nation”, giving him immunity from prosecution. But ordinary Kazakhs paid the price—an erosion of individual liberty. Kazakhstan, with a large Russian minority, walks the tightrope, maintaining good relations with Moscow, Beijing and Washington.
The Kyrgyz economy, assailed by huge unemployment and poverty, is dependent on Russia with its migrant labourers finding livelihood next door. Central Asian politicians, of whom many were former Communist apparatchiks and politicians, came into their own after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Turkmenistan’s first President Saparmurat Niyazov gave himself the title Turkmenbashy—the father of all Turkmen.
He renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother. The Ruhnama, a lifestyle guide he authored, was made required reading in high school and university. In 1999, parliament made him President for life. In 2002, on the pretext of an alleged assassination attempt, Niyazov ruthlessly persecuted his political opponents.
Putin’s suspicion of many Central Asian dictatorships ratcheted up after 9/11. Kyrgyzstan gave the green light for a US base to be set up near its capital Bishkek while Russia also has an airbase at nearby Kant. Putin had chafed at Uzbek dictator and former Communist party chief Islam Karimov, now deceased, who had refused to tow the Russian line and helped NATO until the West abandoned him because of his horrendous human rights violations.
The Soviet illusion of stability was perpetuated by propaganda and the impenetrability of the Iron Curtain; there was no internet or social media to tell the world that millions perished during the famine under Stalin in Ukraine and Moldova. Putin believes that the Russian people who were used to deprivations in the Soviet age will endure the actions. His Ukrainian military action is driven by the belief that Russian civilisation is worth fighting for, since it is genetically and historically superior to other Eastern European nations.
The tyrant of Moscow swears by “Russkiy Mir”—the Russian World where Russian speakers in Eurasia are protected by him. Putin’s invasion of Georgia and Crimea, and now Ukraine is a testament to the fact that dictatorships are necessary for the survival of Russian Mir. The Russian President harks aloud that Russia is not just a country, but is a civilisation with an exalted position in world history. At the first World Congress of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad in 2001, a year after he came to power, Putin said, “The notion of the Russian World extends far from Russia’s geographical borders and even far from the borders of the Russian ethnicity.”
Hence, he has no qualms about supporting tyrants who are corrupt, run police states, jail and murder dissidents, throttle the free press and are willing to join Russia’s invading forces so long they are part of his coterie. He was born into the same KGB matrix when his grandfather was Stalin’s cook. His cronies are likely watching developments in Ukraine closely and would realise that the mighty Russian Army is not so mighty after all in the face of Ukrainian resistance and Western backing.
This will either make them even more tyrannical, fearing challenges to their authority or draw them away from Moscow’s iron grip. Putin would not like the latter at all. This list of Central Asia and Eastern Europe’s worst dictators alive checks all the boxes.
Alexander Lukashenko President of Belarus since July 1994
Soviet connection: Was director of a state farm (sovkhoz), and a soldier in the Soviet Army
Putin’s best regional friend and sidekick in Belarus, who has clung to power using Soviet-style state repression methods, calls himself the “last dictator in Europe.” Lukashenko, 67, is also currently the longest-serving European President. Machismo and self-glorification is an integral part of any dictator’s mental makeup. Before sending his troops to join the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenko, in May 2021, forced a passenger plane to land in his capital to arrest critic and journalist Roman Protasevich.
Facing popular revolt during the 2020 elections, Lukashenko rigged the polls, claimed that he won 80 percent of the vote and gave himself a sixth term. Copying Putin, with official cameras rolling, Lukashenko landed in a chopper at the Palace of Independence in capital Minsk in August that year, wearing a bulletproof vest and holding an AK-47 accompanied by his teenage son, Nikolai, who was dressed in military uniform and also held a gun. The reprisal to agitations against stealing the election was met with brutality.
