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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.'

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"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed," Tony Lloyd, head of the OSCE's parliamentary delegation, told a press conference Monday. "The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better. And, in particular, I now expect the government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists," he added.

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Lukashenko threatens to crack down harder

In his own post-election press conference, Lukashenko took responsibility for the crackdown and threatened more to come.

"Our country will have no more senseless, muddle-headed democracy," he said. "I warned you," he added, apparently addressing his opponents, "you are messing with the wrong guy."

Lukashenko also promised to "make every effort" to patch up his frayed relationship with Russia. "I will have patience and bear all ills to ensure that we do not drift away from Russia," he said.

Soured relations with Moscow

But no one in Moscow is smiling. Relations with Lukashenko had been deteriorating for some time, but the arrest of nine Russian journalists covering Sunday's protests in Minsk has been widely covered – in outraged tones – by the Russian media.

And then there's WikiLeaks. One US embassy cable being widely cited in the Moscow press details a 2009 conversation between Lukashenko and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, in which Lukashenko is reported to have maintained "an anti-Russian tone throughout the meeting."

Among other things, Lukashenko expressed the hope that Estonia and other Baltic countries would prevent Nord Stream, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's pet project of building a gas pipeline to Germany under the Baltic Sea, from ever being realized.

Lukashenko also reportedly complained about having to dance to the Kremlin's tune in exchange for cheap energy and – in a remark that Russians will find especially galling – claimed that Moscow was to blame for planning and carrying out the 2008 war with Georgia.

"There is no love left," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank. "What we don't like about Lukashenko is that he's a double-dealer. He promises a lot, but doesn't deliver."

"There will be no more defending his regime from European charges that he abuses human rights, and so forth, as we did in the past," he says. "We don't have any alternatives, so we need him. In future our relations will be cool, but practical."

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