HAS president Alyaksandr Lukashenka outsmarted the West? It certainly looks that way for now, with scores of opposition activitists and journalists missing in detention, and perhaps facing long prison terms, and an election that looks fraudulent even by Russian standards.
In a joint op-od entitled "Lukashenko the Loser" in the International Herald Tribune three of the European foreign ministers most closely involved in Belarus-Radek Sikorski of Poland, Karel Schwarzenberg of the Czech Republic and Carl Bildt of Sweden-sketch out their ideas of how the West should react.
They start by outlining the progress made under the strategy of engagement:
In recent months, the hope grew that his words could be taken seriously. He promised to invite international observers to the election, and he delivered on the promise. He talked about giving the opposition some space during the election campaign, and there were some improvements.
The E.U. responded by suspending sanctions and with a generous offer of conditional political dialogue, economic cooperation and the possibility of financial assistance.
They reckon that
Mr. Lukashenko probably understood that he would not get the required 50 percent of the votes needed to avoid a humiliating second round against a single opposition candidate. All independent exit polls gave him significantly less than this. While the voting proceeded in an orderly fashion, the counting of the votes turned into a charade .... It was obvious that there were orders not to count the votes, but to deliver a predetermined result....the announced result has no democratic legitimacy whatsoever.
And then came the crackdown. The piece continues:
Europe has not seen anything like this in years. The combination of vote rigging and outright repression makes what Slobodan Milosevic tried to do in Serbia in 2000 pale in comparison. What we have seen brings back memories of the introduction of martial law in Poland in 1981.
Mr Lukashenka may think that he has got away with it. Crackdowns have worked before. A touch plaintively the three men argue
Where will this end? The forces of repression might carry the day, but the wounds in society will not heal, and a siege regime will clearly not survive forever. Prospects of money from the West to save a deteriorating economic situation have in all probability gone up in smoke. Investors will be wary of a country that has so spectacularly shown its contempt for the law.
But the big question is what to do. It is easy to say that the EU will not be indifferent. And that's just what the piece says.
The European Union is founded on values of human rights, democracy and the rule of the law. It will not stand indifferent to gross violations of these values in its own part of the world.
Note the word "seems" in the next paragraph
Continued positive engagement with Mr. Lukashenko at the moment seems to be a waste of time and money.
Our many conversations with representatives of different parts of Belarus society have convinced us that the country wants to be part of a free and prosperous Europe. We must now deepen our engagement with the democrats of Belarus and those inside the government who disapprove of the fateful turn their country has taken. They must not be abandoned or betrayed as their country enters what might be a new dark era.
The best test of our own values is what we do on behalf of the powerless. Europe must not be mute.
This article is a fine start. But without followup, it will be just words. Here are a few possible suggestions, in no particular order.
1) Strength in numbers. Where are Urmas Paet, Girts Kristovskis, Audronius Azubalis, Mikulas Dzurinda, Janos Martonyi, Alexander Stubb and the other European foreign ministers? (Readers of this blog probably don't need to be told that they represent Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary and Finland). The danger is that this article looks like a disappointed squawk from the authors of a failed policy, rather than a menacing growl from a united Europe.
2) Offer immediate EU scholarships for those students thrown out of university for their part in the protests
3) Set up a legal defence fund to pay the defence costs of those being prosecuted
4) Institute an immediate visa ban so that those involved in election falsification, illegal detention, beatings and show trials are unable to travel to any EU country.
5) Invite Joanna Survilla, president of the (unrecognised) Belarusan government-in-exile to highlevel meetings in EU capitals.
6) Issue strong simultaneous protests to Belarusan ambassadors in all EU countries
7) Say that unless protestors are released all 27 EU ambassadors will be withdrawn
8) Make life difficult for Belarusan state agencies and entities to access the international financial system (banks, bond markets)
9) Apply EU competition law strictly to any exports of Belarusan goods, especially gas or oil,
10) Suspend Belarus's membership of the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly. What do readers think? I suspect that a combination of these might have more effect than a finely couched op-ed.