On Sunday, the nation of Belarus held presidential elections. On Sunday evening, the policemen of Belarus handed out their verdict. By midnight, tens of thousands of people had been chased out of the main square in central Minsk, hundreds had been arrested, and hundreds more severely beaten. Young people limped away from demonstrations with broken arms and bloody heads. Perhaps six out of nine Belarusian presidential candidates were in jail. One of them, Uladzimir Neklyayev, was beaten unconscious and then dragged away from the hospital wrapped in blankets. As of this writing, he is still missing, locked up in an unknown location.
Police arrested journalists, too, breaking into offices and shutting down their operations. Later, they arrested artists and actors at home. Just for good measure, cyberpolice also shut down Web sites and social networking sites—Twitter, Facebook, and their Belarusian equivalents—and blocked access to foreign sites that carried news of the events in Minsk. Borrowing tactics from their counterparts down the road in Moldova, Belarusian special forces—still known, creepily, as the KGB—apparently sent in thugs to join the election-day demonstrations, break windows in the parliament, and throw stones, the better to justify the crackdown.
All in all, it was a stunning display of the regime’s weakness. Indeed, the violence that unfolded in the wake of Alexander Lukashenko’s fourth presidential election “victory” can only be explained as a sign of the Belarusian dictator’s failure. After the polls closed, Lukashenko claimed to have received nearly 80 percent of the vote. But politicians who are that popular have no need to beat, arrest, and harass their opponents; send provocateurs into a crowd; or shut down Web sites.
And, indeed, Lukashenko’s true support is thought to be rather lower than 80 percent. Belsat—a Polish-based TV station that broadcasts into Belarus—reckons that Lukashenko’s actual support is closer to 30 percent, based on polls taken over several months. Some other outsiders put the number at 38 percent, but either number explains why reports of electoral fraud are widespread, why observers were not allowed to observe the counting, why the state-run media concentrated 90 percent of its attention on Lukashenko, and why Radio Free Europe began to collect reports of discrepancies so early in the day. It also explains why truck loads of riot police were sent out to wait for demonstrators in central Minsk even before the protesters arrived.
Under these circumstances, Lukashenko’s “victory” also means that—after a long flirtation with both the liberal West and the authoritarian East—the Belarusian dictator has now made his choice. Last month, the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland (I am married to the latter) went to Minsk with an offer: In exchange for free elections, the European Union offered a major aid package, more open borders, and the potential for a deeper economic and political relationship in the future. Since then, however, Lukashenko has repaired his skittish relationship with the Kremlin and signed a oil deal with Moscow, ensuring that his country’s old economic model remains at least partly intact. For much of the last decade, Belarus has imported cheap oil from Russia, exported more expensive oil and oil products elsewhere, and has thus kept its budget balanced and its politicians rich. Now the deal is less favorable, but it’s still better than anything Belarus could get on the open market.
And that, for the moment, is it. Statements will be issued, sanctions might be declared. Lukashenko could have a hard time getting a visa to Berlin or London. But in truth, the West has few carrots to offer unpopular dictators—even unpopular dictators who share borders with Europe—other than free trade and the long-term possibility of integration and economic growth. European foreign ministers cannot guarantee Lukashenko personal wealth. They cannot offer corrupt oil deals. They can talk about “freedom”—and they did—but they have to compete with others who talk about “the Chinese model,” who offer more predictable forms of job security, and who aren’t bothered by a few arrests. On the morning following the police attack on the opposition, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared that the elections were Belarus’s “internal affair.”
This, then, is what the “decline of the West” looks like in the eastern half of Europe: The United States and Europe, out of money and out of ideas, scarcely funds the Belarusian opposition. Russia, flush with oil money once again, has agreed to back Lukashenko and fund his regime. Let’s hope it costs them a lot more than they expect.