Future of Belarus

THE FIERCE crackdown on opposition protests in Belarus looks likely to halt the country's tentative rapprochement with the West and force it into a tighter embrace with neighbouring Russia.

In the hope of easing Belarus out of Moscow's sphere of influence, the EU suspended a travel ban on President Alexander Lukashenko and his allies, brought the country into its Eastern Partnership programme, and offered Minsk at least ?3 billion if it proved its commitment to democracy by making this month's election more free and fair than its predecessors. In the event, Mr Lukashenko was awarded victory with almost 80 per cent support, on turnout of 90 per cent.

When thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk after the ballot in a rare public protest against Mr Lukashenko - Belarus's authoritarian leader for 16 years - they were beaten by riot police and more than 600 were arrested. Police also raided the homes of many opposition figures, arresting seven of Mr Lukashenko's nine election rivals. Intelligence officers were still searching the houses of opposition activists on Tuesday.

The White House called the events of election day "a clear step backwards" for Belarus and its 10 million people, and the EU chided Mr Lukashenko for shattering their long-cherished hopes that he could belatedly be persuaded of the benefits of democracy. Russia and its election monitors found no public fault with the ballot or its brutal aftermath.

Mr Lukashenko used to be Russia's closest ally and a despot scorned in the West as "Europe's last dictator" until Moscow started reducing economic benefits to Belarus, creating what Brussels and Washington saw as a chance to further shrink the Kremlin's sphere of influence. But after soft-pedalling criticism of Mr Lukashenko for several years, the West must now admit that its faith in the former collective farm boss was misplaced.

However, Belarus's economy needs outside help and if the EU turns its back on Minsk, only Russia will be left to lend a hand. For Moscow, Mr Lukashenko's self-isolation and his economy's travails present an opportunity to seize control of Belarusian industrial assets that it has long coveted, particularly energy companies.

While glad of Russia's uncritical attitude and its offer of duty-free oil, Mr Lukashenko could ultimately regret alienating the West and losing a counterbalance to the Kremlin. It may not be long before the man who portrays himself as the defender of Belarusian sovereignty finds Russia's embrace to be more like a stranglehold.


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