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Belarus' Balancing Act

Lukashenko Looks West—And East

People shout slogans as they take part in an opposition rally on the eve of presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, October 10, 2015. Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

In 2010, Europe’s so-called last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, was fraudulently reelected president of Belarus with almost 80 percent of the vote. Thousands protested in the capital city of Minsk, more than 600 were imprisoned, and the EU and the United States imposed harsh sanctions on Belarus. In the October 2015 elections, however, Lukashenko claimed an even bigger majority of the vote—83.5 percent—and only 100 protesters turned out for a brief demonstration. The EU promptly announced that it would suspend most sanctions for four months.

So what changed? In a word: Ukraine. Russia has alienated its neighbors since the crisis in Ukraine began in 2013. Russia’s aggression has alarmed Lukashenko, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies. Lukashenko doesn’t want to become a second Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine who now lives in forced retirement in Moscow, and he doesn’t want to see Russian “little green men” deployed against Belarus. Russia’s actions have shored up Lukashenko’s domestic support, even among elements within the Belarusian opposition, who want to close ranks in the face of a potential Russian threat. Events in Ukraine have also reduced Western pressure on Belarus to democratize.

Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) talks with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko during their meeting at the BRICS Summit in Ufa, Russia, July, 2015. Sergei Ilnitsky / Reuters

At the same time, the Ukraine crisis and the fall in global oil prices have pushed Belarus into recession. Lukashenko’s attempts to reach out to China have had limited impact, and he has little room to maneuver in his relations with the West. Put simply, Belarus has entered a new period of uncertainty.

LOOKING BOTH WAYS

For Lukashenko, challenges to Belarus and its sovereignty are also challenges to his own rule. Russia’s infringements on Ukrainian sovereignty thus set a dangerous precedent. In the run-up to the Belarusian election, Lukashenko cracked down on pro-Russian parties and nongovernmental organizations, and his election campaign focused on national security. (His slogan this year

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