By Simon Shuster / Moscow
Faced once again with sanctions from Europe for his most blatant rights abuses yet, Alexander Lukashenko, the despotic President of Belarus, is trying to wriggle out of the worst diplomatic jam of his 16-year rule. And for all the tough talk coming from Europe, he is likely to get off the hook. Lukashenko has started playing nice again and, more importantly, playing the card that he has been the victim of Russian aggression. The ploy is quite likely to work - and it won't be the first time.
What got Lukashenko into this latest predicament was the election of Dec. 19, when many in the West were watching to see if the man known as Europe's last dictator would finally let in some democracy. His behavior looked encouraging at first. Nine contenders were allowed to campaign against him, and even got unprecedented access to state TV. But as one senior western diplomat told TIME on the eve of the vote: "The real test will come when [Lukashenko] wins and the opposition starts to protest the vote." By any measure, Lukashenko failed that test. (See pictures of Belarus' election clashes.)
Seven of the nine candidates who ran against him were arrested on election night while Lukashenko's victory was being tallied with a whopping 80% of the vote. Four of the candidates, some badly beaten by police, are now facing up to 15 years in prison for "inciting unrest" during that night's mass street protests, which police had violently dispersed. Many of the students who rallied that night are now being expelled from their universities, and after deeming the election unfair, European observers have been kicked out of the country. But even that wasn't the low point. (See the Moscow power games behind Lukashenko's crackdown.)
After arresting one of the leaders of the opposition, Andrei Sannikov, along with his wife, the journalist Irina Khalip, the authorities set their sights on the couple's three-year-old son, Danil. On Dec. 23, officials visited his kindergarten and told his grandmother that her custody could be revoked if the state deemed her unfit to care for the boy. "I've stopped taking him to kindergarten now, because I'm afraid of any searches he might face," Lyutsina Khalip, 74, told TIME by phone from Minsk on Wednesday, just minutes after authorities had finished searching her apartment for the second time in two weeks, looking for evidence against her.
The media coverage of these abuses, particularly a New York Times piece on Jan. 9, left the European Parliament with little choice but to condemn Lukashenko when it met on Jan. 12 to discuss the situation in Belarus. Their threat of isolation and new sanctions against his government started to seem very real, and at the same time, Russia was not stepping up to protect him. (See the Moscow power games behind Belarus' election.)
That betrayal must have stung. In the days before the vote, Lukashenko had gotten the personal endorsement of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and their countries had finally settled the dispute over oil supplies that had been poisoning their relationship. But as of Jan. 1, Russia again stopped pumping oil to Belarus until it agrees to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars more in payment, and as an extra snub, Putin never called Lukashenko to congratulate him on his re-election.
All of this has forced Belarus back into its usual dilemma - squeezed between pressures from the East and West - and Lukashenko has responded by lurching sharply back toward the West. In the past week, Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov has been touring European capitals to make amends, while state-run television has gone on the offensive against Russia. In a documentary aired on Jan. 9, the main propaganda channel blamed Russian provocateurs for fueling the post-election rallies, suggesting that Lukashenko had no choice but to clamp down on opposition leaders who were getting manpower and support from Moscow. It was an obvious ploy for sympathy.
"But Belarus is a hard nut to crack, and it has used these methods to slip out of these East-West pincers before," says Alexander Klaskovsky, a political analyst in Minsk. In 2006, for instance, Lukashenko's last re-election was also followed by a wave of political repressions, which convinced Europe to put travel bans and economic sanctions on his government that year. But two years later, as Lukashenko showed ever more defiance toward Moscow and sympathy toward Brussels, most of those sanctions were slowly lifted and dialogue with the West opened up. "So as much as Europe is fuming now, it will come around," Klaskovsky says. "Without making any real political reforms, Lukashenko will show his big heart by releasing some of the political prisoners, easing up on their families, and Europe will treat this as just enough progress to open up the dialogue again."
Later this month, when the European Parliament votes on a resolution against Belarus, it will likely have harsh words for Lukashenko, but any decision on sanctions will have to be approved by the European Commission, where several countries, led by Italy, are already suggesting that he deserves a break. "I think there will be a big debate between those countries who want to show a commitment to democratic values and those with the so-called pragmatic approach," says Matyas Eorsi, the Hungarian politician who led one of the largest factions in the European Parliament, the ALDE Group, between 2001 and 2009. "But the problem is always how to keep Belarus away from Russia," Eorsi tells TIME. "That is what pragmatism demands, because it would be a terrible mistake to push Belarus into the hands of Putin." An even bigger mistake, however, would be expecting a calm life for Belarus' opposition now that Lukashenko is getting another pass.