- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

The winds of change are about to sweep across the plains of Belarus. Since 1994, the former Soviet republic has been ruled by Stalinist strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

This proud nation has the dubious distinction of being Europe’s last dictatorship. Mr. Lukashenko has stifled dissent, curbed opposition parties, imposed state control over the media and rigged elections to ensure his grip on power.

Anti-Lukashenko journalists face constant harassment from the secret police, and several high-profile critics have gone “missing” — most likely murdered by former KGB thugs.

Belarus’ capital, Minsk, once the cradle of a brilliant, Slavic medieval kingdom and a major center of resistance to Adolf Hitler’s invading armies, is now often derided by Western diplomats as resembling “East Berlin, without the charm.”

Yet Mr. Lukashenko’s days in office are now numbered. During a recent meeting with Belarusan opposition leaders at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced administration is support for regime change.

“The Belarusan government should know that they are being watched by the international community, that this is not a dark corner in which they can [go] unobserved, uncommented on, as if Belarus is not a part of the European Continent,” she told reporters.

Washington is hoping Belarus will follow the recent successes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where pro-democracy forces toppled autocratic, Soviet-style governments. President Bush’s policy of spreading democracy is slowly working not only in the Middle East, but also in the former Soviet empire.

The administration provides financial assistance and other resources to Belarusan democrats in preparation for next year’s presidential elections. Opposition leaders, however, warn that Mr. Lukashenko will seek to maintain his hold on power at all costs. The Murderer of Minsk will either rig the vote or refuse to accept a defeat.

This is why Belarus’ brave democrats plan massive street demonstrations this fall in hopes of forcing Mr. Lukashenko’s resignation. With strong American support, they may well unleash a “White Revolution” similar to the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.

But the White revolutionaries face one major hurdle: Russia. The Kremlin increasingly views the new democracies along its borders as pro-American satellites, which threaten Moscow’s regional strategic predominance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to not let Minsk go the way of Kiev and Tbilisi. His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Russia will oppose any effort by the United States to undermine Mr. Lukashenko’s government.

Not only Russian pride is at stake. Mr. Lukashenko has transformed Belarus into an economic and political vassal of Moscow. Russia supplies Belarus with nearly all its oil and gas, and more than half of Belarus’ exports are sent to Russia.

More ominously, Mr. Lukashenko is a strong believer in Mr. Putin’s dream of a Great Russian empire. The Belarusan strongman has made no secret of his desire for a formal union between Belarus and Russia.

Throughout the 1990s, Belarus emerged as an important departure point for Russia’s weapons sales and missile-technology transfers to Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Mr. Lukashenko is not only a menace to his own people, but to American security interests as well.

That is why the Bush administration is right to isolate Mr. Lukashenko’s regime, while helping to bolster the country’s growing opposition movement. Yet Washington should be under no illusions: there is a real possibility of violence and bloodshed.

In his recent address to parliament, Mr. Lukashenko denounced any peaceful efforts toward democracy as “plain banditry.” He vowed they would not occur under any circumstances.

If Mr. Lukashenko orders a military crackdown, it probably would be supported by the Kremlin. The West has turned a blind eye to Moscow’s genocidal campaign in Chechnya. It must not allow the same thing to occur in Belarus.

Washington must make it clear to Mr. Putin that the United States and its allies will not tolerate the Kremlin’s interference in Belarus’ internal affairs. There cannot be a repeat of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Russian tanks crushed democratic uprisings.

Mr. Lukashenko also must be told any attempt to quell the demonstrations by force will trigger severe diplomatic, economic and — if necessary — military consequences. His regime would become an international pariah, similar to Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. Yet unlike Pyongyang, Minsk is firmly rooted in Europe and, with the exception of Russia, surrounded by liberal democracies. Its neighbors — Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania — along with the European Union and NATO can exercise a decisive influence in helping Belarus embrace its pro-Western, pro-European civilizational destiny.

It is time for Belarus’ White revolutionaries to follow the path blazed by their Ukrainian brethren. America stands with you.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a historian and communications director at the Ripon Society (www.riponsoc.org), a Republican policy institute. The views expressed are solely those of Mr. Kuhner.

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