- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006

Democracy’s uphill battle against the Soviet-style regime of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus received a boost Monday from the European Union, which blocked Mr. Lukashenko and 30 officials from his regime from traveling to the EU. This travel ban groups the Belarusian leadership with the likes of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Enacting this visa restriction is laudable and should be accompanied by greater sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko’s ability to keep himself in power, including actions to freeze his personal assets and a serious effort to curtail his sale of arms to other states, which include Iran and Sudan.

The Lukashenko government jeered the sanctions, calling them “uncivilized… shortsighted and ineffective” — the same way it bluntly dismissed the conclusions of election monitors that the March 19 presidential election was neither free nor fair by international standards. After “winning” more than 80 percent of the vote, far above what pre-election polling predicted, Mr. Lukashenko lashed out at the Western countries, claiming there had been an external effort to bring about a “colored revolution,” like the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, to topple his government. In response to the widespread protesting led by presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich and civil society groups, Belarusian police and security forces (appropriately still known by their Soviet moniker, the K.G.B.) cleared demonstrators from the central October Square in Minsk, arresting hundreds of the protestors.

The sanctions against the dictator are being somewhat offset by the disconcerting support for the Lukashenko regime coming from Belarus’ eastern neighbor. Congratulating Mr. Lukashenko on his election victory, Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to make the absurd claim that “the results of the elections point to voters’ trust in [Mr. Lukashenko’s] policies.” Russia, which will tout global energy security as host of the Group of Eight summit this summer, subsidized the Lukashenko regime by offering cheap natural gas and oil. That practice should be coming to an end, however, as officials at the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom have indicated they support the three-fold price increase needed to bring oil and gas prices in Belarus to market level. Whether Russia will actually increase the price has yet to be seen.

While the March election did not unseat Mr. Lukashenko, the democratic opposition gained unprecedented traction and support. The United States and the EU should work together and bring greater pressure on the European dictator while continuing to support democratic opposition and civil society groups in the country. For democracy to prevail in Eastern Europe, a united front from the Western powers is paramount.

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