Over 35,000 protestors were locked up, and 450 cases of arrest, rape and torture of civilians were documented by impartial observers. Independent journalists languish in jail or have disappeared. The President used Belarus’s puppet Supreme Court to shut the Belarusian Association of Journalists and jailed 30 reporters.
Police raided newspaper offices, blocked websites of major independent media outfits and shut down the PEN Center writers’ organisation, headed by Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexieveich. As many as 450 political prisoners were in jail. Human rights groups in Belarus reported that victims were tortured with electric shocks, sleep deprivation and beatings. Jailed dissidents were also deliberately infected with the coronavirus.
Ilham Aliyev President of Azerbaijan since October 2003
Soviet Connection: Lecturer in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations from where he had received a doctorate in history
Ilham Aliyev, 60, is the son of Heydar Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003. The highly respected democracy and rights advocacy organisation Freedom House concludes that people living under Aliyev’s dictatorship have less freedom than Palestinians under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, Houthis in Yemen and the Chinese under Xi. While Ilham’s inner circle lives luxuriously, Azerbaijan ranks among the world’s most corrupt countries and Transparency International equates Azerbaijan with Russia, Mali, and Malawi in corruption.
The government has unleashed ethnic cleansing of the Christian minority and even issued postage stamps that support ethnic cleansing and genocide. Aliyev used Syrian jihadi mercenaries in his war against Armenians living in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. War crimes like decapitations and desecration of the enemy corpses were routine.
Money from oil and natural gas exports has brought the most prosperity to Azerbaijan in the Caucasus region, but corruption has prevented the wealth from trickling down. Because British Petroleum has massive interests in Azerbaijan’s energy sector, the UK and China showed unprecedented alliance at the United Nations Security Council by declaring blind support to Aliyev. Israel is a supporter too since Azerbaijan is an arms market.
Aliyev has reportedly permitted both the CIA and Mossad to openly operate in the country against neighbouring Iran. Any assembly of protestors is banned. Critics are jailed and tortured on trumped-up charges. The government denies registration rights and grants for independent NGOs who do not toe the line. In 2019, the Human Rights Watch accused Aliyev’s government of “severely curtailing freedoms of association, expression, and assembly”, and “torture and ill-treatment” of journalists, lawyers, and opposition activists. Azerbaijan ranks 167 of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index.
In 2020, the US State Department blamed Azerbaijan for “unlawful or arbitrary killing”, placing “heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet”, and employing “the worst forms of child labour.” It painted Aliyev’s government as a criminal organisation that resembled Don Corleone’s mafia.
The police torture gay men and transgender women, and extort money from them. Azerbaijan has the second-highest number of per capita jailed journalists in the world. Aliyev’s family dominates Azerbaijan’s economy, with controlling interests in banks, gas, oil, insurance, aviation, mobile phones, luxury hotels, construction companies, gold mines, a TV station, and cosmetics. The clan and their associates reportedly own dozens of prime London properties worth nearly $700 million.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow President of Turkmenistan since February 2007
Soviet Connection: Berdimuhamedow’s father was a colonel in the Soviet Interior Ministry’s prison guard detachment. His grandfather, Berdimuhamet Annayev, served in the Red Army during World War II.
The leading magazine New Internationalist calls 64-year-old Berdimuhamedow the “world’s weirdest dictator.” Like many autocrats, Berdimuhamedow too was elected on a reform platform. The self-named, horse-obsessed ‘Protector’ famously presented Putin a puppy to the Russian dictator’s delight. In fact, the former dentist-turned-Turkmenistan president has installed a six-metre golden statue of an Alabay dog, a local variety of the Central Asian shepherd dog, in the capital Ashgabat.
Before that, he replaced the golden rotating statue of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, with one of himself mounted on a local Akhal-Teke horse. Like Niyazov’s statue, Berdimuhamedow’s, too, is rotated daily to face the sun.
