Belarus election diary day five

During my time here I've been chatting to various diplomats, all of whom are busy trying to fathom what Mr Lukashenko's game plan is in trying to mend relations with the West.

By Colin Freeman in Minsk

Alexander Lukashenko doesn't want to be dependent primarily on Russian capital for investment in his country Photo: AP

It could be, of course, that he's simply interested in holding fair elections for their own sake, having got fed up with everyone calling him a tyrant.

Frankly, though, that doesn't seem to bother him much - his favourite gag these days during interviews with foreign journalists is to ask them how it feels to meet "Europe's last dictator".

Instead, the smart money is on a rather different explanation altogether - that it's all to do with his deteriorating relationship with neighbouring Russia.

Traditionally, Belarus has had much stronger links with Moscow than many of the other former Soviet states.

Apart from being geographically closer, most of Belarus's population speak Russian, and they also have reciprocal working rights.

But relations have soured over the last couple of years, mainly because of the feeling that Moscow is once again trying to re-assert control over Belarus and the rest of its "near abroad".

The first real sign of this was the Kremlin's decision two years ago to start cutting down its massive subsidised gas supplies to Belarus, a legacy from the Soviet times when it was one of the Communist bloc's most industrialised states.

Russia argues that the price hike is simply to end a long-running anachronism and put things on a more market footing.

But diplomats here think Lukashenko detects a rather different agenda, fearing that it is part of Moscow's aspirations to keep Belarus and other countries on its border firmly in its sphere of influence.

If he had any lingering doubts about Russia's intentions on that front, July's invasion of Georgia removed them.

The theory is that he now sees cosying up to Europe as a bargaining chip in any future dealings with Moscow, mindful of the fact that the Kremlin is currently rather short of friends internationally.

He also doesn't really want to be dependent primarily on Russian capital for investment in his country, given the power the Kremlin wields on its own business sector these days.

In other words, he's playing East off against West in much the same fashion as African and Arab leaders did during the original Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s.

To the outside observer, this might seem all rather Machiavellian. But many in Belarus say that with a big, aggressive Russian bear in your backyard, you need someone pretty damned wolfish to look after your country's interests properly.

That also appears to be a view reflected in the results of yesterday's elections - as I write, it has just been announced that the opposition has won precisely no seats whatsoever.

This arguably does nobody any favours at all - not Mr Lukashenko, nor those in the West who would like to lure him in from the cold and way from Moscow's embrace.

Even the opposition had assumed that he would rig things so that they got at least five seats, in order to make the contest look reasonably democratic.

With a complete clean sweep for the government, though, it's going to be hard for the West to give the elections a credible thumbs-up. It could, of course, be that he was intent on rigging things all along.

But the other explanation, and I fear this may be the correct one, is that with all the foreign monitors in place, it has indeed been impossible to fix things, and that democracy, in its usual mischievous way, has simply delivered a result that reflects an inconvenient truth.

Namely that the opposition is pretty undeveloped here, and that Europe's last dictator is, for all his faults, quite popular in his own way. It's also true that quite a lot of people here simply aren't that taken with the idea of choosing their leaders by vote anyway.

One old lady we spoke to outside a Minsk tractor factory - yes, they still have them - put it bluntly. "What's the point in voting?" she said. "I've seen all these candidates, but how would I know whether they'd be any good at running the country?

"Surely it is better to appoint someone who already has experience of running things, like the manager of the tractor factory, and get them to do it."

Try as I might, I couldn't really find any immediate riposte to that logic.

And I fear there is probably a certain ex-chicken farm boss who agrees with her wholeheartedly.



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