Europe's 'last dictator' juggles East and West

Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 16 years. His latest victory gives him a fourth mandate after he abolished a two-term presidential limit in a controversial referendum in 2004.

But his continued enjoyment of power is thanks, mainly, to Russia, which provides cheap energy to a state Moscow sees as a buffer against Western expansion. However, Lukashenko's occasional flirtation with Europe has exasperated Moscow, prompting a decline in energy subsidies in recent years, and a cooling in relations.

The Kremlin has been irritated by Lukashenko's refusal to support its policies in the Caucasus; in particular his failure to recognise the former Georgian states Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who broke away from Tbilisi with Moscow's support.

A string of critical articles in the Russian media this year has been seen by some as a semi-official attempt to undermine him, but Belarus' position sandwiched between Russia and Europe has allowed Lukashenko to play off each side successfully. So far.

Now, with a cold front building in the east, Lukashenko has turned again to the EU. In exchange for promises of free and fair elections, he has managed to overturn travel bans on himself and other officials. Belarus also joined the EU's Eastern Partnership.

At the root of things, as ever, lies money: a vital three billion euros of aid from Brussels. And the EU is watching carefully, wondering how closely to engage with a system often described as 'Europe's last dictatorship'.

There are demands for change from within, but the last attempt ended in bloodshed in 2006 when the leaders of the failed uprising were thrown in jail.

Throughout his career Lukashenko has not hesitated to crack down hard on any form of dissent. Much now depends on whether the West will accept his latest victory, and if not, what to do about it.


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