The installation is placed 20 metres aboveground on an artificial marble cliff. Unfortunately, riding did not provide Berdimuhamedow’s finest hour; in 2013, he fell off his horse during an equestrian event. He escaped unhurt but all photos and videos of the fall were seized from journalists. He is obsessed with Guinness World Records and has received commendations for winning ‘the fastest 10 metres on hind legs by a horse.’
Berdimuhamedow’s idol is Putin: state propagandists have tried to project him as a champion athlete and an ace in bicycle riding, car racing and shooting. The government indeed is his circus—films show him shooting targets from a bicycle. He is proclaimed as an inspiration to all young Turkmen soldiers, and a gifted surgeon (not dental by the way) and a musical genius. However, the whimsical despot banned lip-syncing at public concerts, opera, ballet and circuses in 2001, calling them ‘decidedly unturkmen-like’. But little else is golden in Turkmenistan.
The unemployment rate and poverty among three million Turkmens (the government claims the population is six million) are stratospheric, Turkmenistan’s food crisis caused long queues for food which costs an estimated 70 to 80 percent of their income while the government claims that poverty does not exist since the country is experiencing an ‘era of greatness and happiness’.
Under the façade of comic glitter, Turkmenistan is mired in government corruption and state brutality. Religious minorities are persecuted. Homosexuality is criminalised. Critics and dissidents mysteriously vanish into the dictator’s infamous prisons. Journalists who had reported that the pandemic was out of control were jailed. But China which covets the region’s natural gas reserves is happy to pamper the Protector—the China National Petroleum Corporation hired Jennifer Lopez to sing at Berdimuhamedow’s birthday party in 2013.
Emomali Rahmon President of Tajikistan since November 1994
Soviet Connection: Served in the Soviet Union’s Pacific Fleet from 1971-74. Worked in a cheese factory before eventually becoming chairman of the collective state farm of his native Danghara in 1987.
Rahmon is Central Asia’s longest-ruling president. The 69-year-old former rural electrician has been re-elected as president of Tajikistan—Central Asia’s poorest country—five times with wild margins of over 70 to 90 percent. The US State Department noted an “increase in the number of politically-motivated detentions and incarcerations of human rights defenders… in the name of national security and stability.”
A Freedom of the World report pointed out “unlawful or arbitrary killings by prison authorities, forced disappearance by the government in collusion with foreign governments, torture and abuse of detainees by security forces, arbitrary detention, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, political prisoners, arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, significant problems with the independence of the judiciary, censorship, blocking of internet sites, and criminal libel, forced labour, substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organisation laws, severe restrictions of religious freedom, freedom of movement and political participation, including through the prevention of genuine, free, or fair trial.”
In Tajikistan, too, there is state-sponsored violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. The media is Rahmon’s prime target. In February 2020, the state-controlled Supreme Court blocked the foreign-based independent news website Akhbor calling it a platform for “terrorists and extremists.”
Even readers of Akhbor are liable to prosecution. Charges of “incitement to discord” and “terrorism and extremism” are routinely filed against critical journalists and bloggers. When independent journalist Daler Sharipov published his dissertation on Islam, in April 2020 he was sentenced to a year in prison for “inciting religious discord”. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Rahmon introduced new legislation against critics of the government’s mishandling accusing them of spreading “false” information about coronavirus infections.
In June 2020, parliament adopted changes to the Administrative Code to punish, with substantial fines, journalists, bloggers, and others for distributing “inaccurate” and “untruthful” information about the pandemic through mass media or social networks. The amendments allowed security agencies to monitor private correspondence.
Like many of his Balkan colleagues, the Tajik ruler is not just brutally suppressive but also whimsical. In 2007, he changed his surname from Rahmonov to Rahmon and banned “foreign” names for children. There is an official list of “permitted” names. Women are not allowed to wear “European” or black clothing, and adopt traditional national costumes.
Since coming to power, the autocrat has changed the country’s constitution numerous times and removed presidential term limits in 2016. The Rahmon clan controls all aspects of the country’s political and economic life. In April 2020, his 32-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, was appointed head of parliament.
