Daniel Korski For a while it looked like the West had the upper hand. Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator, seemed to be moving away from Russia and closer to the West.
A succession of European ministers went to see him and returned to develop packages of support and assistance with his country. In that new "Great Game" played out on Europe's periphery it looked like Vladimir Putin's winning streak was finally coming to en end, after partial success in Georgia and outright victory in Ukraine. Or so European leaders hoped.
But any hope of changing Belarus' position has now been dashed with the violent crackdown in Minsk against pro-democracy activists following December's presidential elections. Last week, Belarus declared the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had described the presidential vote as "flawed", as organizata non grata and expelled the watchdog. It is now clear that a 'coloured revolution' - like the one in Ukraine - will not happen in Belarus. But nor does it look like a more gradual evolution of the regime is on the cards either.
So what to do? Spurned, the European ministers who invested in Belarus are angry - but seem at a loss for what course to follow. Should Europe confront Belarus with coordinated diplomatic and economic pressure while investing in traditional, democracy-supporting NGOs? Or is it better to ignore the regime?
In part an answer depends on what drove the regime to act the way it did - when it was not really at risk of losing control. President Lukashenko had unrestricted access to the state media (which gave him overwhelmingly positive coverage) and was aided by other state-run agencies.
My friend, Belarus expert Jana Kobzova, argues that the crackdown inspired those who want Belarus to remain distant from the EU. "The crackdown", she argues, may have been "engineered precisely to thwart rapprochement with Europe." Her reading means it is in "the EU's interest is to empower those who favour close links with the EU. New blanket sanctions would needlessly punish all and reduce the leverage the EU has."
This calls for a more nuanced policy - some sanctions, but targeted ones that hit the elite. But others will look at the unexpected deal Belarus secured with Russia to provide the regime with subsidised oil, which can then be sold at a massive profit. As Timothy Garton Ash notes, Lukashenko in essence agreed "the terms of a 'single economic space' with Russia and Kazakhstan." Though Professor Garton Ash does not reach this conclusion, many people will see the rapprochement with Russia as nullifying the impact of any kind of European action, however nuanced and targeted. In the modern world, where power is draining from the West, Europe seems at a loss of what to do about the continent's last dictatorship.