MINSK, Belarus — The United States’ top diplomat once called this cloistered nation the last dictatorship in Europe. Its fearsome security services are still named the KGB. But after a year of geopolitical conflict with Russia, some in the West say Belarus may not be so bad after all.
Recently, senior European Union leaders have paid visits to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled his nation with an iron grip since 1994. Top State Department leaders have dropped by, even though the last U.S. ambassador was expelled seven years ago. And last week, Belarusan leaders participated in an E.U. summit intended to help former Soviet nations move away from Russia and build stronger ties with Europe.
Western officials have started to feel that isolating Belarus was simply driving it closer to Russia.
Lukashenko has reveled in the attention after tacking away from Russia on its tough policies toward Ukraine. He has boasted of his diplomatic successes — while still taking a hard line against his country’s beleaguered opposition. Even those opponents say they are now cautious about pushing too hard against him, afraid that Russia could take advantage of any ensuing turmoil, as it did in Ukraine.
The Belarusan thaw with the West is a sign of the shifting alliances in Europe a year into the bloodiest conflict on that continent since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The Russian seizure of Crimea was the first forcible land grab on European soil since World War II, and it has petrified Russia’s neighbors, who worry that they could be next. Many leaders are searching for ways to protect themselves, walking a fine line between trying not to provoke nuclear-armed Russia and building ties with other countries that could help them.
Lukashenko has vowed that Russia will always be Belarus’s most important partner. And his nation’s Soviet-style economy remains deeply dependent on Russian support. But he also has forged an independent path, refusing to recognize the annexation of Crimea, pledging friendship with the new pro-European leadership of Ukraine and encouraging a Belarusan national identity separate from Russia’s.
“I’m not Europe’s last dictator anymore,” he joked to a Bloomberg News reporter who interviewed him this spring, referring to a 2005 claim by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I’m the lesser evil already.”
Belarus’s new approach started last year, after the annexation of Crimea upended security assumptions in Europe. Lukashenko, 60, has long been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongest allies, in part because of his country’s need for an economic lifeline from Russia, which buys nearly half of the exports of Belarus’s deeply inefficient industries.
But Ukraine is also a major Belarusan trading partner, and the two nations share a 675-mile-long frontier as well as many cultural similarities. The Belarusan language, suppressed under the Soviets, is a close cousin to Ukrainian. Fearful of cutting contacts with Ukraine, Belarus voted against the Crimea annexation in the United Nations.
E.U. leaders were also ready for a change in strategy. They had largely cut off Belarus with sanctions and travel bans targeting its leadership after a brutal crackdown following the 2010 presidential election. Opposition candidates were imprisoned and beaten. Now, most of them live in exile.
But seeing an opening after the Crimea conflict, top European officials changed their approach.
Diplomats involved in the process say their old efforts were designed to try to oust Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with near-absolute authority for most of its independent existence.
The new efforts aim to strengthen ties with Belarus, a landlocked nation of 9.5 million people, with the hope that ordinary Belarusans will slowly increase their demands for a European path of democratic development. If Belarus is less isolated, it also will be less dependent on Russia, the officials said.
“For the last 20 years, metaphorically speaking, Belarus for Europe has been a bit like Cuba for the United States,” said Andrejs Pildegovics, state secretary of the Latvian Foreign Ministry, who has been a leader of the new outreach, which includes cooperation to modernize Belarus’s education system and to make borders more open.
“President Lukashenko will never be Vaclav Havel,” the esteemed leader of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, Pildegovics said, “but he’s not Milosevic, either,” the brutal Serbian strongman.
Critics say that the warmer relations could leave Lukashenko entrenched while doing little to push him to be less tough on his opposition. They also say that the country is so economically dependent on Russia that Lukashenko’s outreach may simply be an attempt to get a better bargaining position for further Kremlin largesse.
The Belarusan ruble has dropped 34 percent against the dollar since the beginning of 2014. Russian purchasing has diminished because of the economic crisis there. And the collapse in oil prices has robbed Belarus of another major source of income.
“A serious distancing from Russia is impossible, simply because we’re so tied to them right now,” said Valery Karbalevich, who wrote a biography of Lukashenko.
Belarusan officials say that they are simply seeking decent relations with all of their neighbors and that no country can be happy with a war in a bordering nation.
“Let’s be sincere. Europe cannot replace Russia for us, at least not today. We understand that in difficult times, we will always be with Russia,” Belarusan Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in an interview. “But that doesn’t mean that Russia is going to be suspicious if we develop normal relations with the European Union.
“We are not afraid that somebody wants to invade us. But we do not want an economic collapse to happen here,” he said.
The country’s small opposition movement, which has been marginalized for more than 20 years, is divided about how to handle the new initiatives from Europe ahead of a presidential election planned for the end of the year. Most activists say they welcome stronger ties with Europe. And they recognize new limits on their own power from an electorate that now associates street protests with the violence and instability in Ukraine.
But some say that improved E.U. ties should not come at the expense of easing pressure on Lukashenko to treat his critics more humanely. Opposition activists are routinely detained for stints of 15 days at a time. Many also find that they are shut out of the job market. And Belarus has about half a dozen political prisoners, according to rights groups.
“Despite the fact that there is no democracy in Belarus, the country shouldn’t be closed,” said Alexander Milinkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election. He said that if Belarusan mentalities are to become more Western, the population needs stronger ties with European countries.
“The more Europe we have in our heads, the more democratic we will be. I don’t think there’s any alternative to this,” he said.