Lukashenko's populist style, his willingness to exploit the mass media, and his ability to reach out to the population were reflected in his campaign for the presidency. Often saying contradictory things to different audiences, he played to the anti-incumbent mood of a population that had suffered greatly since independence, promising to prosecute the mafia and imprison or deport corrupt officials. He frequently said that Belarus could not survive without a closer union with Russia, one involving not only monetary links but political and military ones as well. But at the same time, he often worked closely behind the scenes with the old and corrupt party elite—the very people he was publicly attacking.
Lukashenko's cabinet has included enthusiastic economic reformers and partisans of independence. But others—particularly in the "power ministries" of defense and internal affairs—have been deeply conservative and pro-Russian, a mix suggesting that Lukashenko wanted to play one faction against the other.
A major feature of Lukashenko's tenure as president has been the quest to increase his own power and his suppression of political dissent. In 1996 he pushed through a series of constitutional reforms that enhanced the power of the presidency and extended his presidential term from five years to seven years, or until 2001. After disbanding the elected legislature, he handpicked a Soviet-style "rubber-stamp" Parliament. The referendum that approved the reforms was declared invalid by the country's Constitutional Court. Lukashenko's political opponents attempted to elect their own legislators and president, but faced a wave of arrests, interrogations, beatings, and disappearances. Lukashenko retained his grip on power and in 1999 instituted a renewed crackdown on his remaining opponents. In September, a prominent opposition figure, Victor Gonchar, was reported missing. On 9 September 2001, Lukashenko was reelected with a majority of the vote over trade union leader Vladimir Goncharik, remaining Europe's nicknamed "last dictator" since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia in 2000. European leaders denounced the election as undemocratic and a farce, but agreed to stop penalizing Belarusian citizens by isolating the country from the rest of the world. The U.S. State Department also planned to pursue measures to restore democracy in Belarus and has banned Lukashenko from entering its country.
In early 2002, Lukashenko started jailing, on "flimsysounding fraud charges," some of the country's industrial leaders. Their crime seemingly was a failure to support the president strongly enough during the election campaign, which many considered fraudulent and rigged. Mounting signs of dissent among the country's elite underscored the emptiness of Lukashenko's campaign promises of reform, especially when his country's progress is compared with the relative prosperity of neighboring countries.