For most of its 20-year existence as an independent, post-Soviet state, Belarus has richly deserved its reputation as Europe's last dictatorship. Last month's presidential election proved the point. Marred by fraud, arrests of opposition candidates, intimidation of the media and a sickening exhibition of police violence against pro-opposition demonstrators, the election bore no resemblance to a free and fair contest. Predictably, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus's authoritarian president since 1994, claimed a crushing victory. His government then ordered the closure of the Minsk office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose monitors had released a report describing the woefully flawed election process.
The regime's outrageous actions demand a firm response, above all from the European Union and the US, which have dangled carrots under Mr Lukashenko's nose for more than two years in an effort to encourage warmer relations and political liberalisation in Belarus. This effort has brought minimal results and should now be frozen. In 2008 the release of the regime's last political prisoners prompted the EU and US to suspend travel and financial sanctions adopted in 2006 after an earlier, seriously flawed presidential election. These sanctions must be reintroduced and calibrated so that they target those individuals involved in rigging the December 19 vote and organising the post-election crackdown on the opposition. It is essential that Mr Lukashenko personally should no longer be allowed to travel to EU countries, as he did in 2009 when he was received in Rome by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's premier, and Pope Benedict XVI.
At stake is nothing less than the credibility of the EU's Eastern Partnership, a two-year-old initiative aimed at strengthening relations with six post-Soviet states - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. No one expects all six to turn into perfect democracies overnight. But unless the EU sends a clear signal that closer ties depend on observance of a minimum standard of freedom and decency in public life, the Eastern Partnership may as well be wound up tomorrow.
These steps need not mean the isolation of Belarus, which would merely push it deeper into Russia's orbit. Travel sanctions on regime officials can be combined with easier, less costly visas for ordinary Belarussians wanting to visit the EU. But as long as Mr Lukashenko oppresses his people, normal relations are out of the question.