The title is only half-ironic. The Belorussian dictator has been in power for 16 years and will continue to be for another … well, who knows how long. One thing is clear – he has mastered the art of political psychoanalysis and is playing his cards deftly.
Firstly, Lukashenko has gauged well the mood of the ordinary folks in Belarus. Let’s face it, the majority of Belorusians are pliant peasants, who are satisfied with minimum social welfare guarantees, enforced (and ever artificial in such regimes) equality, and relentless state TV propaganda. It tells them day in, day out what they essentially want to hear: that everywhere else, and especially in Russia, the situation is much worse. And only in their small country is the stern but benign leader working 24/7 to protect them from the horrors of freedom. That economic conditions in Belarus are gradually becoming worse does not (yet) diminish their appetite for paternalistic protection.
Secondly, Lukashenko figured out that in these circumstances, which have persisted since the first day of Belorussian independence, the disunited opposition stands no chance and can be treated with contempt and brutality. This former kolkhoz chairman has visceral, inbred hatred of intellectuals. Hence the violent assault on the protesters in the centre of Minsk. However, he might have treated the opposition with more respect if it fielded one strong candidate instead of nine weak ones. But there is little chance of that happening. Lukashenko is good at eliminating potentially powerful opponents. He is also not fazed by a problem that would cause major concern to any responsible leader – the unending brain drain from his country. I had several friends in Minsk in the mid-1990s, all of them educated people with excellent development potential. None of them stayed. Some are now in Moscow, some in Prague, some in the United States.
Young Belorussian students and postgraduates that get scholarships and grants to study in the EU and the United States rarely come back. Russia, which has a union with Belarus, is the safest hide out for such émigrés. But Lukashenko doesn’t mind. For him, the fewer intellectuals, the easier it is to brainwash the remaining population.
Thirdly, the Belorussian strongman understands the mindset of EU politicians without mastering any foreign language.
What is apparent in Europe is a monumental lack of visionary political leadership. If Wikileaks disclosures confirmed anything it is that Europe’s leaders are all (with the probable exception of Silvio Berlusconi, who is in a league of his own) dour bureaucrats or party hacks, or both, contaminated by opinion-poll -watching and the pan-European culture of “compromise at any cost”. One only has to look at Herman Van Rompui and Catherine Ashton (remember who these two are?), to get the gist of what they mean by “leadership” in the EU. So no surprises at the contrived European condemnations of state-sponsored violence against the opposition in Minsk, which nevertheless were not followed by the next logical step – refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Belorussian presidential elections. Rest assured that the next EU emissaries will not be slow in coming early in 2011, when the festive season is over and memories of the clampdown on demonstrators fade. So Lukashenko, who has no particular dependence on Europe, can continue to harangue his guests about the exploits of “real democracy” in his fiefdom.
The only country that has so far refused to recognize the Belorussian election results is the United States. This step is probably partially dictated to the Obama administration by the looming necessity of dealing with a hostile Republican-dominated congress. Still it kind of puts things into perspective with regard to why even enemies still respect the United States and have no great political regard for the EU. At least it stands for something in the global arena apart from promoting its business interests.
Finally, Lukashenko has yet again beaten Russia in that old game, which one Moscow commentator wittily called “gas for kisses”. The Russian leaders have, on the one hand, shown more restraint than usual, with President Medvedev limiting himself to a statement that elections are Belarus’s “internal matter”. But state-controlled Russian TV was not so shy at interfering in these “internal matters” this summer. It showed several documentaries which, probably for the first time in Russian history, described in detail the true nature of Lukashenko’s regime - corruption, disappearance of opponents, lies and cheating on partners – not too dissimilar from Russia itself. A few days before the poll, Lukashenko (whose grip on power would have been significantly weaker without nearly $3 billion of Russian direct and indirect subsidies) went to Moscow for his regular “kiss and make up” session – and came away with the much needed compromise. So who is playing whom here?
The Russian leadership is unable to force the Minsk dictator to become a real vassal for fear of him turning away from Russia. And it is unwilling to help overthrow him, as it fears pro-Western politicians coming to power in Belarus. Moscow had a chance of pulling it off this summer when the opposition in Minsk was ready to do a deal with Russia. But it missed the chance, and probably irrevocably, because the Russian politicians are afraid of supporting pro-democracy movements anywhere for fear of setting what they see as an undesirable example at home, where the socio-political situation is much less stable than even one year ago. This traps Russian policy all over the world in a permanent cycle of dependence on local authoritarian leaders who use Moscow’s political and economic support without giving anything in return. This is what the Soviet Union did with its clients in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And remember how that ended?
So please give a big round of applause to Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko for outsmarting his own people, Brussels and Moscow – again. Belarus will eventually get rid him, but when it does, don’t expect its new leaders to be grateful.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.