A backfire in Belarus

FOR SEVERAL years, diplomats in the European Union have nourished the notion that Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko, long known as "Europe's last dictator," could be teased away from his alliance with Russia and induced to lead his country toward genuine independence and democracy. On Sunday night, that project blew up in Minsk's Independence Square.

Tens of thousands of Belarusans had gathered to protest a presidential election that appears to have been stolen by Mr. Lukashenko. Though polls showed the 16-year incumbent had the support of less than 40 percent of citizens, the president proclaimed that he had won 79.6 percent of the votes in a competition with nine challengers. An official observation mission from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe saw plenty of ballot-stuffing; the vote count, it said, was "bad and very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations."

The opposition protest was the largest ever staged against Mr. Lukashenko - a sign that the country may finally have had enough of his Soviet-style regime. But then his security forces moved in. They attacked the protesters, beating many and arresting several hundred. Opposition activists, journalists and even artists in other parts of the city were rounded up. By Monday, seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates were reported arrested; one, Vladimir Neklyayev, was missing after having been beaten unconscious.

In a single stroke, Mr. Lukashenko thus spelled the end of efforts by the European Union and the United States to cultivate him. A $3.6 billion package of European aid he was offered in exchange for holding a free and fair election will surely be scrapped. The Obama administration, which recently struck a deal with the regime to remove its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, issued an appropriately harsh statement in which it condemned the repression and said it would not accept the election results as legitimate.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has been trying to play the West and Russia against each other, may now feel he can find succor in Moscow, which declared his crackdown "an internal matter for Belarus." But Western governments should ensure that he pays a price for his behavior. Sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and key associates should be reinstated and strengthened, with special attention for those involved in Sunday's events.

The episode may also offer President Obama a chance to explore whether the "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations can be extended to Belarus. For its own reasons, the Kremlin despises Mr. Lukashenko, and the Russian media it controls have cynically campaigned for the opposition. This would be a good time to challenge the government of Vladimir Putin to give up its imperialist ambitions in the region and cooperate in isolating a regime that is overdue for change.


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