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The pope’s photo-op with Europe’s last dictator

The pope’s photo-op with Europe’s last dictator

Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s PR machine kicked into overdrive yesterday during a meeting with Pope Benedict. RFE/RL’s Luke Allnut notes that the Belarussian strongman’s adorable son Nikola stole the show at the event: “Resplendent in a white cardigan among the papal grays and purples… playing with a football and presenting the pope with his ABC’s book.” It certainly sounds like Lukashenko is getting his money’s worth from his top-shelf British spin-doctors.

Belarussian opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko put the meeting in context for the AP:

“Lukashenko’s main goal is to improve his image and to receive absolution from the pope ahead of the EU summit in Prague, where many European politicians will not extend a hand to the Belarusian dictator,” he said.

On this site last week, David Kramer and Irina Krasovskaya (whose husband was “disappeared” by the Lukashenko regime) argued that the E.U.’s efforts to reach out to Belarus were ill-advised and would only lead Lukashenko to crack down more on political dissent. 

Most E.U. leaders, at least, seem fairly embarassed by the prospect of standing next to Lukashenko. Some even say they won’t shake his hand. Even Silvio Berlusconi, who became the first Western European leader in 14 years to meet with him yesterday, didn’t hold a press conference and made it clear that he would press Lukashenko on human rights. On the other hand, the Vatican said only that some “internal problems” were discussed at the Pope’s meeting but in a “positive climate”

What is Benedict thinking? There are certainly times when talking with human rights abusers can be productive. But the Pope isn’t a realist, nor should he be. Unlike national leaders he’s in a position to act as a voice of conscience without worrying about political expediency. 

Considering the bad press he’s gotten over the last few months, it couldn’t have hurt the pope to say a few words in public about Lukashenko’s stiffling of free speech and dissent in Belarus. Instead, he gave the dictator a photo-op to die for without a critical word. 

Given the role his predecessor played in dispatching authoritarian governments from the rest of Eastern Europe, Benedict’s conduct was especially shameful. 

CHRIS HELGREN/AFP/Getty Images