By Simon Shuster / Moscow
The people of Belarus had never seen anything like it: On Dec. 4, two weeks before presidential election, nine opposition candidates were allowed to appear live on state TV and attack the country's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko. They called his decrees "nonsense" and his policies "shameful", and urged the people to stand up to his "crumbling" regime. For the millions of viewers who know Lukashenko as bat'ka - a folksy term that means something like "big daddy" - the unprecedented TV dyebat suggested that Lukashenko's 16 years in power might finally be waning. No such luck; the democratic "opening" looks to have been little more than the latest bluff in Lukashenko's baiting game with Moscow. (Watch video of a Russian roadtrip.)
As the votes were being counted on Sunday evening, seven of the nine candidates who had appeared on those debates were arrested. One of them, Vladimir Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet turned politician, got his face bashed in on Sunday night during a clash with police, and was kidnapped from his hospital bed hours later by plainclothesmen. "He was semi-conscious when they took him, under heavy medication with a skull trauma and bad concussion," his wife Olga told TIME by phone from Minsk. "When they realized he couldn't walk, they laid him on a blanket and dragged him down the corridor. I was locked in the room screaming," she says. "I still have no idea where he is." (See photographs of the rise and fall of Mikhail Gorbachev.)
Across town on Independence Square, riot police began violently dispersing tens of thousands of voters protesting against what Western observers called a "flawed" ballot. Hundreds were beaten with truncheons and arrested after part of the crowd tried to storm the parliament building. Then came the official count: Lukashenko had won 80% of the vote - his usual share - and state television went back to its traditional repertoire of images depicting a smiling bat'ka accepting his victory, waving alongside his 6-year-old son Nikolai, who some say is more likely to inherit the presidency than any of the opposition candidates. (Read 'Where Tyranny Rules.')
So why would Lukashenko allow these trappings of open politics, only to allegedly steal the election and crush all dissent? Like a lot of political puzzles in the former Soviet Union, the answer leads back to Moscow.
For several years, Lukashenko has been at odds with the Kremlin over economic and energy issues. In 2007, he refused to cede his country's energy infrastructure to Russia, including control of the pipelines that carry Russian oil and gas through Belarus to Europe. This set off a series of nasty disputes and public fuming. Worst of all for Lukashenko, Russia tried to make Belarus pay market prices for oil, a move that could have crippled its economy.
Lukashenko's main defense against these threats has been nuzzling up to the West. In 2008, when Russia canceled part of a loan to Belarus, the International Monetary Fund stepped in to help, and last year, Belarus joined the E.U.'s Eastern Partnership initiative, a group meant to build ties with former Soviet states in Russia's sphere of influence. But like most points of cooperation with Western powers, that initiative made demands on Lukashenko to improve his record on democracy, and allow the opposition a chance in these elections.
"We've been ready to embrace him, but he had to show us that he was serious in these elections; that it wasn't going to be business as usual," says a senior Western diplomat in Minsk, who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity. "Essentially he had a choice. He could risk losing control to the opposition, or risk losing his sovereignty to the Russians." On Dec. 4, when he gave the opposition a chance to attack him on live television, Lukashenko seemed to signal that he was willing to ease his political monopoly. But as was even more important, he signaled to Moscow that he was serious about yielding to the West. That was when the game changed.
On Dec. 9, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met with Lukashenko during a summit in Moscow, and the insults they had traded over the past two years were suddenly forgotten. A week later, just three days before the elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Russia would ship oil and gas to Belarus duty-free in 2011, costing the Russians more than $5 billion in revenues. In exchange, Belarus agreed to further integrate its economy - and its energy sector - with that of its eastern neighbor.
"So it's clear that there was never any real intention of becoming like Europe or introducing democracy," says Alexander Klaskovsky, a political analyst in Minsk. "It was all a ploy to make Russia negotiate." Once that was achieved, Lukashenko had no scruples about cracking down on the opposition, which his government has done with exceptional force in the past two days. Some 600 demonstrators remain in jail as of Monday evening, the BelPAN news agency reported, and during a press conference on Monday, Lukashenko promised that all of those arrested, including the opposition candidates, would "sit in prison as the law allows." The former collective farm chief then added that after Sunday's attempt to storm the parliament building, there will be no more "stupid democracy" in Belarus.
So the change that flickered on Belarussian TV screens on Dec. 4 has taken only a couple of weeks - and a brief set of talks in Moscow - to fade away. The round of protests that opposition leaders had planned for Monday evening have faltered. "There is no one to lead them," says Klaskovsky by phone from Minsk. "The candidates are in jail, and the people are demoralized and, yes, they are frightened. Maybe it was naive, but a lot of people here thought things would be better this time." But instead all they got was another five years with bat'ka.