Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the leader of Belarus, is facing his gravest crisis to date. During last December’s presidential election Lukashenka unleashed a massive crackdown on the political opposition that drove his country -- often described as "Europe’s last dictatorship" -- into even deeper diplomatic isolation.
In the months since, an economic slump and a sharp devaluation of the Belarusian currency have delivered a crushing blow to the livelihood of the country’s citizens.
The prospect that Lukashenka -- who has held the Belarusian presidency since 1994 -- could be nearing the end of his political career has many experts in Western capitals mulling over scenarios for what comes next.
David Kramer, president of the Washington-based pro-democracy organization Freedom House, maintains that the strategy for Lukashenka’s exit has to be worked out by Belarusians themselves. But he also believes that there are some things the West can do to help.
"I think this is a unique opportunity, and by that I mean Belarus has never faced an economic crisis like this, which means Lukashenka is more vulnerable than he's ever been before," he says.
Freedom House President David Kramer
"I think that's showing through his actions and behavior. I think that it's time to continue the pressure, not let up because under further pressure you may have the possibility of people inside the regime deciding 'this is enough, we can't continue down this path.'
"And I think that is the scenario that is most likely, people inside the regime will say this is untenable, it can't continue, we need a change.
"Not an easy solution but the obvious solution to easing the pressure would be for Lukashenka to go. Where does he go? That's his problem."
Kramer is one of the authors of a recent report, jointly published by Freedom House and the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, which suggests several guiding principles for a post-Lukashenka Belarus.
No Roadmap For Lukashenka Exit
The report recommends a series of measures to empower civil society groups, to ensure responsible and transparent privatization, to create future economic opportunities, and to anchor democratic institutions.
But analysts warn that there is no recipe or roadmap for ensuring Lukashenka's exit.
"The failed outreach of the European Union in the run-up to the previous elections in Belarus drove home the message: Lukashenka is incapable of leading his country towards Europe," says Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council, another Washington think tank.
"This is not going to happen. This will not be a leader with which the United States and Europe can work to advance reform in Belarus. That's a non-starter.
"And second it helps to reinforce that we actually need a policy towards Belarus, not a policy that is a function of our policy with Russia. I hope that Washington and Brussels are not falling into the trap of not pressing Minsk because of fear of pushing it into Moscow's hands."
Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Krzysztof Stanowski believes that Europe cannot help but be involved in the developing situation in Belarus for various reasons.
Deputy Foreign Minister Krzysztof Stanowski
"The first reason is values," he says. "The values that we stand for, the values that are so important for the US and for Europe and especially for countries like Poland. Another reason [is that] for decades we believed that our security is tied with tanks, with soldiers in boots, with missiles.
"Then we started to understand that it’s also linked to the economy. Especially last year we started to better understand that our security is directly linked with the way the countries are governed, with the possibility of the people to decide their future."
Since Poland currently holds the rotating EU presidency, it is uniquely poised to influence Belarus directly.
The message from the Polish presidency to Belarus, says Stanowski, is to "release and rehabilitate all opposition members, start negotiations between officials and leaders of the opposition."
From there, he says, the government must establish conditions for free elections. Until these conditions are ensured, no aid from the EU will be forthcoming.
The Russian Factor
Europe cannot decide the fate of Belarus on its own, of course. Belarus remains closely tied to Russia both economically and politically, so Russian interests will inevitably have to be factored into the equation.
And right now Moscow is clearly frustrated by the experience of many years of dealings with the volatile Lukashenka.
Last year, for example, Russian TV -- which can be viewed by many Belarusians -- broke with its practice of uncritical reporting on Lukashenka’s regime and aired a series of hard-hitting broadcasts attacking the Belarusian president's treatment of his own people.
According to Kramer, however, Moscow appears to have run out of options beyond that.
A riot policeman chases an opposition protester during a rally in Minsk denouncing the reelection of Lukashenka as president in 2009.
"Now it has become more of a pain and a nuisance to them, and it isn't the best situation to have the kind of circumstances in Belarus along their border that I think the Russian officials see now," he says.
"They'd like to get rid of Lukashenka, and, frankly, if they knew who to replace him with they would have tried to do it. I'm not sure they would have succeeded.
"But I am a little reluctant to talk to the Russians about this because we come to this from very different angles, certainly not from a foundation of shared values."
The economic side of the equation is also complicated. Seventy percent of Belarusian output comes from huge state enterprises such as Beltransgaz, the potash company Belaruskali, and arms trader BelTechExport.
Lukashenka might be tempted to sell these enterprises off in order to raise money to prop up his regime.
Avoiding Financial Collapse
Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, believes that this should be prevented.
"The issue for us today is really to make sure that Lukashenka is not allowed to rob his country [and to leave it] empty and indebted, as the Soviet leaders did in '91," he says.
"We need to avoid that financial collapse and Lukashenka seems dead determined to stay on until he can really get back down.
"What can we do? Sanction these enterprises. If they are sanctioned then prices will be lower and Lukashenka will not be interested in selling them if he does not get enough."
Yuri Dzhibladze is the head of the Russian Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights.
He recently published his own analysis of the situation, and warns that Lukashenka could yet find a way to preserve his regime.
Dzhibladze argues that now is the time for the West to use economic leverage to push Belarus toward regime change and a transition to democracy:
"The economic situation is the worst ever throughout the 17 years of Lukashenka's rule," he says. "On the one hand we should at the very least prevent any new loans, any new external support without very strong conditions."
"However, we believe that's not enough and we are very concerned that some are happy to see the release of political prisoners as an end goal and then go back to business as usual with Lukashenka, with trade and investment and participation in the privatization program that might take place soon.
"This would be very wrong. We believe that every investment, every penny put into the Belarusian economy under the Lukashenka regime would mean complicity with repressions, with continued dictatorial policies of Lukashenka."
Ultimately, however, many believe it will be up to the people of Belarus to decide whether they are willing to tolerate Lukashenka any further.
"We're not going to be the masters of regime change in Belarus," says the Atlantic Council’s Damon Wilson. "The Belarusian people are going to be the masters of regime change in Belarus. They have to own their own future, and we have to help them in that process. But I think Qaddafi's tent in the desert is a good place for Lukashenka."