Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Useful Clash with Belarus

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Useful Clash with Belarus

Article excerpt

Aleksandr Lukashenko lashes out at Europe, exposing a weakness the European Union should use.

Europe's relations with Belarus took a dramatic turn for the worse this week. In an unusually unified move, the European Union recalled its ambassadors after Minsk showed the E.U. and Polish envoys the door in protest at fresh sanctions on the country's leadership.

The latest escalation exposes Aleksandr Lukashenko's heightened nervousness and vulnerability. At the same time, Europe seems more determined than ever, and it has now been presented with a rare opportunity to ratchet up its pressure.

For most of his nearly 18 years in office, Lukashenko has been immune to change, whether demanded by Belarussians or by the international community. He abolished the embryonic democracy that emerged in post-Soviet Belarus, taking control of all power structures, squashing dissent, eliminating independent media and driving civil society underground.

Lukashenko has skillfully played Russian and Western interests off each other, extracting cheap oil and gas, loans and trade benefits. But he has always stopped short of giving in to foreign demands, whether the Kremlin wanted closer integration or Europe more democracy.

Lukashenko's fortunes, however, have begun to change. In December 2010, tens of thousands of Belarussians protested his blatantly rigged reelection. Lukashenko's response was ruthless: The police beat and detained hundreds, dozens of his opponents were tried on trumped-up charges, and a massive witch hunt ensued against independent journalists and human rights activists.

Shortly after that, the Belarussian economy faced near collapse. The local currency devalued by nearly 300 percent and hyperinflation set in. There was a run on hard currency, durable goods and staple foods. Tens of thousands of Belarussians left to find work in Russia and Ukraine.

Material hardship, in conjunction with repression, quickly undermined whatever support Lukashenko may have had in society. By the fall of 2011, public confidence in him had dropped to 20 percent, according to independent polls.

Clearly worried by the growing discontent, Lukashenko has reinforced his security apparatus, tightened legislation and stressed that he will not permit any change. Yet however menacing he tries to appear in words and deeds, Lukashenko is weaker than ever.

In the West, he has burned all his bridges. Whatever hopes lingered that engagement might nudge him toward change have been shattered. Most Europeans now share the U.S. view that Lukashenko is just a brutal dictator.

Lukashenko's efforts to draw on fellow autocrats have also come to naught. Qaddafi is gone, Assad and Ahmadinejad are under serious pressure, and Chavez is far away and ailing. Russia has placed strict conditions on further support: It is demanding political integration within a planned Eurasian Union and the privatization of strategic energy assets into Russian hands. …

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