In his 16 years as president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has ticked just about every box that defines a modern-day dictator. He's jailed opponents and crushed protests. His security service, still known as the KGB, has been accused of kidnapping and murdering journalists. But the man the U.S. State Department called "Europe's last dictator" is now trying to swap an old alliance with Russia for a new one with the European Union.
Lukashenko seems headed for victory as usual in elections slated for Dec. 19. Europe, for its part, seems reluctant to upset the status quo: earlier this month Brussels sent two top envoys to promise Lukashenko a $3 billion package of loans and credits if the elections are free and fair, or at least a bit freer than before.
But try as he might, Lukashenko can't unchain his country from its broken relationship with Moscow. And that will ultimately doom his presidency. For years the Kremlin was Belarus's closest ally and sugar daddy, subsidizing the country's economy with cheap energy. But since 2008, when Lukashenko reneged on a promise to adopt the Russian ruble, he and the Kremlin have been going through the geopolitical equivalent of a messy divorce. Lukashenko has prevented Russian investors from privatizing Belarussian businesses and then threatened to cut off Russian oil pipelines to Europe.
Belarus's economy is stumbling along on broken crutches. Without the Kremlin's natural-gas subsidies, prices have quadrupled from $46 per thousand cubic meters in 2006 to $180 this winter. Making matters worse, Lukashenko's populist preelection spending splurge (he boosted public-sector pay by a third) angered the IMF and doubled the budget deficit. The EU has made it clear that the price of further economic support is real liberal reforms. Lukashenko has hosted Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, angling for cheap oil, but Victor Malishevskiy, an independent political analyst in Minsk, argues, "Nobody, not even China, is going to give him enough money to avoid an economic crisis next year." So Lukashenko may win at the polls, but his country seems bound to lose.