In the crisis that has engulfed Ukraine, the Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenko, has steered a cautious path remaining close to Russia but not ostracising Ukraine. Lukashenko has therefore acquired the status of an ‘honest broker’, arbitrating between Kiev and its Western allies on one side and Moscow on the other. This is the man who denounced ‘senseless democracy’ at the last presidential election in 2010, imprisoned more than 700 political activists and felt the cold chill of Western sanctions. Yet ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’ is being embraced by the West now, welcomed back into the fold for its ‘good behaviour’ – defined as not being more provocative towards the regime’s internal dissidents, though as Lukashenko operates a government that is very effective in repression, short of boiling his critics alive like his fellow post-Soviet leader Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, it is not easy to see how he could offend Western sensibilities further.

Thus Minsk and Lukashenko in particular get to occupy the centre stage of European geopolitics in what is a win-win situation. Moscow, Kiev and Brussels come to the Belarussian strongman’s court with the latter proposing to soften the restrictions on trade that it had placed, with a two-fold meaning of ‘rewarding’ Belarus and indicating to the Kremlin that cooperation grants an easing of ‘punishment’.  Other leaders from the post-Soviet space also attended to discuss trade issues but it was the Ukraine situation that occupied the minds of most.

Yet for all the pride of Lukashenko, he resembles Benito Mussolini in all his imagined self-importance. To be fair, European diplomats are currently burnishing Lukashenko’s image but their predecessors took a similarly indulgent line towards the Italian dictator in the 1930s. After Il Duce’s Abyssinian adventure, sanctions were applied by other League of Nations members, except the war-enabling resource of oil. The Italians even used poison gas in their African conquest but were not denied oil for commercial reasons. Two years later though, his assistance was desperately required. Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1969-065-24,_Münchener_Abkommen,_Ankunft_Mussolini

In the Munich conference, as matters reached a head and the petrified British and French feared war with Germany, the British prevailed upon Mussolini to use his influence to restrain Hitler. Mussolini was probably as much in the dark as Neville Chamberlain so when he asked for a 24-hour delay, Hitler readily agreed for the German had already factored that concession into his calculations. The French and the British were immensely grateful to Mussolini and asked him to a four-power conference of Britain, France, Germany and Italy, to which Il Duce agreed.

Lukashenko is being similarly feted now but should a Ukrainian/Maidan-style uprising in Minsk be met with a crushing display of force (organised much better than Viktor Yanukovych could manage), the Western reaction will be to deploy harsh rhetoric but hope that Belarus is swift in its repression. Unlike in 2010, Lukashenko will have the luxury of not having to tolerate a foreign policy loss for an internal gain.

Like Poland in the Cold War, Belarus is seen as a neutral place under the aegis of Moscow but with a certain independence and thereby serving as a conduit to the Kremlin. Lukashenko is probably seen as the lesser of two evils when it comes to dealing with the ‘Putin doctrine’. It should be remembered that Mussolini’s rule only came to an end through getting involved in a world war at which the inadequacies of the Italian military were fully exposed.

Lukashenko is perfectly happy being master of his domain, showing little resentment at being rebuffed by Vladimir Putin at creating a union between Belarus and Russia, where Lukashenko could have been a supranational president.

Still comparatively young, Lukashenko could be in power for another twenty years and the West knows it will have to deal with him to solve problems in eastern Europe for the foreseeable future.

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