The minimum age for a presidential candidate had been lowered from 35 to 30 years of age, making the succession obvious. Rustam’s eldest sister, Ozoda, heads the presidential administration. Her husband is deputy head of the National Bank of Tajikistan. Other clan members and friends from the Danghara district, where Emomali was born, hold important government posts.
The Rahmon cult is so prevalent that laudatory poems about him are routinely read out in parliament and beamed on state TV. He is compared to the sun in the official media (there is barely any other media in Tajikistan). Posters sporting his photos and sayings are visible all across the country and the public is allowed to address him only as Chanobi Oli (Your Excellency). Facing serious threats from Islamic militants in bordering Afghanistan, Tajikistan refused to recognise the Taliban government.
In 2020, the US State Department reported Tajikistan’s boilerplate conditions in an autocracy—“Forced disappearances; torture and abuse of detainees by security forces; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; censorship, blocking of internet sites, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation.”
The Other Living Tyrants
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo President, Equatorial Guinea Since August 1979
The former military officer is the second president of the country. Obiang, 79, held several positions under the presidency of his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema before ousting him in a military coup. He is the second-longest consecutively serving current non-royal national leader in the world after Cameroon’s Paul Biya.
His ‘authoritarian regime’ has been widely accused of human rights violations and abuses, including torture, arbitrary detentions and unlawful killings. Obiang’s dominant Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea holds virtually all governing power. The constitution provides the president sweeping powers, including the right to rule by decree. Obiang’s family members are placed in key government positions. The changes to the constitution have allowed him to remain in power for more than 40 years. In 2003, the state-run media declared the President to be “the country’s god (with) all power over men and things.”
Yoweri Museveni President, Uganda Since January 1986
The ninth and current President of Uganda participated in rebellions that toppled Ugandan presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin before he captured power. The 77-year-old leader’s rule has been linked to conflicts in the Great Lakes region, the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a rebellion in Northern Uganda, and the ongoing of kidnappings related to the Lord’s Resistance Army etc.
In 2005, Museveni crushed political dissent by removing term limits for the office of the President. This was followed in 2017 with the removal of presidential age limits. These amendments, in effect, made him President for life.
Nicolás Maduro President, Venezuela Since March 2013
The bus driver-turned-trade union leader was elected to the National Assembly in 2000. He took over presidential office following the death of his predecessor Hugo Chávez, who had turned the government into a dictatorship. And Maduro, now 59-year-old, carried forward the authoritarian system.
In September 2020, a fact-finding mission of the United Nations Human Rights Council found high-level authorities responsible for atrocities that they believed amounted to crimes against humanity, according to Human Rights Watch. Maduro’s government and its security forces were found to be responsible for extrajudicial executions and short-term forced disappearances. They have jailed opponents, prosecuted civilians in military courts, tortured detainees, and cracked down on protesters.
Isaias Afwerki President, Eritrea Since May 1993
Afwerki, 76, became the nation’s first president, following Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991. With only one political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, and a lack of opposition, the country was a fertile ground for totalitarianism.
The President has faced accusations of forced conscription and human rights violations by the Amnesty International, with more than 10,000 political opponents allegedly languishing in jails. In 2021, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea last of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index.
Hun Sen Prime Minister, Cambodia Since November 1998
Human Rights Watch has documented 69-year-old Hun Sen’s dreadful human rights record. Under Cambodia’s dictatorial and one-party rule spanning more than three decades, hundreds of opposition figures, journalists, trade union leaders, and others have been killed in politically motivated attacks.
Though in many cases those responsible for the killings were members of the security services, media reports claimed that there has never been a credible investigation or prosecution. Security forces have also arbitrarily arrested, beaten, harassed, and intimidated several critics of the government.
