By: The Washington Post
Over New Year's weekend, a group of global leaders joined in a remarkable protest against the political crackdown underway in Belarus, a country sometimes dubbed Europe's last dictatorship. Former President George W. Bush, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and the senior Republican and Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee were among those who participated in a special broadcast by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Each read some of the names of the 700 individuals detained by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed Dec. 19 election.
The gesture offered some needed attention to a country whose holiday season crisis has yet to prompt an adequate reaction from the United States and other Western governments. Mr. Lukashenko's claim that he won re-election with nearly 80 per cent of the vote was dismissed by international election monitors and by tens of thousands of protestors who gathered in the center of Minsk. The regime responded by attacking the crowd, and it has since rounded up scores of journalists, artists and opposition activists. Five of the nine presidential candidates who ran against Mr. Lukashenko, along with at least 17 other opposition leaders, have been charged with organizing mass unrest and face prison sentences of up to 15 years.
Mr. Lukashenko's coup instantly reversed what some saw as a creep toward political liberalization and greater independence from Russia, which has been trying to bind Belarus into a new, autocratic union. It badly embarrassed European Union diplomats who had offered Mr. Lukashenko $3.6 billion in aid in exchange for a fair election. It also raised the question of whether a nuclear deal struck between the regime and the Obama administration two weeks before the election, under which Belarus advanced one of President Obama's prized causes by agreeing to give up a stockpile of highly enriched uranium, might have been intended to buy Washington's tolerance for Mr. Lukashenko's entrenchment.
The Obama administration and its European allies swiftly condemned the crackdown. A joint statement on Dec. 23 by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the EU's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, described "the disproportionate use of force against presidential candidates, political activists, representatives of civil society and journalists" and said "respect for democracy and human rights remain central to improving Belarus's relations with the United States and the European Union."
So far, however, those words have not been followed by actions that would impose a tangible cost on Mr. Lukashenko and his thuggish collaborators -- though Poland has taken unilateral steps. Broader measures are readily available: To start, Western governments could reimpose visa bans and asset freezes on senior Belarusan officials that were lifted in 2008. The list could be expanded to include those officials implicated in the arrests and any future trials, and it could be applied to state-owned companies.
Mr. Lukashenko's offer of his modest uranium stockpile prompted the Obama administration to break a long-standing embargo on high-level contacts with the regime, as Ms. Clinton met with her Belarusan counterpart. The administration should now make clear that until Mr. Lukashenko frees the presidential candidates and others facing prison sentences, the United States will shun him and his top aides.