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Wrong Carrot, Wrong Stick

.... Carrots and sticks are a good way of moving the recalcitrant, in agriculture and geopolitics alike. But what if the donkey is too thick-skinned to mind about the stick and says he prefers thistles to carrots?

That is the upshot of yesterday’s dismal news from Belarus. The country’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has retained power in a presidential election that outside observers reckon was grossly rigged. He has cracked down on the opposition: latest reports say that seven opposition candidates are under arrest. One, Vladimir Neklyayev, was seriously beaten, then hauled from his hospital bed in the early hours of the morning and taken to an unknown destination. Police arrested hundreds of opposition protestors in the center of Minsk and many others in the provinces.

.... Nobody expected Mr. Lukashenko to leave power promptly. But the hope was that he would at least allow some semblance of a fair election and refrain from persecuting its losers. That would have allowed the EU to say that its policy of “engagement” with the regime was working: the idea, long spearheaded by Mr. Sikorski, was to drop sanctions gradually, which supposedly risk driving Belarus further into Russia’s arms, and to offer a series of incentives to the nomenklatura—the Belarusian elite. “We have to make them think that their future, and their children’s future, is in Brussels not Moscow,” a senior official explained.

On a parallel track, America (which also has sanctions on Belarus and withdrew its Ambassador in early 2008) has tried charm too. A meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Belarusian counterpart on December 1st praised Belarus for its decision to dispose of its highly enriched uranium stocks by 2012.

It all made sense on paper. Belarus is a well-educated country on the EU’s doorstep. It would integrate far more easily into the EU than other, more talked-about candidates such as Ukraine (seen as too big and too corrupt) or Turkey (too big and too Muslim). Nor is it like Russia, handicapped by dreams of regaining lost superpower status, or by historical hang-ups about neighboring countries. Seen from the diplomatic salon, Belarus looked like a prime target.

... The big weakness in the Western approach was the assumption that Mr. Lukashenko was now scared of Russia and that the Russian authorities were repelled by him. Some evidence supported that: the earthy, ill-educated Mr. Lukashenko (a former collective farm manager) got on badly with Vladimir Putin and even worse with his nominal successor in the Kremlin, Dmitri Medvedev. In a startling public outburst this summer, Mr. Medvedev denounced Mr. Lukashenko as corrupt. Russian television picked up the theme enthusiastically. That eruption followed a simmering row over unpaid gas bills (cheap Russian energy keeps Belarus afloat).

Many thought that the Kremlin would pick and back its own candidate for the presidential election. Faced with a choice of being toppled by the Kremlin or making peace with the West, surely Mr. Lukashenko would choose the latter. Not so. Perhaps to humiliate Mr. Medvedev, perhaps to forestall the West, Russia’s government (headed by Mr. Putin) speedily repaired relations with the regime in Minsk. A humiliated Mr. Medvedev said tautly that the election was an “internal matter.”

.... And what of the wily, volatile Mr. Lukashenko? No great brain when it comes to economics or history, he understands the geopolitics of his own region. When tempers cool, he will continue playing east and west against each other. He knows how short memories are in Brussels and Moscow. After all, he’s been around a long time—and he intends to keep it that way.

Edward Lucas is Senior Editor at The Economist and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Belarusian Review, Vol. 22, No. 4
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Copyright 2010 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.
Source: Excerpts from Central Europe Digest, 20 December 2010

Edward Lucas

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