The last six months have seen an extraordinary change in the political direction of Belarus- sometimes known as the "last dictatorship in Europe". Alas, while "Transnistria", Azerbaijan, Armenia and even Russia are considered European, then Belarus' claim to fame is not as unique as all that.
Nevertheless the eccentric rule of Oleksander Lukashenka has continued. His fairly brutal security police continues to be called the KGB, and the flag of the country remains essentially that of the Soviet Republic. Yet, despite the extremely close relationship with Russia, including participating in the "Russian-Belarusian State Union", the country has managed to maintain its independence, despite continuing predictions of full union under the Kremlin. Historically the dictator has been extremely loyal, not to say slavish, to the Russian government.
It is the relationship between Mi'nsk and Moscow that has changed, rather than any great opening up of democracy in Belarus itself. A strange media war has opened up a huge divide between the two erstwhile partners of the Union. Russian media, under the firm control of Mr. Putin lambastes Lukashenka as a tyrant, while in Belarus, the criminal links of the Putin regime have been carefully documented by the local state media. Neither has Belarus played along with the Putinistas' annexation of the Georgian territories of Abhazia and South Ossetia- indeed, to the fury of the Kremlin, a full scale interview with President Saakhasvili was broadcast instead. A fire bomb attack took place this week on the Russian embassy in Mi'nsk- and though it seems clear that the Belarusian authorities were not involved, it has increased the hostility between the two countries to a far greater degree.
On an almost daily basis the Kremlin shows its displeasure with its former close ally. So, what is going on?
On the face of it, the dispute is the same poisonous mixture of Russian economic interests being thwarted combined with the personal contempt of Putin for the country's leader that led up to the crisis in Georgia. Various Russian business interests have been seeking greater control over the oil refining facilities in Belarus for some time, however the combination of competition between different Russian factions and the greater resources available in the West has put the control over the refineries in doubt. As in Lithuania, Russia is finding it very difficult to establish effective control over these downstream facilities. Despite Lukashenka's previous loyalty, he senses that the economic power of Russia is not what it was. In short, despite being full of sound and fury, the Russian Siloviki do not appear to have the power or the money to get the level of strategic control that they have demanded. Meanwhile, Lukashenka has discovered the value of playing the West off against Russia.
The interesting side effect has been that despite the continued detention of several political prisoners, many in the Belarusian opposition are privately saying that Lukashenka is now the bulwark of Belarusian independence against the Russians. Compromises that they would have barely considered are being actively discussed.
Lukashenka seems to be doing the impossible: he is getting the opposition to rally around his own- incompetent and brutal- regime as the better alternative to a Russian puppet state.
Belarus is not losing its capacity to surprise- and neither is Oleksander Lukashenka.