ANALYSIS: Once again, Belarus has shown itself impervious to western pressure on its dictatorial system, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN
THE SIGHT of thousands of anti-government protesters filling the centre of the Belarusian capital on Sunday night was extraordinary, but the familiar calm that prevailed in snowy Minsk yesterday suggests the regime of Alexander Lukashenko is unlikely to crumble any time soon.
On the morning after demonstrators briefly tried to storm government headquarters, almost 650 of them were in police custody and at least seven of nine candidates that stood against Lukashenko in Sunday's allegedly rigged election were under arrest.
It was a crushing response to one of the biggest challenges to Lukashenko's authority during his 16 years in power. During this period the man who the White House once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" has blunted political opposition, silenced free media and been blamed for the disappearance of several prominent critics.
The response also showed the limits of what western pressure could achieve in Belarus, as the now-jailed opposition leaders were proved correct in insisting that cajolement and hints of financial aid from the EU and Washington could not change Lukashenko from an autocrat into a democrat.
Lukashenko has enhanced his poor country's strategic worth by playing off Russia and the West. Moscow still values Belarus as a buffer against EU and Nato expansion, while Brussels and the US harbour hopes of easing it out of the Kremlin's sphere of influence.
While Lukashenko has occasionally tweaked Moscow's nose on foreign policy issues and criticised its financial dealings with Belarus, he still desperately needs cheap Russian energy to keep his country's ailing economy afloat.
This, coupled with Russia's less than critical view of his record on democracy and human rights, mean the Kremlin is a more important partner for Lukashenko than EU states that make financial help conditional on an easing of the former collective farm boss's iron grip on his country.
After months of sniping had dragged relations between Minsk and Moscow to a recent low, Lukashenko clinched a deal last week for Russia to deliver up to 21 million tonnes of duty-free oil to Belarus next year, saving the economy at least ?3 billion.
Talking about the deal, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin praised Lukashenko for charting "a clear course towards integration with Russia".
It is not clear how far this integration will go, but Moscow will certainly want something substantial in return for revenue lost under such a duty-free deal. It could lead to Kremlin-controlled firms taking major stakes in Belarus's pipeline network or in its few attractive industrial enterprises, as well as sticking more closely to the Moscow line on foreign policy matters.
"The result ensures the status quo of Belarus's belligerent reliance on Moscow remains intact for several more years," said Moscow-based financial analyst Chris Weafer. "It ensures that, despite Lukashenko's constant complaints, the umbilical cord between Moscow and Minsk remains unbroken."
While enduring a torrent of criticism from western states and election monitors yesterday over the ballot and its violent aftermath, Moscow declined to comment on Belarus's "domestic matter", while observers from Russia and the former Soviet Union found no fault with the vote.
In return, Lukashenko appeared to pledge loyalty to his eastern neighbour. "I will endure all hardships so that we do not split with Russia," he said, claiming Belarus had never been Russia's enemy. "We have managed to get away from this tension," he added.
The post-election crackdown showed that Lukashenko's domestic rivals were right to maintain that he would rather outrage his western courtiers than risk losing any power at home. "Lukashenko is confident that, having no other choice, the EU will pursue dialogue with him despite what happened on Sunday," said Belarusian analyst Valery Karbalevich. "The internal situation in Belarus is more important to Lukashenko than the European Union's reaction."
For the chronically fractured and fractious opposition movement in Belarus, the future looks bleak.
They have proved themselves unable to unite behind one candidate, they are studiously ignored by the state media and, with Lukashenko controlling all levers of power, they cannot build any momentum from Sunday's explosion of anger and frustration.
They, and the West, must also accept that Lukashenko would probably have won the vote quite easily even if wasn't fixed. He is the embodiment of Belarusian sovereignty and stability for large parts of the population who appreciate their reliable wage and pension payments, and fear the kind of uncertainty that has dogged Ukraine and Georgia in recent years under pro-western leaders.
"The opposition was dispersed and tomorrow no one will remember these leaders," said Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
"The situation in Belarus will only change when opposition against Lukashenko emerges from within the system. So far, there has been nobody like this."
Daniel McLaughlin is an Irish Times journalist based in Budapest from where he reports on central and eastern Europe