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A Nasty Surprise in Belarus

A rigged vote and an orgy of repressive violence demand a tough response from the West

FAKED votes, cracked skulls, a jailed opposition, beaten-up protesters and relations with Europe in tatters. This, in short, is the result of December’s presidential election in Belarus, in which Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a Soviet thug, declared himself the winner with an improbable 80% of the poll and returned to govern for a fourth time.,

European leaders, who had promised Mr Lukashenka cash as a reward for decent elections, seemed caught by surprise. They should not have been. Some have now condemned Mr Lukashenka’s actions. For the sake of the region, the Europeans need to go much further.

Opposition leaders in Belarus were under no illusions before the vote. But they saw a chance to appeal directly to the people and to demand real elections. By contrast, Mr Lukashenka saw a chance to cleanse Belarus of any opposition.

.... Mr Lukashenka has been protected by his ability to play Russia off against the West. Although Russia lost patience with him last summer—and even encouraged the Belarus opposition—the risk of another colour revolution ultimately outweighed the inconvenience of dealing with him. He got the Kremlin’s support in a deal shortly before the elections—and the violence is only likely to bind him closer. Mr Lukashenka is again a pariah in the West and more dependent on Moscow than ever: both Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, and Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russian Orthodox Church, made a show of congratulating Mr Lukashenka on his victory.

So far, the EU and America have refused to recognise the legitimacy of the elections and are demanding the release of prisoners—to little avail. Yet the West erred by allowing itself to be duped by Mr Lukashenka and his anti-Russian rhetoric. In future Mr Lukashenka’s quarrels with Russia should not make him any more acceptable to the West.

The West now needs to speak with one voice and reimpose a suspended visa ban on Mr Lukashenka and his officials. It should target the foreign bank accounts and property of Belarusian functionaries. And it should resist the temptation to reward Mr Lukashenka for releasing prisoners. He is a dealer who likes to trade hostages for money. Paying a ransom would only encourage more hostage-taking.

Not only Belarus is at stake. The country is a testing-ground for other former Soviet states. Many of the repressive methods tried out in Belarus are later taken up in Russia by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Whereas the colour revolutions represented the spread of Western values eastward, the violence in Belarus represents the advance of Russia’s political model westward.

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 22, No. 4
Copyright 2010 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.
Source: Excerpts from The Economist, December 28, 2010

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