Leading article: A regime with a knack for losing friends

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The Independent Online

The only people with high hopes of Sunday's presidential election in Belarus were probably the incumbent President, Alexander Lukashenko, and his closest comrades. Anyone else will have harboured few illusions about the quality of Belarus's democracy – and that includes the nine candidates who took the risk of standing against him. Mr Lukashenko was duly re-elected with 80 per cent of the vote, easily exceeding the margin needed to avoid a second round.

The ferocity of the protests that followed, however, and the ruthless way in which they were suppressed, suggests that, after 16 years in power, the regime is vulnerable, and knows it. Several opposition candidates were beaten up, to the point of needing hospital treatment, and hundreds of protesters were arrested.

That the election fell far short of being free and fair was acknowledged almost at once by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. And while there were reports of stuffed ballot-boxes, the levers of power held by the President would have been enough to keep him in power; election-rigging takes many forms. Even so, the scale of Mr Lukashenko's victory and the brutal official response to the protests came as a disappointment.

The campaign itself had not been quite as bland a walkover as many had feared. It was freer and more fiercely contested than any fought by Mr Lukashenko – which, admittedly, is not saying much. Now, though, what appeared to be modest progress looks more like window-dressing designed to divert foreign critics. Opponents still risk their freedom and their lives.

But, as he embarks on a fourth term, Mr Lukashenko faces a dilemma. The economy, once his saving grace, is languishing. Yet outside help is unlikely to be forthcoming. After overtures from the EU earlier this year – which matched a cooling of relations with Russia – Belarus is isolated as never before. Meanwhile, as the latest protests showed, domestic dissent is becoming bolder. Mr Lukashenko is promising "political changes in general, but no change of power". The question is whether the one is possible without the other.