Belarus rarely makes it into Western news reports, and hardly ever in a positive way. Governed since 1994 by Aleksandr Lukashenka, a Soviet-era throwback strongman—in a perfect touch, he once ran a Communist collective farm—Belarus for decades has been bemoaned as Europe’s last dictatorship thanks to its poor human rights record and less than democratic ways.
Lukashenka has shown little interest in currying Western favor until quite recently. His regime, guided by the strong hand of the secret police—still termed the KGB in fully Soviet fashion—has imprisoned and occasionally disappeared journalists and politicians who get on Lukashenka’s bad side. As full-time Soviet nostalgists, the regime and its leader have pined for days of lost Communist glory, and efforts at liberalization of the economy and society have made little progress in Minsk.
The ramshackle Belarusian economy remains mired in statist inefficiencies, and the only thing that has kept Lukashenka afloat all these years has been Kremlin help. Vladimir Putin long courted Minsk with loans and low prices on imported Russian energy, in exchange receiving Belarus as a vital buffer state against NATO and the West.