Pulling the Plug on Lukashenko

WASHINGTON, DC – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is a master of political survival. But, following a recent 64% devaluation of the currency, the clock appears to be running out on his prolonged misrule.

Lukashenko was forced by the removal of Russian oil-price subsidies in 2009 to beg, borrow, or steal enough funds to keep Belarus’s economy from collapsing. He tricked the International Monetary Fund into extending a $3.4 billion loan, promising freer elections in December 2010 – only to burn that bridge with a brutal crackdown when faced with an adverse election result and the largest protests his regime had ever seen.

Now Russia has taken a harder line, demanding a high price for loans that are, in any case, insufficient to save the regime. As a result, the Belarusian economy is in free-fall, and Lukashenko’s days appear to be numbered.

Lukashenko used the IMF money to keep his state-dominated, inefficient, and subsidy-dependent economy afloat through the 2010 elections. But, shortly after the vote, signs of trouble became visible. During a visit I made to Belarus in January, officials refused to forecast GDP growth in 2011, except to say that it would be lower. At a time when most of Europe was starting to recover from the 2008-09 recession, Belarus was going in the opposite direction.