Despite wishful thinking in the West, Europe's last dictatorship is as barbaric as it ever was.
By DAVID J. KRAMER
Almost two weeks since Belarus held its presidential election and the country has all but disappeared from Western news coverage. But the situation there remains grave, with more than 600 Belarusians in jail following a crackdown by authorities against demonstrators protesting electoral fraud and the regime of Aleksander Lukashenko. Among those in detention are seven opposition leaders who challenged Mr. Lukashenko in the election. They have been beaten, their homes and offices have been raided, and they and more than a dozen others now face sentences of up to 15 years for "organizing mass protests."
Despite the wishful thinking of some Western leaders and analysts, the Dec. 19 election and its aftermath have revealed that Europe's last dictatorship is as barbaric as it ever was. But two things have changed since Belarus's last presidential election in 2006-one positive and one negative.
On the positive side, tens of thousands of protestors turned out as the polls were closing in downtown Minsk to rally against Mr. Lukashenko's dictatorship. Never before have so many Belarusians challenged the regime so openly. Such activism represents a healthy spike in interest in the country's future, no matter how violently authorities suppress that engagement.
On the negative side, many in the West have spent the last couple of years going wobbly over Mr. Lukashenko. This softening began in Oct. 2008, when the European Union suspended visa bans against dozens of Belarusian officials who had been involved in human-rights abuses following the 2006 election fraud. The EU lifted the bans in 2008 despite deeply flawed parliamentary elections only three weeks earlier, after Mr. Lukashenko released all political prisoners in the country. The prisoners' freedom was secured by pressure from joint U.S. and EU sanctions in 2006 that included a visa ban and asset freeze targeting regime officials. In Jan. 2008, two months after the U.S. unilaterally ratcheted up its sanctions, Minsk began to release the prisoners. But by the end of 2008, when Europe began to loosen its sanctions, it wasn't long before Mr. Lukashenko resumed harassing and jailing opponents and critics.
Many European leaders were never all that comfortable with the sanctions against the Lukashenko regime to begin with, and since 2008 have started to look for new ways to engage the Belarusian leader. As Mr. Lukashenko's relationship with his Russian counterparts worsened (Russia's state-controlled media, for example, launched a no-holds-barred campaign against Mr. Lukashenko this past summer), a number of European officials saw an opportunity to bring Minsk into the European fold, and draw it away from Russia. The problem with this approach is that Mr. Lukashenko is a master at playing the West and Russia against each other-and many in Europe fell for his trap.
In the weeks and months leading up to the recent election, a number of European leaders traveled to Minsk and virtually endorsed Mr. Lukashenko, offering him financial rewards in return for a free and fair election. Mr. Lukashenko, they argued, offered the best hope for Belarusians to resist neighboring Russia's influence, and was taking small steps toward liberalization. Even the U.S. got in on the act at a summit in Kazakhstan in November, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke America's longstanding policy against high-level meetings with Belarusian officials, and signed a deal with her Belarusian counterpart involving highly enriched uranium. Only at the end of their joint, five-paragraph statement did Mrs. Clinton and Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov briefly mention human rights. From reading the statement, one would never know that Mr. Lukashenko had kicked out the American ambassador to Belarus nearly three years ago, and has not allowed one back in since.
The violence carried out by Belarusian authorities against the protestors this month should end all wishful thinking about Mr. Lukashenko and his cronies. He is not serious about liberalizing his country, for to do so he would risk losing his grip on power. Nor is he serious about improving ties with the West; he only suggests he is to offset pressure from Moscow.
It is regrettable that it took major beatings and the arrests of hundreds of demonstrators in Minsk on election day to obliterate the romantic notions that many Europeans and some Americans have had of Mr. Lukashenko. The EU and U.S. should refuse to recognize Mr. Lukashenko's "re-election" this month, and the EU should reimpose its full sanctions against the regime if all prisoners are not released immediately. Mr. Lukashenko is a thuggish dictator who will never respect the will of the people of Belarus. Democracies around the world should stand with them, not with the last dictator of Europe.
Mr. Kramer is executive director of Freedom House in Washington, D.C. From 2008 to 2009, he served as assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department.