On December 19, citizens in the former Soviet republic of Belarus will head to polls to vote in the country’s presidential election, the fourth since 1994. But Belarusians don’t have any real hope of unseating incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since winning the presidency 16 years ago. Widely known as “Europe’s Last Dictator,” Lukashenka has cracked down on independent media, routinely broken up public protests, and “disappeared” prominent opposition leaders. He has also rigged his election victories, and there are already signs that tampering will occur again this year. (It doesn’t help that his rivals couldn’t settle on a single candidate, instead flooding the field; there are nine contenders in the race.) It is no surprise, then, that the Belarusian leader has proudly predicted a landslide victory on Sunday. “There will definitely be political changes,” Lukashenka said last week, “but no change of power in Belarus.”
Earlier this decade, Lukashenka’s abuses led the United States and the European Union to impose a series of targeted sanctions on regime officials, which led the Belarusian government to reconsider a handful of its draconian actions. The sanctions were effective, in large part, because the U.S. and its European allies presented a united front. After all, unilateral sanctions don’t have the same bite as those implemented by several countries. (See the painstaking effort of the Obama administration to convince governments around the world to get on board with sanctions against Iran.) But, over the past year, that erstwhile front against Belarus has cracked. The EU has dropped many of its sanctions, and European leaders have even begun cozying up to Lukashenka. Meanwhile, the United States, while maintaining sanctions, has done little to press the Belarusian president on his abysmal human rights record.
Why has the West gone soft on Lukashenka? The answer, in fact, lies to the east: Belarus has increasingly become a pawn between Russia and Europe and the United States. And the winner of this geostrategic chess match has been the Belarusian dictator himself.
(Read the full article in "The New Republic