The man known as Europe's last dictator made a startling announcement last week: Come early October, he will release all of the political prisoners
in his jails. For 17 years, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus in much the way that it was run as a Soviet socialist republic: Most of the economy is state-owned, independent journalists are routinely harassed, opposition political activists are beaten and arrested, and the secret police -- still known as the KGB -- maintain a massive cadre of loyal informers.
On the surface, Lukashenka shows signs of reform. He recently pardoned four political activists
who were jailed as part of the crackdown that followed Belarus's rigged presidential election last winter. To avoid any appearance that their release was a concession to outside pressure, the regime announced that all four had "recognized their guilt and the unlawful character of their actions."
Such moves should be seen in the context of the cat-and-mouse game Lukashenka has long played with the West. The European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Belarus after December's electoral farce. With the country enduring a massive financial crisis -- consumer prices have almost doubled since January, and inflation is near 50 percent -- Lukashenka desperately needs outside assistance, which the West has made contingent upon political liberalization. Releasing political prisoners, including detained presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau, is a tacit attempt to improve chilly relations with Europe and the United States and should not be mistaken for genuine change within the regime.
Read the rest in "The Washington Post. "