When a man like Alexander Lukashenka, the brutal dictator of Belarus, starts calling for "negotiations" with political players from all across the spectrum, as he shocked observers of the country by doing yesterday, there are really only two conclusions to be drawn.
One, he’s lost his marbles – the most popular members of the democratic opposition languish in his jails or remain under permanent surveillance by what in Belarus is still tellingly called the KGB. Who does Lukashenka actually envisage talking to?
Or two, the situation in his country is now so desperate that, with half a glance at the fate of his friend Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, he and his inner circle have concluded there’s no choice but to reach some sort of accommodation with the opposition (read the majority of the Belarusian people), or face catastrophe.
As far as his state of mind is concerned, there have always been some serious questions. But that applies to most dictators and whatever one says about Lukashenka he is not paranoid in thinking that the large majority of his population want him out.
Living standards are plummeting as prices soar. The unions are on the move and planning nationwide protests in October. Despite long-standing attempts to suppress it, the murders his regime has perpetrated against political opponents are now common knowledge.
The December 2010 elections were worse than a joke as everybody inside and outside Belarus knows. Lukashenka gave himself 80 percent of the vote.
The situation in the country is so farcical that it is widely rumoured in Minsk that one of the state prosecutors at the trial of Andrei Sannikov – the man most likely to be president in genuinely free elections – admitted that he himself had voted for Sannikov at the polls, after which Sannikov was promptly jailed for five years on charges trumped up by that self-same prosecutor.
Internationally, Lukashenka is almost completely isolated. The Russians regard him as a liability, and he and Vladimir Putin are known to despise each other. (Though it remains true that Russia would rather have Lukashenka in power than a democrat who would take Belarus into NATO.)
The European Union and the United States are tightening sanctions and won’t even allow him to visit their territory.
Still, he does have a couple of friends: the afore mentioned Colonel Gaddafi; Hugo Chavez (dying, it appears, of cancer) and none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who reassuringly told Lukashenka in a phone call in June that "Iran will always stand by Belarus."
It’s a bleak picture and the regime is clearly nervous. Hence its call for talks.
The leading opposition groupings which circulate around the hugely popular Charter 97 website (English version here), is rightly resolute in saying that there is nothing to talk about until all the political prisoners have been released, charges dropped and KGB surveillance ended.
As for the West, it is vital to keep up the pressure. The political prisoners must, of course, be freed unconditionally. If they are not the EU and the United States should be readying themselves for a massive expansion of sanctions, possibly also to third parties that continue to do business with Belarus along the lines of America’s Helms Burton Act of 1996 over Cuba.