Why Russia's Medvedev is lashing out at Belarus's Lukashenko
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev slammed 'Europe's last dictator,' Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, this past week for his increasingly anti-Russian rhetoric.
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"It's an unprecedented thing that we're being allowed to go out and meet voters, gather signatures and interact with people like this," says Mr. Romanchuk, who heads of the liberal United Civil Party. "We still don't get media access, and Lukashenko controls the means of vote-counting, but restrictions on campaigning seem to be lifted. There's much more freedom all of a sudden."Skip to next paragraph
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Romanchuk says authorities are afraid and uncertain, and that creates space for the opposition to act. "Government is feeling weak. They can't work in the old ways, and so they feel they have to allow people to let off steam," he says.
Lukashenko was fairly elected 16 years ago, but has held on to power ever since by a combination of generous social benefits – largely financed by Russia – near total media control, harsh suppression of opposition parties, and alleged massive vote-rigging.
In the 1990s he championed the idea of merging Belarus and Russia into a single state, but cooled on the idea after Vladimir Putin came to power in Moscow. Lukashenko threatened this week to withdraw from the largely ceremonial "Union," as well as the Russian-led regional military alliance and a Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union that came into effect earlier this year.
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In recent weeks, Lukashenko has courted China and Turkey in search of economic aid, and has talked of forging new relations with the United States, the European Union, and even the military alliance NATO. But many experts say that his regime looks increasingly cornered.
"The long term trend is that Belarus' chances to get preferential access to Russian markets and resources are decreasing. The days of 'oil and gas in return for kisses' are over," says Oleg Manayev, head of the independent Institute of Social, Economic and Political Studies in Minsk. "The Kremlin has begun demanding access to Belarus' internal market for Russian companies and other economic concessions. In all these years Belarussian leaders did nothing to diversify away from dependence on Russian energy resources, and now they're rushing about and shouting aimlessly."
Russian analysts say the Kremlin may not have a long-term game plan for Belarus, but is just at wits' end over how to deal with the erratic, motor-mouthed and, some say, increasingly unstable Lukashenko.
"The Kremlin's reaction to Lukashenko doesn't look completely rational or pragmatic," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But they want to send the message to Belarussians that Lukashenko is no longer regarded as a Russian friend. Russia has lost a lot through its relations with him, and it doesn't want to go on playing by those old rules, because it's finally sunk in that Lukashenko cheats."
Romanchuk says the Kremlin needn't fear an opposition figure such as himself coming to power in Minsk. His party advocates opening better relations with the European Union, while maintaining strong ties with Russia.
"Lukashenko turned out to be not a friend, but a foe of Russia," he says. "I think at this point, the Kremlin would be happy to leave Lukashenko behind and work with any responsible Belarussian opposition leader."