It may seem that the crackdown on popular protest in Minsk is proof the regime has full control of the situation and has not learned anything since March 2006 – the last time the police violently dispersed protesters; it may seem that the people of Belarus should expect more of the same in years to come. But the reality is that change is already under way. For one thing, creeping economic liberalisation is taking place. Belarus, which had been a sanctuary of uncompromising price control and redistribution, has been rated by the World Bank as a much better place to do business next year than Russia, Ukraine and even China. The administration is facing a worsening economy and mounting debt and is well aware that market reforms are overdue. Furthermore, although police brutality on the election night may overshadow this fact, the signs of political "thaw" are also undeniable. Whatever happened later, nine opposition candidates registered; later they received access to the state media. The opposition in, say, Azerbaijan or Russia could only dream of that kind of status.
Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the country seems to have successfully transcended the position of Russia's western appendage. Minsk no longer deals with Moscow alone; on the contrary, Mr Lukashenko secured EU acceptance as a partner. By demonstrating that he could lean more on the West in case of growing Russian demands, he forced Moscow to start competing for his benevolence, not the other way round.
The plan worked. It was announced in early December that Russian subsidies would be resumed, with none of the threats that used to accompany such discussions. No talk of non-recognition of Mr Lukashenko; no demands that Minsk recognise independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The question now is how long Mr Lukashenko can continue his balancing act. In terms of tactics, he no doubt has enough manoeuvring space for the moment. But strategically he is nevertheless challenged. His new eastern European nation will continue its transition, with or without his consent. And it will surely not put up with the same regime forever.
Arkady Moshes is director of the Research Programme on Russia in the Regional Context at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
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