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.'

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Policemen disperse a group of opposition protesters holding a picket in central Minsk on Dec. 20. At least seven election candidates and hundreds of opposition demonstrators were being held on Monday after police cracked down on a protest against the re-election of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

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.

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."

Building bridges

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.

"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.

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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