What is Mr Lukashenka's price to quit Belarus?
AT ANY time in the past 12 years it would have been not merely an implausible turn of events, but a sensational one. Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus has denounced Russia, and praised the West.
“We are in the centre of Europe and we must be on normal terms with the East and the West”, he said last week. The previous policy, aiming for a union state with Russia, was all wrong, he continued: “we have been flying on just one wing.”
Never mind that the old one-winged foreign policy was his own creation. Never mind that his regime has murdered, bullied, beaten and blustered its way to international isolation for more than a decade. Now he is citing Finland, Sweden, Germany, France, even Poland as commendable economic models.
The prospect that Belarus may be emerging from its black hole is a tantalising one. There is a precedent, of sorts. President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova came to power as a Communist leader determined to make his divided, dirt-poor country into another Cuba, perhaps even joining Russia and Belarus in their union state. But he soon turned into a moderate social democrat, suspicious of the Kremlin, and determined to push Moldova to the West (a course for which the West has given him shamefully little support).
Will the same happen with Mr Lukashenka (shown below, left, with President Vladimir Putin of Russia)? As Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation points out: “Lukashenka’s overtures are marred by his difficulty finding an idiom understandable to a Western audience”.
It was quite nice knowing you
That’s putting it mildly. The Belarusian leader is a wild-eyed veteran of the collective farms, a museum-quality homo sovieticus whose pro-Kremlin sentimentality and do-it-yourself authoritarianism are matched only by a volatile temper and crudity of manner. Anyone who has grown used to Mr Lukashenka's cynical rule will find it hard to nurture any hopes of a change.
The comparison with Moldova is only partial, moreover. Whatever his views on foreign policy, Mr Voronin was no authoritarian. Moldova, for all its problems, is a model of Athenian democracy compared to Belarus. Mr Lukashenka’s Damascene conversion to the joys of the Western model have not brought any change in his repressive domestic policies. The recent local elections were a farce, with most opposition candidates and their supporters intimidated into withdrawing.
Previous tiffs with the east and flirtations with the West on the part of Belarus have always ended in business (with Russia) as usual. But this time the rhetoric is certainly stronger.
Bruised by his recent brawls with Russia over oil and gas supplies, Mr Lukashenka’s denunciations of Russian energy imperialism would not sound out of place coming from a Pole. The Belarusian boss says he wants Western companies to buy stakes in his country’s energy infrastructure.
A deep opening to the West may be wishful thinking, but nothing should be ruled out. The fundamentals are changing. Russia’s swaggering, clumsy, regional policy is alienating all its loyal ex-Soviet allies—Armenia, the Central Asian states, now even Belarus.
That creates a huge, unexpected and undeserved opening for the West. Handled wrongly, this could be disastrous. Trying to prop up Mr Lukashenka against Russian pressure would make the West look appallingly cynical.
But it should be possible for the West to talk to the Belarusian nomenklatura—the senior officials and businessmen who administer the country. Neither pariahdom nor incorporation into Russia offers an them an attractive future.
In an ideal world, the fractured, weak opposition would unite and sweep Mr Lukashenka and his cronies out of power and into prison. But in the real world, if providing him (and them) with luxurious villas in Montenegro or Cyprus was the price of freeing Belarus from both dictatorship and Russian hegemony, it would look a pretty good outcome.