Lukashenka tightens his grip
The autocratic president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, was re-elected with a big majority last month on a vague platform of economic liberalization. But few expect a wave of privatization or reform. Since the collapse of the USSR a decade ago, Belarus has forged a bizarre model of economic management that defies conventional categorization. Part Soviet-style command economy, part crony capitalism, the system has given a few years of relative prosperity. Now though, amid claims that opponents have been assassinated and signs that the economy is crumbling, Lukashenka faces a reckoning. Erik D’Amato assesses the prospects for a country that will be an immediate neighbour to the EU when Poland accedes to the economic community
If it were a fictional state like Ruritania, Belarus would evoke a wry smile. A fragment of the old USSR with a population of just over 10 million, it is ruled by an elected megalomaniac seemingly determined to show that the Soviet system could in time have redeemed itself. Old ladies, wearing their Brezhnev-era best, shop in well-stocked state stores. The TV offers updates on harvest successes and dwells on the social implosion of rival former Soviet republics. It's a place where a bottle of vodka costs a dollar and rent only a few dollars more. The hammer and sickle competes with western icons such as Madonna and Sony, and the security forces - still called the KGB - harry the opposition, though it is free enough to complain openly about the lack of democracy.
For more than half a decade, the republic of Belarus has been treated by the international community as a political and economic eccentricity, a joke on the periphery of emerging Europe.