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Lukashenko looks set to stay

Anna Sonny, 30 March 2012

By Anna Sonny

In Europe, Belarus holds a few records for longevity. President Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-running leader, ruling the ex-Soviet nation since 1994. The country has been dubbed by Washington as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and the recent execution of two men purported to have planted bombs in a metro station has brought to light the uncomfortable fact that Belarus is the last remaining European country to use the death penalty. This reputation for durability is a worrying anomaly in a modern Europe; it represents the murky shadow of the Soviet era, lingering on in a continent that champions democracy and is keen to distance itself from the cruel dictatorships of the past.

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Tensions between Brussels and Minsk, Belarus’ capital, have been steadily building since the Belarus general elections in December 2010. Lukashenko was re-elected president with 80% of the vote. Although he insisted that it was an “honest” result, international observers and Belarusian citizens denounced the elections as being neither free nor fair. In the protests that followed, opponents to the regime were brutally suppressed, with Lukashenko’s secret service, still known as the KGB from the Soviet era, reportedly carrying out violent beatings and torturing political prisoners. Seven of the nine presidential candidates opposing Lukashenko were arrested.

In April 2011, in the midst of the government’s crackdown on political opposition to Lukashenko’s regime, an explosion went off in a metro station in Minsk, close to a number of government buildings and Lukashenko’s residence.  The President vowed to find those responsible, and although many doubted their involvement in the attack, Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov were convicted of the bombing and sentenced to death. Cries of condemnation and calls for clemency from the EU and other world powers were repeatedly ignored by the President and the execution went ahead.

Over the past few weeks, the EU has recalled its ambassadors to Belarus and placed further sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime in response to human rights abuses. European leaders agreed an asset freeze and visa ban against 21 officials, bringing the number of blacklisted Belarusians to over 200. In turn, Belarus said the ambassador to Poland and the EU’s envoy should leave the country. Last Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the 2014 International Ice Hockey tournament to be held somewhere else apart from Belarus, “until the regime shows commitment to human rights and the rule of law.” Following on from the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting last Thursday in which the EU outlined its strategy to engage further with the Belarusian population, European Commissioner Stefan Füle launched a European dialogue on modernisation yesterday with members of the Belarusian civil society and political opposition. The discussion focused on necessary reforms and the potential development of Belarusian relations with the EU.

Belarus’ geopolitical proximity to Russia, however, makes it hard for the EU to hit Lukashenko’s regime where it hurts financially. Last year, during Belarus’ severe financial crisis, Russia provided a bail-out and remains an important economic and political partner for Belarus. So far, ties with Russia have meant that Lukashenko can safely isolate himself from the EU and continue with a regime of relentless repression. But the alliance is awkward; Lukashenko’s strong desire to retain absolute sovereignty for Belarus could cause friction between Minsk and Moscow. The question is whether Belarus’ alliance with Russia will help Lukashenko’s unyielding Soviet-style reign to last that little bit longer.

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