Belarus's tenuous and clumsy courtship of the West has decisively hit the skids. And in case there was any doubt, authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made it clear in his annual speech to the nation on April 29 that the West had no right to demand the release of political prisoners. A day later, Belarusian authorities gave 10 U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.
In his speech, Lukashenka used a particularly mocking tone -- and some colorful language -- in reference to the person the West has been pushing hardest to have freed: imprisoned opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin.
"He wanted the entire world to make speeches to free him and for the Belarusian authorities to cave in under the pressure. Who needs you?" Lukashenka told the nation. "You are like used toilet paper, and you think somebody needs you."
Kazulin, a former university rector, finished far behind Lukashenka in a 2006 election and was jailed for helping organize mass protests against the results. The United States and the European Union have called for Kazulin's release as a condition for better relations.
The April 29 speech and the diplomatic expulsions mark the latest in a series of low points in Belarus's rapidly deteriorating relations with the West. The moves follow a fresh crackdown on pro-democracy activists this month.
Back And Forth
Analysts say the events of the past two days are a clear signal that Minsk is scrambling firmly back into Russia's orbit.
"Lukashenka has decided that since relations with Russia aren't bad, then why play some games with the West. What's the point?" says Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst with the independent Minsk-based Strategy Center for Political Analysis. "Therefore the Belarusian authorities have settled on this policy."
After falling out with Russian President Vladimir Putin early last year over Moscow's demand that Belarus pay market prices for energy, Lukashenka haltingly tried to improve ties with the United States and the European Union.
But the rapprochement stalled over several issues, most notably Lukashenka's refusal to release Kazulin. Karbalevich says that while Lukashenka was willing to release some political prisoners, he is adamant about keeping Kazulin locked up.
"Lukashenka is simply afraid of him. He is afraid that if he were free then he would become a decisive opposition leader," Karbalevich says. "Also, Kazulin was not long ago a member of the old nomenklatura. Lukashenka wants to show what happens to people who go over to the opposition."
As a result, the European Union, which demands the release of all political prisoners, would not lift visa restrictions on Belarusian officials. And the United States responded to the refusal by freezing the accounts of the state-controlled oil-processing and chemical company Belnaftakhim and barred Americans from dealings with it.
Belnaftakhim earns about one-third of Belarus's foreign-currency revenues and is widely rumored to be among the main sources of Lukashenka's personal fortune.
At the same time, relations with Russia dramatically improved when Moscow agreed to a heavily subsidized price of $128 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter of 2008.
Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom had previously indicated that Belarus, which was paying $119 per 1,000 cubic meters, would face a much steeper price increase.
Minsk subsequently demanded that the United States reduce the staff of its embassy in the country to five people, a move Washington called "unprecedented and unwarranted." U.S. officials confirmed on April 30 that they would "do everything possible" to meet the 72-hour deadline for 10 diplomats to leave the country.
Authorities have also stepped up their campaign against pro-democracy activists.
On April 22, a Belarusian court sentenced opposition activist Andrey Kim to 18 months in prison for allegedly attacking a police officer during a protest in January. Two days later, on April 22, another activist, Syarhey Parsyukevich, received a 30-month sentence for allegedly beating a guard while serving a 15-day sentence for participating in the same protest.
In his April 29 speech, Lukashenka fiercely defended the crackdown, ridiculed the young pro-democracy activists, and questioned the motives of opposition leaders.
"Who should we protect in this case? Hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens or a group of unrestrained loafers who want to play the role of professional revolutionaries with someone else's money," Lukashenka said. "Honestly, I feel sorry for these kids who are posing as revolutionary fighters. They are put in the front lines like meat, while those behind them seek to fulfill their own personal political ambitions. A whole dynasty of professional revolutionaries is emerging."
In response to the crackdown, Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Parliament, called Belarus "Europe's last dictatorship."
Lukashenka in his speech pledged to modernize Belarus's economy, bring the country into the ranks of "leading nations," and double average monthly wages by 2011.
But with a command-style economy that is heavily dependent on Russian largesse, he left it unclear how this would be accomplished.
Minsk-based political analyst Alyaksandr Klaskouski tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Lukashenka is feeling economic pressure but has decided that opening up the country politically and economically carries too much risk for the regime.
"I would say this is like putting old wine in new bottles," says Klaskouski. "They want to modernize the country. They want to build nuclear power plants and attract investment. But they don't want to lose even one bit of their power. They have decided to pursue an authoritarian modernization."