Daniel Ortega President, Nicaragua Since January 2007
Sworn in this year for his fourth consecutive term as President, Ortega, 76, becomes the longest-serving leader in the Americas. His critics, who include several former allies, call him a corrupt and authoritarian ruler. They allege that Ortega, the son of a shoemaker, has junked his revolutionary ideals thereby resembling the dictator he had deposed.
In 2009, the Supreme Court removed constitutional obstacles to allow Ortega to run for another term—a move the opposition condemned as illegal. Further constitutional changes were adopted to allow him to stand for a third consecutive term in 2016 and many boycotted the vote. He picked his wife as his 2016 running mate.
As vice-president, she is the more vocal of the two. In April 2018, pro-government groups violently crushed a small demonstration against reforms to Nicaragua’s pension system. By July—human rights groups said—the number of people killed in violent protests had exceeded 300. Ortega defied calls to step down or hold an election.
Paul Biya President, Cameroon Since November 1982
At 89, he is one of the oldest presidents in the world. Following the resignation of President Ahidjo, Biya rose to the highest office. But he began to become more authoritarian and ruthless following a coup attempt on him in 1984. Hundreds of people were mercilessly killed, especially in the north of Cameroon. Ahidjo, considered an accomplice to the putschists, was sentenced to death in absentia. At the beginning of the 1990s, poverty and authoritarianism drove the population to rebel.
Freedom of press is practically non-existent: public television is controlled with an iron fist by the President’s men and the few existing newspapers often face censorship. The judiciary is not independent too as judges are nominated by the president, and political opponents are persecuted. In 2020, the conflict between the separatists of Ambazonia and the Cameroon government, led to civil war. Over 3,000 people were killed and 70,000 fled their land.
Hassanal Bolkiah Sultan of Brunei since October 1967; Prime Minister since 1987
The 29th and current Sultan and Yang di-Pertuan of Brunei since 1967 is one of the last absolute monarchs in the world. The eldest son of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III and Raja Isteri (Queen) Pengiran Anak Damit, he succeeded to the throne as the Sultan of Brunei following the abdication of his father. In the small Asian nation, which has effectively remained under martial law for the last 69 years, Bolkiah is a one-man show.
He is also the supreme leader of the Islamic faith besides the country’s prime minister, finance minister, foreign affairs and trade minister, superintendent of police, defence minister and commander of the armed forces. In 2019, Brunei’s dictatorship introduced an anti-LGBT law mandating gay men to be executed by stoning. The law, which condemns sections of the LGBT community to be tortured to death, provoked outrage.
Paul Kagame President, Rwanda Since April 2000
The former military leader and the sixth President previously commanded the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Uganda-based rebel force, which invaded Rwanda in 1990. It was one of the parties of the conflict during the Rwandan Civil War and the armed force that ended the Rwandan genocide. Kagame was considered Rwanda’s de facto leader when he served as Vice President and Minister of Defence under President Pasteur Bizimungu from 1994 to 2000.
Kagame, who won the 2017 elections with nearly 99 percent of the vote, could run twice again, keeping him in power until 2034—although his current term ends in 2024. Human Rights Watch claims that under Kagame’s watch, people have been prosecuted for doubting the government’s explanation about the genocide. The rights body lists a series of murders, disappearances, politically motivated and illegal arrests of critics, opposition members and journalists.
Mswati III King of Eswatini Since April 1986
The head of the Swazi royal family continues to hold supreme executive power over parliament and the judiciary due to a 1973 State of Emergency decree. He was crowned as Mswati III, Ingwenyama and King of Swaziland, in April 1986 at the age of 18, thus becoming the youngest ruling monarch in the world at that time.
Together with his Queen Mother (Ndlovukati), he rules the country as an absolute monarch. A 2005 constitution provides for equality before the law while simultaneously elevating the king above the law. In 2020, the government proposed a new omnibus cybercrime bill which threatens freedom of speech and media freedoms. In that year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eswatini 141 out of 180 countries on media freedom.