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.
The latest crackdown has been brutish even by Mr Lukashenka's dismal standards. After what looked like a staged provocation, riot police started indiscriminately pummelling an opposition crowd of 30,000. Activists were hunted down by the KGB in their homes in the middle of the night. Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat, and his wife, Irina Khalip, a journalist for Russia's Novaya Gazeta, are both in jail facing long sentences. Their three-year-old son has been threatened with state custody. Vladimir Neklyaev, a poet and candidate, was taken to jail from a hospital bed after being assaulted.
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.
A special worry is neighbouring Ukraine. Under Viktor Yanukovich, a pivotal country of 48m people is sliding towards Russia's political culture. The recent arrest of Yury Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian interior minister, was worryingly Belarusian. A robust response from the EU to Belarus is not just the right thing to do, it would also send a signal to Ukraine's elite that using violence against political opponents carries costs.