In the current political landscape of Europe, Belarus is a rare outsider. Although the country became a direct neighbor of the European Union in 2004 - by way of that entity's eastward enlargement - Belarus is politically, economically and socially far cry from European normality. As the March 2006 presidential elections illustrated, Belarus' shy democratization efforts of the early 1990s have not only ground to a complete halt but have increasingly given way to open dictatorship under President Alexander Lukashenka.
Democratic decision-making, elections and the rule of law are mere façade, while an elaborate police apparatus infringes massively on human, civic and political rights and suppresses criticism, democratic opposition and independent initiative. Free media have been replaced by a state-run propaganda machinery as primary source of information for Belarusian citizens, and grass-roots civic groups have been superseded by top-down and state-sponsored social organizations. The economy, too, is controlled by the state, which thus appropriates the resources for far-reaching re-distributive policies and offers modest welfare to its citizens, yet on the condition of their refraining from any open political criticism.
Thus re-sovietized from within, Belarus has become largely isolated from without. Relationships with the EU, the United States and other democratic countries have reached an all-time low, not least due to increasing Western criticism and support for the anti-Lukashenka opposition. Ties with Russia, the influential Eastern neighbor that is historically close and has long subsidized Belarus politically and economically, have recently soured. The few international allies still siding with Belarus include with Iran, Cuba and Venezuela similar anti-democratic and anti-Western outcasts.
Nonetheless, and despite Lukashenka's rhetoric and resolve, change seems to be engendering Belarus. The "Belarusian model" is slowly running out of resources, long supplied by Russia in form of cheap gas and oil. This will not be without effects on the Belarusian population and may well weaken the social basis of Lukashenka's regime. This should also open new opportunities for the democratic opposition and civil society in the country, which has recently appeared stronger and more united than in many years.
While timing, course and results of change are hard to predict, chances are that "Europe's last dictatorship" is nearing its end. Yet much will depend on Europe and the democratic community of nations, which will need to engage more consequently, generously and sustainably in the democratization of Belarus.