Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko dismissed on Thursday a description that he was "Europe's last dictator," saying that he was not a dictator but that if he were, he would certainly not be the last.
Lukashenko, 68, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994 and in an interview with Reuters in 2012 had relished his notoriety as Europe’s last dictator.
When asked by Reuters on Thursday what he thought of the description and whether he was troubled by what might happen to Belarus after his rule, Lukashenko said that the reporter should apologize for such a question.
"As to Europe's last dictator, you should today apologize to me," Lukashenko told reporters at a meeting in Belarus's vast Independence Palace. "I am not a dictator and if I am a dictator, then I am not the last.
"Power is not given for it to wallow in the dirt," Lukashenko said. "I don't decide whether or not I am in power or not... The people entrusted me with this high office."
Lukashenko's opponents, most of them now abroad, say he has rigged elections and has surrendered Belarus's sovereignty to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, whom Lukashenko refers to as his "elder brother."
Lukashenko and his supporters deny that he has rigged elections and say that the overwhelming majority of voters back him for steering Belarus through the turmoil of the years following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
He said there were less than 22,000 prisoners in Belarus, down from 50,000 when he came to power nearly 29 years ago.
"I am probably not a very strong dictator," he quipped.
Concerns about future
But Lukashenko said the fate of his country "really troubled him," saying he had considered how to live out the rest of his life without power.
"Sometimes I ask myself that question but then I am halted by another: what will happen in the future?" he said. "I don't think I am indispensable but what would happen if a new person destroyed everything?"
"I think about what will happen in the future, what will happen after me?" Lukashenko said. "There is such a question and it has occurred to many - not only to you."
Rumors about Lukashenko's health have swirled for several months after he was shown being driven a short distance to an event during the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow and he then skipped a lunch hosted by Putin.
As he left the meeting with journalists on Thursday after more than 3 1/2 hours of questions, the burly leader limped slightly, saying he had sustained a soccer injury and cautioned reporters to look after themselves.
"Come here, come here. Don't be afraid. You have my full guarantee of security - no one will snatch you," Lukashenko said with a chuckle.