Mr Lukashenka goes to Vilnius

Should Belarus's strongman really be allowed to enter the EU?

On 16 September, I was sitting in a tiny café in Vilnius with journalist-friends who had travelled from Belarus to cover President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s visit to Lithuania – his second foray into the EU since the temporary lifting of visa sanctions in October 2008. All of a sudden, there was a commotion in the café. The limo carrying ‘the last dictator of Europe’ was in a traffic jam just outside, stuck en route to a chic hotel in the old town – much to the enjoyment of the onlookers, who usually have to put up with endless road closures in Minsk to allow Lukashenka to move between his residences. 
Other than that, Lukashenka’s opponents had few reasons to cheer. They see his visits to Europe in the same way Americans see touchdowns – as a six-point lead. This lead, they insist, is being given away for free. The EU may have lifted the sanctions to encourage the Belarusian strongman’s perceived movement towards political liberalisation, but Lukashenka is on track to becoming eastern Europe’s Muammar Qaddafi – an unreconstructed leader who took advantage of a conjunction of political circumstances to legitimise himself on the Western stage but who uses his sorties into the enemy zone to mock the well-wishers. In fact, Lukashenka’s behaviour in Vilnius was in many ways analogous to the circus show staged days later at the United Nations by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez, and Qaddafi himself.
The official reason for the visit was the opening of a Belarusian trade fair in Vilnius, which came in handy as a moment at which Lithuania could try to play its part in the diplomatic manoeuvring about what policy the EU should pursue towards Belarus. But while Lithuania expressed hope that its openness would be helpful to seduce Lukashenka into Western ways, Lukashenka came to declare in effect that the EU had accepted that its policy of isolating Belarus had failed – and also that its criticism of Belarus was wrong. “Reason had prevailed” when the EU’s decision to take a more pragmatic approach (that is, toning down its human-rights rhetoric), the Belarusian leader explicitly said. Lukashenka was upbeat on his human-rights record (after all, his government does provide the right to work, the central human right for which others can be sacrificed), dismissed charges that Belarus lacks democracy (after all, Lithuania is a vassal of Brussels, he implied) and said he saw no need to change the economic model (after all, as he argued, since the fields in Lithuania are not cultivated in the collective-farm style, the countryside is probably decaying). Just as other pariahs on their occasional visits to the West, Lukashenka showed off as much as possible what he views as his strong-man charms – such as making somewhat trivial jokes with journalists and bizarre statements about his personal life.

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