Belarus has been called — accurately — Europe’s last dictatorship, although at times its friend and patron, Russia under Vladimir Putin, seems to want to compete for that honor.
Belarus is truly the heartland of Eastern Europe, surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, but location aside, it seems a forlorn and forgotten fragment of the old Soviet empire.
In many ways Belarus is still a Soviet state. Until a falling out with Russia, since mended, Belarus’ dictatorial president of the past 16 years, Alexander Lukashenko, mused openly about reconstituting the Soviet Union, perhaps with himself as its head.
While the other newly freed Iron Curtain countries were experimenting with democracy and its ancillary benefits, such as freedom of expression, Lukashenko tightened his control of the police, media, courts, parliament and, through Soviet-style control of industry, most of the jobs in the country.
Lukashenko has been elected president four times, none of them adjudged as even close to honest by Western European observers. The Russians, by contrast, tend to find the balloting faultless.
Lukashenko was re-elected again earlier this month. In spite of limited access to the media and
crippling controls on forming political parties and holding rallies, Lukashenko had nine opponents.
The European Union, perhaps seeing that as a sign of democratization, offered Belarus $3.9 billion if it held free and fair elections.
When the results were announced, Lukashenko had won 80 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, former Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Sannikov, received 2.6 percent.
Opposition demonstrators poured into downtown Minsk and tried to trash a major government building. They were met by armed riot police and plainclothes thugs. Somewhere around 700 were arrested, including seven of the nine candidates who had the temerity to run against Lukashenko. At least one of the nine, Vladimir Neklyayev, a respected 64-year-old poet, was badly beaten, dragged out of the hospital where he had been taken and hauled off to a state security service prison.
Call it just a crazy hunch, but it does not look like Lukashenko is going to see that $3.9 billion.
Dale McFeatters is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.