The Cable

‘Last Dictator of Europe’ Earns His Title, Cracks Down on Protests

Lukashenko has long played Russia and the West off each other. But this time he’s trying to play Belarus.

lukashenks

“There are more people detained in #Belarus. My friends and colleagues. #Lukashenka reminds the world there are people who can’t change.”

So wrote Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist based in London, on Twitter on Thursday. Her tweet was a reference to Aleksandr Lukashenko, the so-called last dictator of Europe and Belarusian president, who has responded to this month’s protests in his country — some of the largest in its recent history — by lashing out against foreigners and detaining his own citizens.

Also on Thursday, two days before another large planned protest, Belarusian state television said the country’s security services, which are literally still called the KGB, had detained an unspecified number of people under suspicion of plotting mass disorder.

It was only last month there was renewed speculation Lukashenko was moving away from Russia and toward Europe. He had been playing the two off each other for years, and redoubled his efforts to move out of Moscow’s shadow after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Flirting with the West to make sure Russia’s influence is measured is a strategy Lukashenko’s long used, Matthew Rojansky of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center told Foreign Policy. “That is why Lukashenko has consistently denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and has tried to reopen ties with the West over the past several years.”

Case in point: In January of this year, Belarus announced visa-free travel for citizens from 80 countries, including the United States, to Belarus effective Feb. 9. And when Russia threatened to cut oil exports to Belarus by half and establish a security zone on what was previously virtually open border with Belarus, Lukashenko responded by saying his country’s ties with Russia were deteriorating because Russia is afraid of Belarus turning toward the West.

But it seems Lukashenko himself is afraid of the same. Since Mar. 1, over 150 have been arrested for protesting the “parasite tax” on the unemployed. It was, per Lukashenko, intended to crack down on “social parasitism.” But, somewhat unexpectedly, masses took to the streets in response, and continued even after the Mar. 9 announcement that the tax would be suspended until 2018.

In between arresting at least three protest leaders last Sunday and rounding up more ahead of this Saturday’s planned protest, Lukashenko said on Tuesday that authorities had arrested members of a so-called fifth column of foreign fighters trained in Ukraine and likely also in Poland and Lithuania. “There are some people bent on blowing up the situation in the country. I call them the fifth column. They are not an opposition. They want to stage a rebellion in the country,” he said.

A spokesperson for Lithuania’s foreign ministry dismissed Lukashenko’s statement. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius “has not heard any well-grounded statement from the side of Belarus,” the spokesperson told FP.  He advises “the Belarusian administration to stop looking for enemies in foreign countries and within the state who could be blamed for the tense situation in Belarus,” she added. The Foreign Ministries of Ukraine and Poland did not immediately respond to request for comment.

That Lukashenko is blaming foreign provocateurs does not come as a surprise, Rojansky said. “That has been his message regarding protest movements going back more than a decade–that this reflects an outside, usually western, plot to destabilize Belarus.”

And that Lukashenko shifted from his pro-Western rhetoric toward blaming his neighbors “suggests Lukashenko continues the policy of balancing in real time reaction to pressures and opportunities from all sides,” Rojansky said.

But that those being detained are, in fact, Belarusian protest organizers and journalists suggests the side from which Lukashenko is receiving the most pressure this time around is neither Russia nor the West, but Belarus itself.

Photo credit: SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty Images

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