- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by the Bush administration, is rigging another election in Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko was elected to a second term in 2001 in what was neither an open nor a fair contest: Harassment of opposition candidates, voters and the media was wide-spread, and concerns about the official vote count led international observers, including the United States, to declare that the election did not meet accepted standards, and was not democratic. In all likelihood, the election on Sunday will be no different.

After winning in 1994, Mr. Lukashenko moved to consolidate his power by marginalizing the Belarusian parliament. In 1996 he extended his five-year term by means of a referendum that the international community regarded as undemocratic and illegal. In 2004 he again altered the constitution, this time removing presidential term limits and allowing himself a chance to run for a third term, which he will almost certainly win on Sunday.

The voice of the opposition has grown stronger, but the Lukashenko regime’s Soviet-style suppression of the press in the run-up to the election has severely limited the exposure of the two primary opposition candidates, Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kozulin. Independent media outlets, which were instrumental in the success of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, have been all but entirely shut down at this point, and the distortions of the state-controlled media are left unchecked.

The United States has shown, and should continue to show, support for civil society and democracy in Belarus. Last year, the Bush administration spent $12 million to bolster pro-democracy efforts there. On March 8 the House voted almost unanimously in favor of a resolution, introduced by Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, calling on Mr. Lukashenko to hold truly democratic elections that meet international standards of procedural transparency, unrestricted discourse and nonviolence.

The opposition candidates realize they have little chance of winning, even if the votes are fairly counted. But they have used what little opportunity exists to campaign on the pro-democracy and reform message because they also understand that their fight represents a necessary step on the long road to democracy. The United States and the European Union should encourage these efforts by closely watching the Sunday voting and by calling the election for what it is — a sham. Mr. Lukashenko needs to realize that he cannot carry out his oppressive Soviet-style policies in secret.

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