Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, announced Wednesday that he would host upcoming peace talks between Russia and Ukraine after being chosen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). While picking Belarus makes diplomatic sense, as the nation is both a close ally of Moscow and sympathetic to Kiev, pro-democracy activists living under harsh repression are concerned the move grants Lukashenko more legitimacy.
Like Ukraine, Belarus is a country torn between factions that want closer ties with the European Union and others that gravitate towards Russia. While Belarus is economically and linguistically linked with Russia, over the past few years most Belarusians have been drifting towards the E.U. camp — that is, until the crisis in Ukraine erupted earlier this year. Since then, the numbers have reversed and sympathy with Moscow is on the rise. Still, volunteers from the small Eastern European nation have appeared on both sides of the civil war between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists.
Lukashenko and the ruling elite have most often been stuck in the middle when it comes to Ukraine. Belarus joined Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union of former soviet states in May, but more recently disobeyed Russian orders to restrict trade with Ukraine. Critics allege that Lukashenko has used the crisis next door to tighten his grip over Belarusian society, regularly commenting on the importance of maintaining sovereignty and strong rule at home in his public statements. But as the public has thrown its support behind Moscow and the rebels, elites have subtly realigned themselves closer to Europe.
The problem is that Lukashenko is far from the model leader of a Western liberal democracy. Since he took power in 1994, the president has ruled with an iron fist, jailing members of the political opposition, shamelessly rigging elections, and eliminating the independent press. His authoritarian style earned Lukashenko travel bans in the U.S. and E.U. But with his eye on 2015 elections, the president told the Serbian media he is glad western powers are starting to warm up to his seemingly endless rule. Having just received the OSCE’s nomination to host the peace talks, it seems like Lukashenko’s read on the situation is pretty spot on.
Belarusian opposition leaders claim the West’s view of the dictator as an independent, neutral mediator that can walk the line between Kiev and Moscow is gravely misguided. They say Lukashenko, whose program of political repression makes the crackdown on Maidan protestors in Kiev last winter look lenient, only tends towards supporting Ukraine because he’s afraid Russia might invade Belarus next.
In the wake of punishing sanctions on Russia, Belarus’ economy is also forming new ties with the West, buying Lukashenko a degree of independence from Putin. “For Lukashenka, and perhaps some of his inner circle…it is a question of survival,” Devin Ackles, an analyst with at the Center for Economic and Social Research (CASE) in Ukraine, told ThinkProgress. Lukashenko has “a clear vested interest in keeping the things the way they are,” he told ThinkProgress. Right now, that means a careful balancing act. But meanwhile, the country is becoming all the more divided.
While both Lukashenko and his political opponents have been stepping up their support for Kiev, Russian state-owned media continues to dominate the airwaves in Belarus. As a result, a majority of Belarusians believe Ukraine downed the Malaysian Airlines flight that crashed in eastern Ukraine earlier this month, and 65 percent support Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “Belarusians are opposed to anything they might see as bringing instability to their country,” Ackles commented. “If Putin were to push for a takeover over Belarus by formally incorporating it into the Russian Federation…I doubt that there would be much resistance amongst the population and even less amongst state officials or military/police personnel.”
While Lukashenko isn’t likely to take any big risks before the 2015 elections, Ackles explained why maintaining the delicate balance between Ukraine and Russia might prove harder than it sounds. “Belarus will continue to find a way to limit Russian influence over its economic life,” Ackles said, but “as Russia’s economy begins to decline, Belarus will suffer as well.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.