Belarus risks alienating both Russia, EU in wake of political crackdown
Police in Belarus arrested more than 600 activists protesting Sunday's election that handed President Alexander Lukashenko a fourth term. He told opponents Monday, 'You are messing with the wrong guy.'
Alexander Lukashenko appears to be completely secure in the massive – yet highly suspect – electoral landslide Sunday that returned him to a fourth five-year term as supreme leader of Belarus with 80 percent of the popular vote.Skip to next paragraph
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But in one night of police violence and mass arrests after opposition activists took to the streets to protest alleged vote-rigging, Mr. Lukashenko may have compromised his long-term survival strategy of turning to the European Union as a means of offsetting his dependence on Russia, Belarus' traditional sponsor.
Heading back into Moscow's arms, as he pledged to do in a Monday press conference, isn't likely to prove easy for him either. Among other things, the Russians are shaking their heads over US diplomatic cables just released by WikiLeaks that show Lukashenko frequently trashed the Kremlin and undermined key Russian policies in private meetings with Western envoys.
"Of course we'll have to deal with him," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of Commonwealth of the Independent States in Moscow. "But no more gifts for him, it'll be just something for something. And everything will have to be put in writing from now on, because Lukashenko has a tendency to spill the beans about matters decided orally, or in private."
Lukashenko has spent the past two years painstakingly building bridges to the West.
When Russia started trimming the subsidies that kept Belarus' economy afloat in 2008, Lukashenko accepted loans from the International Monetary Fund. Last year, Belarus joined the EU's Eastern Partnership, which is designed as a first step on the long road to membership, and was promised significant European aid if Belarus could show improvements in its dismal human rights record.
As recently as Sunday evening, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), were indicating that they were impressed by the more open atmosphere in the presidential campaign and might certify the results as acceptable.
But the next day, after riot police crushed an opposition protest rally and Lukashenko's KGB security service arrested 630 people (including 7 out of 9 presidential candidates), Western observers were singing a different tune.