The post-election brutality and President Lukashenko's renewed Russia pact show Europe's last dictator has reverted to type
o Simon Tisdall Alexander Lukashenko and his black-shirted riot police reverted to type at the weekend, cracking heads and arresting opponents while fabricating a landslide election victory. This violent regression victimised the people of Belarus. But it was also a striking setback for half-hearted European Union attempts to break Moscow's icy embrace and bring Belarus in from the cold.
Lukashenko, an authoritarian populist in power since 1994, relied heavily in his first two presidential terms on Russian political and financial support. When Georgia and Ukraine lurched westwards in the colour revolutions in 2003-04, Moscow could count on Minsk to stand firm. But when, in 2007, an argument erupted about gas taxes levied by the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, relations soured. Additional political disputes ensued.
As Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations has noted, Lukashenko depends on "a social contract with most ordinary Belarusians - relative prosperity in return for a relative lack of political freedom". His ability to maintain stability, order, and jobs (up to a point) was his main and possibly his only plus with voters. So when he fell out with his Russian patrons, Lukashenko sought new friends such as China, Venezuela - and the EU.
This was Europe's chance. Having previously joined the US in imposing limited sanctions over regime human rights abuses and vote-rigging, Brussels took a second look. In 2009, it invited Belarus to join its new Eastern Partnership, an attempt to build trade, aid and travel ties with states on Europe's fringe. Italy's own showy autocrat, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, became the first western leader to visit since Lukashenko took power.
As the presidential election neared, Lithuania's president also came calling, followed by the German and Polish foreign ministers. The ad hoc deal they offered was straightforward: European aid in return for a free vote. Radoslav Sikorsky, the Polish minister, claimed up to $3.5bn (?2.25bn) in EU loans and credits could be made available if, for once, Lukashenko played fair.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, sat on its hands, maintaining sanctions but doing nothing to obstruct the Europeans. "Despite the Belarus Democracy Act passed by Congress in 2004, US engagement this time has been minimal. Democracy promotion seems to be out of fashion in the [US-Russia] 'reset' era," Wilson said.
"With the recent deterioration of Moscow-Minsk relations, some European countries - particularly those geographically close to Russia - decided Lukashenko might be a useful buffer against Moscow," said James Kirchick in the New Republic. "Why has the west gone soft on Lukashenko? The answer lies to the east: Belarus has increasingly become a pawn between Russia, Europe and the US."
Lukashenko reciprocated by relaxing election rules, easing censorship and allowing opposition candidates on television. For a brief moment, it seemed the European gambit might work. But then came Sunday's violent crackdown and the inevitable EU condemnation, presaging a new rift. Lukashenko was unrepentant. Speaking on Monday, he decried the opposition's "barbarism" and "banditry", and again cast himself as a bastion of stability battling forces of destruction.
If Europe blew its chance to change the Belarus dynamic, it was partly because it did not try hard enough. The unilateralism, grandstanding and incoherence characterising its attempts to win over Europe's last dictator illustrated a bigger problem, addressed by Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, last week: in matters of high international policy, European states must either act deliberately and in concert - or resign themselves to individual irrelevance and collective failure.
But another factor critically influenced the outcome. Refusing to be sidelined, Russia patched things up with Lukashenko at the last minute, inviting him to Moscow to sign a preferential energy deal and join an expanded Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan economic union. Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, reassuringly described the post-election brutality as solely an internal matter. And Putin praised Lukashenko last week for taking "a clear course towards integration with Russia".
Whether Russia will deliver is the next big question. Having played the two sides off against each other to personally beneficial effect, Lukashenko now faces a bigger worry: an external debt of 52% of GDP, a $7bn trade gap, an unmodernised, largely state-owned economy, and rising expectations among 9.5 million Belarusians who have swapped political liberty for jam tomorrow. The next five years of his presidency could also be his last. Neither Moscow nor Brussels can be counted on to bail him out next time.