Alexander Lukashenko was recently re-elected as Belarus's president for the fourth time. Lukashenko is Europe's longest running president, and if he gets his way he will remain in the job until he dies.
A keen ice hockey player and roller skater, he has ruled Belarus with an iron grip, allowing Belarusians' very limited access to the world outside. Labeled Europe's last dictator, he is not keen on democracy and freedoms and has, for the most part, had very little interest in what the West has to say about his autocratic ways.
He has succeeded in remaining in power for three main reasons: He has given the Belarusians a functioning sovereign state, something they have never had in their modern history; he has delivered modest prosperity thanks to oil and gas price subsidies from neighboring Russia; and he has managed to keep the opposition quashed. His tactic of dismissing domestic and foreign pressure for change as a "threat to Belarus' statehood" has helped him to achieve this.
However, in recent years the picture has been less rosy -- the subsidies have dwindled and there has been a downturn in relations with Moscow -- particularly following Lukashenko's refusal to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which angered the Kremlin.
Belarus is almost totally economically dependent on Moscow, so Russia's leadership decided to teach Mr. Lukashenko a lesson for his lack of loyalty by moving to crush Belarus financially. With Belarus facing export deficits and foreign debt Lukashenko needed to get his hands on some money fast, so he endeavored to court the West for loans. But as is usual with the West, loans come with conditions attached. The Dec. 19 presidential election was an example of this. If the elections proved to be fairer than in the past, Belarus would receive rewards from the West.
While the elections were far from being free and fair, they still represented an improvement. Lukashenko gave opposition candidates more freedom to campaign, and for the first time ever there were television debates -- although Lukashenko himself did not take part. However, in the aftermath Belarus security forces beat opposition protestors. Many were hospitalized, others were jailed. The world was shocked, but Lukashenko shrugged it off, stating there would be "no more harebrained democracy" in his country.
Many people may question Lukashenko's mental health -- indeed a WikiLeaks cable does just that. By carrying out these atrocities, Lukashenko has shot himself in the foot. The election result was 70 percent in his favor. Years of authoritarian rule have limited Belarus' opposition, making it so fragmented that it even failed to unite behind a single candidate. Lukashenko had begun in the last couple of years to make a tentative diplomatic outreach to the US and the EU to ease its long-standing dependence on Moscow. Now with this appalling event, he seems to have undone all the small steps that were made and has risked future ties.
The West now finds itself in a tricky situation. Its previous policy of isolating Belarus reaped no rewards. It simply worked to push the country into the arms of Russia. The EU and the US issued, quite unusually, a joint statement threatening to take action against the Belarusian regime unless it releases the arrested people. For their part, the Russians simply stated it was an "internal matter" for Minsk to sort out.
However, if Lukashenko resists this pressure it is still unclear what action the EU will actually take. Possibilities on the table include re-imposing a visa ban on Lukashenko and 35 of the top officials, which had been suspended in October; putting on hold plans to ease visa conditions for ordinary Belarusians; blocking the EU's modest 5 million euro per year aid package for the country; and freezing its membership in the EU's Eastern Partnership, a policy established some two years ago to improve ties between the EU and its neighbors to the East.
Unfortunately, many of the EU options are unattractive, as they may push the country further into isolation and improve chances for Russia to boost its influence in Minsk. Russia has already moved in this direction by agreeing to a new energy deal with Belarus that preserves at least 1.5 million euros in oil price subsidies in 2011. Poland, a major influence on EU policy on Belarus, is pushing to prevent a knee jerk reaction by the EU that could have very negative consequences.
The EU needs to keep pressure on Lukashenko while continuing to engage Belarus -- its leadership, opposition and NGOs. Not doing so will only result in giving Lukashenko little other option than the Russian one. Stopping the visa facilitation process would be the worst thing the EU could do. However, if Lukashenko is to continue to survive, he will increasingly need to reach out and cooperate with opposition figures rather than marginalizing them. By unnecessarily crushing the opposition he has wasted years of diplomacy with the West, which will leave Belarus in an even more difficult predicament, and one day his population's patience and tolerance will snap.