Lukashenko's go-to man isn't in Brussels.

Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

No, Lukashenko Is Not Defecting to Europe

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko just won his fifth presidential "election" in a row. In response, the European Union is about to lift sanctions against him and those actively backing his regime. That's a reason for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his friends to take heart: They too can outlast sanctions without really changing anything. 

Once a populist former state farm manager and self-styled corruption fighter, Lukashenko actually won a fair election back in 1994. Neighboring Ukraine is on its fourth president since then, but Lukashenko has managed to hold on to power. Sunday's result, 83 percent, is the best in his career, and the support for opposition candidates has so eroded it is almost statistically insignificant:

The election results probably don't mean much. In Belarus, media are tightly controlled, street protests have long been put down by force and opposition activists who had the temerity not to leave the country have been in and out of jail. According to official data, about 36 percent of the registered voters cast their ballots ahead of time -- a right Belarussians have if they cannot spare the time on polling day, but also a convenient setup for falsifying the final tally since the early voting is unobserved by any outside organizations.

This environment has not been conducive to the emergence of strong opposition politicians. Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarussian author who won the Nobel Prize in literature last week, is a staunch Lukashenko opponent, but she has nothing but irritation for his opponents. She told a press conference in Berlin last week:

Our opposition has turned out to be very weak, they all quarrel with one another. Each accuses the others of being KGB agents. Why is there no united candidate? That's the most amazing thing. Even the West has tried to convince our opposition that it needs a single candidate; and sober people inside the opposition have said so too. But it looks that the people who are called the opposition now do not understand the responsibility incumbent upon them. They are more occupied with their egos.

In the current election, some erstwhile opposition leaders called on voters to ignore the vote because it would be rigged. They were ignored: Turnout reached 87 percent. The runner-up, Tatiana Korotkevich, said in an interview before the vote that she believed Lukashenko's true support was around 30 percent but that Belarussians, conditioned at school and work to keep mum, simply see no alternative. Despite dire poverty -- the average salary in Belarus is about $400 per month -- and a Soviet-style planned economy that would collapse if Russia stopped subsidizing natural gas, they have shown over and over that they can live with what they have, including Lukashenko. 

The EU has imposed various restrictive measures on Belarus since a rigged parliamentary election in 2004: An arms embargo, a ban on sales of police equipment (which the Lukashenko regime makes or buys in Russia, anyway), and a series of asset freezes and travel bans against Lukashenko, his closest collaborators and their companies. The sanctions are a lot like those imposed in Russia for annexing Crimea, although they are less serious than those which followed the downing of a passenger airliner over rebellious eastern Ukraine last year.

The sanctions are gradually falling away, however. Dynamo Minsk, the country's oldest soccer club, once a Soviet legend, couldn't play in European competitions for a while because Yury Chizh, whose Triple Group is the owner, was on the sanctions list. Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice lifted the sanctions against Chizh and against Dynamo, ruling that the European Council had failed to establish Chizh's links to the Lukashenko regime despite the numerous concessions he had won from the government. And before the Belarussian election, the EU let it be known that it's prepared to suspend sanctions against Lukashenko and 175 other Belarussians. 

This is ostensibly a reward for Lukashenko's decision in August to pardon six prominent political prisoners, held for helping organize Belarus's biggest anti-regime protests, joined by thousands of people in 2010. More likely, however, it's a carrot for opening up to the West since Russia's Crimea invasion.

Lukashenko has been openly critical of Russian aggression in Ukraine, his regime has sold armaments to the anti-Moscow government in Kiev, and he has refused permission for a long-discussed Russian air base near Bobruisk. NATO and even U.S. officials have recently visited Minsk to learn if Lukashenko could be sincerely willing to defect with his country to the Western camp.

The problem with all this activity is that Lukashenko is only ever sincere about one thing -- holding on to power. Putin knows that about him: He's worked closely with him for 15 years. The Belarussian leader's pro-Western leanings didn't derail a $760 million loan from Russia in August. While Lukashenko grooms his 11-year-old son Nikolai for high office, Putin knows that in a true emergency, the election-stealing dictator is going to run to him, not Brussels, for help. 

"It's his well-known game," Alexievich said about Lukashenko at the Berlin press conference. "When something's going badly with Russia, he turns toward Europe, and every time there's a new leadership in Europe -- every four years new people come, and they think they can beat Lukashenko at his game, and they keep trying to do that, not realizing he's unreliable."

Dictators are like ancient reptiles that have learned to survive any kind of climate change by using, not befriending other species. Those in Europe who believe Lukashenko might finally be coming around to their side should keep in mind that his skills, views and genetic makeup is much closer to Putin's than to theirs. Taking steps toward him will only put a cynical smile on Putin's lips.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net