By Mark Almond, a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford (THE GUARDIAN, 21/03/06):
After the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the west did not need to look far to find another bogeyman. Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus was on hand and facing re-election.Journalists routinely report on Belarus as a landlocked Stalinist theme park run by a Hitler-loving tyrant who makes his opponents disappear. Condoleezza Rice and her chief assistant for democracy promotion, Dan Fried, never tire of urging Americans and their Nato allies to sponsor civil-society projects in Belarus to foster true democracy there.
Our media have a split personality when it comes to these two guardians of democracy. On Belarus they are quoted like Old Testament prophets, but mention them in connection with Iraq and people recall that they were the only US officials with President Bush and Tony Blair on January 30 2003 when Bush suggested provoking an incident with Iraq to get the war with Saddam going.
Of course if you believed them about Iraq then you won't choke swallowing their story about Belarus. But let's avoid the slick argument that just because veterans of the US's Central American policy under Reagan allege that Lukashenko has "disappeared" some vocal critics that cannot be true either.
While unsolved cases cast a shadow over the government, the evidence is deeply contradictory: one of the "disappeared", the former National Bank chief Tamara Vinikova, resurfaced in London months before our Foreign Office admitted she was no longer missing. The politicisation of the issue has obscured the hunt for the truth. Yet Lukashenko faced a question about the claims at his post-election press conference yesterday, when opposition journalists from newspapers widely reported as "banned" asked him questions.
The issue isn't unknown in Belarus, where people don't live in an information black hole. But human-rights charges lack traction because the western-backed opposition has offered no economic platform, just echoes of these western allegations against Lukashenko.
Although the west has never batted an eyelid about accepting a 97% vote obtained by a favourite such as Georgia's rose-revolutionary President Saakashvili, at first sight four-fifths voting for one candidate seems hard to credit. But if you look at the socioeconomic reality of Belarus and compare it with its ex-communist neighbours, as Belarussians do, then the result is not so bizarre.
No communist-era throwback, Belarus has an evolving market economy. But the market is orientated towards serving the needs of the bulk of the population, not a tiny class of nouveaux riches and their western advisers and money launderers. Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, officials are not getting richer as ordinary folk get poorer. The absence of endemic corruption among civil servants and police is one reason why the wave of so-called "coloured revolutions" stopped before Minsk.
But even if the government in Minsk is not corroded by corruption, its opposition depends upon support from abroad. If people resent anyone for getting rich quick undeservedly they resent the opposition types who receive lavish subsidies from the west to promote civil society and flaunt the latest iPod.
The irony of the west preaching civil society and shock therapy at the same time is that you cannot have both. Western advisers made economic transformation a priority, but wherever their advice was followed it was poverty, not pluralism, that resulted. Across the old communist bloc "shock therapy" enriched a few dozen oligarchs and their foreign economic advisers, but the mass unemployment it caused and the collapse of public spending it demanded smashed the foundations of the civil society emerging under Gorbachev.
By protecting Belarus from the ravages of free-market fundamentalists and delivering economic growth and prosperity for the mass of Belarussians, Lukashenko has sown the seeds of a pluralistic society far better than by handing the state's assets over to half a dozen cronies of western advisers.
Belarus is far from perfect, but it is a country where masses of ordinary people are getting on with life and getting a bit better off. That is why Lukashenko inspires fear and loathing in the thinktanks and foreign ministries of the west. By saving Belarus from mass unemployment he set a terrible example. What if the neighbours tried to copy it?.