Nobody believes that Alexander Lukashenko really took 80% of the vote or that all his opponents combined received less votes than the signatures that they collected to put themselves on the ballot. Likewise, there was no need to send the security police to beat up the "enemies of the people" and arrest rival candidates when protests erupted following the realization that the vote would be counted secretly. Yet Lukashenko is probably correct in assuming that the protests, both domestic and international, will die down shortly.
Perhaps the only protests that should be taken at face value are those coming from Poland and Lithuania. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski urged the European Union to “come up with a common strategy for Belarus.” Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski vainly tried to tempt the Belarussian leader to respect the rules of democracy during the election campaign, in exchange for future cooperation.
Poland and Lithuania still fear Russian designs and are therefore interested in pro-western buffer regimes in the Ukraine and Belarus to insulate them from Russia. The fall of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the ascent of a more pro-Russian government in Kyiv put paid to these hopes and Lukashenko's Belarus, while appearing to switch partners every now and then, is not to going to poke its finger in Russia's eye given its dependence on subsidized energy exports from Moscow.
Lukashenko's relations with the Russians has had its ups and downs. Lukashenko, the only member of the Belarus parliament in 1991 who voted against his country's secession from the Soviet Union, sometimes poses an embarrassment with his Soviet retro style to the more polished Russian authoritarianism.
Russian television this summer broadcast an investigative series, titled "The Godfather," that had Lukashenko in the role of a political Don Corleone rubbing out rivals. Such broadcasts do not appear on Russian television without official blessing. But the relationship has markedly improved as recently Vladimir Putin noted approvingly "the Belarusian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia."
To counter western election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Russians dispatched a Confederation of Independent States (Russia and ex-Soviet Republics) delegation of electoral observers headed by Sergei Lebedev to legitimize the elections. The easily satisfied Lebedev exulted "We have seen that the elections were transparent and democratic, we met with representatives of the OSCE yesterday and they had the same opinion."
Lebdedev had nothing but understanding for the post election repression, noting "Measures to reestablish public order in the streets and counteract illegal events cannot be viewed otherwise than lawfu.l"
The OSCE's verdict. contrary to Lebedev's report. was far from glowing: "While voting on election day was overall assessed positively, the process deteriorated significantly during the vote count, with observers assessing almost half of vote counts monitored as bad or very bad." Combine this with early voting with no monitoring and one can see how the incumbent could pile up his impressive majority. The U.S. State Department called the vote and the repression that followed it "a clear step backwards on issues central to our relationship with Belarus."
Lukashenko would be justified in not taking these protestations too seriously. Following the rigged 2006 elections the EU imposed a visa ban on top Belarussian officials. But in 2008 the EU approved an exemption from the ban, allowing several dozen officials, including Mr. Lukashenko, to travel to the EU. This time around it offered him a 4 billion dollar carrot if he would conduct fair elections - a carrot that Lukashenko, reportedly worth $6 billion, will pass up this time. The United States, despite having its embassy downsized by Lukashenko to prevent meddling in Belarus' internal affairs, similarly eased its sanctions after Lukashenko agreed to dispose of Belarus' uranium stock to prevent it from falling into unsafe hands.
Radio Free Europe has a deserved reputation of fighting for liberty, but it realizes that the West with its internal economic woes is no longer in the Bush days of fighting for democracy and has adopted a policy of "realism". It summed up the situation in an election post-mortem: "Lukashenko is a known quantity and potentially the least bad option at this moment in Belarus's complicated history. In a sense, the man once castigated as Europe's last dictator has simply morphed into something slightly more palatable: the devil you know."
The implosion of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, where the West invested so much hope and enthusiasm, was probably another sobering factor.
Stability is now valued more than democracy.