There is not much keeping Alexander Lukashenko's unpleasant regime from collapsing
Alexander Lukashenko had a master plan for his re-election. He would put his country, Belarus, up for auction. Poland's foreign minister Radek Sikorski said Belarus could expect $3.5bn in EU loans and credit if the election was free and fair. The president played along. Opposition candidates were given airtime on state television. There were emollient statements in Lukashenko's manifesto about the rule of law and private property.
With one week to go, Russia put in its bid. Moscow dropped duties on oil exports and kept gas prices low. As election day approached, Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal and Gmail were shut down. When 10,000 people took to the streets to protest against vote-rigging, it was back to business as usual for the man dubbed Europe's last dictator.
Out came truncheons and the agents provocateurs. A presidential candidate who had been beaten unconscious by police was dragged from his hospital bed. Six of the nine other candidates were under arrest. At the end of the day more than 600 opposition activists had been rounded up. And in his trademark high-pitched voice, Lukashenko said he had thwarted a revolution. There would be no more "senseless democracy" in Belarus. Monitors for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the poll was flawed and the Russia-led observer mission said there was nothing wrong. Russia's shrinking violet of a president, Dmitry Medvedev, said the Belarus elections were an internal affair.
This is far from being the end of the story. Lukashenko can reappoint himself president, but his populism is imploding. His pre-election borrowing spree has left him with $11bn in short-term debt and his hard currency reserves are dwindling. Russia, the motherland, is no longer as generous as it was with its prodigal sons. Its leaders will not easily forget the last spat with Lukashenko, when Russian state television ran a series of documentaries entitled The God-Daddy (a play on Lukashenko's nickname Daddy) and Belarus television replied with a fawning interview with Russia's bete noire, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Lukashenko can be bought, but he can't be relied on. Russia is unwilling to fund his country's deficit, which has reached 14% of GDP. The income gap between Belarus and its neighbour Poland is widening, and each time Lukashenko cracks down, the journey to that warmed-up jet on the runway seems shorter. The former collective farm manager would love to be hailed as the father of the post-communist nation, but dictatorship is uniting Belarus against him. In this nation with an average monthly salary of ?300, there is not much keeping this unpleasant regime from collapsing.