Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Election monitors did not need to wait for the official vote tally to know that the elections in Belarus lacked, in the words of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, “constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.” President Alexander Lukashenko had muted the independent media and curtailed unsanctioned political rallies, and reports of physical harassment were prominent in the campaign landscape. In addition, Belarussian election officials refused to accurately count the votes. So the monitors from OSCE formally declared the election undemocratic.

After the voting Sunday night, and again on Monday, supporters of the opposition rallied in Minsk, calling for another vote. This display and similar calls from the international community have gone unheeded (and even jeered) by Mr. Lukashenko.

The European Union and the United States were rightly critical of the election, but the international reaction was not entirely uniform. Russia, which has subsidized the Lukashenko regime with cheap oil and gas imports, has been supportive, which should bring a sharp rebuke from the United States. Cheap Russian oil is essential for Mr. Lukashenko’s Soviet-style economic system; only with that oil can he contemptuously reject threats of isolation. Forcing the oil price up to market levels would bring internal pressure on Mr. Lukashenko to move Belarus away from economic isolation.

The United States and the EU should also establish objective news outlets modeled on the successful Cold-War-era Radio Free Europe and Voice of America in order to challenge the one-sided coverage of the state-controlled media and undermine Mr. Lukashenko’s authoritarian stifling of the media. The White House seems to be on the right track with regard to sanctions, which would include, according to spokesman Scott McClellan, “travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions of individuals.”

Democracy can take hold in Belarus, much as it did in Georgia and Ukraine. Increased visa restrictions for regime officials, freezing personal assets, pressure on Russia to stop its de facto subsidy of the regime and the introduction of a free press will all point toward the dread of Mr. Lukashenko and his supporters — liberty and democracy.

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