• 2006-03-22

Cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

There was never a doubt about the outcome 's it was just a matter of percentages. As it turned out, Aleksandr Lukashenko decided to grant himself almost 83 percent of the vote in the Belarusian presidential election (Automatically this number qualifies the "election" as a misnomer, since no free and fair ballot could possibly yield such a fantastically lopsided result.) What the symbolism of this number is we may never know. Perhaps the Belarusian dictator just wanted to send a message to the world about the staggering popularity he enjoys in his country.

Whether the world is listening, and how it will react, will be immensely important. Already a rift has appeared in the European Union about how it should deal with the Belarusian menace. As expected, the new East European members are taking a harder line and will call on the EU to throw some weight around. According to reports, Lithuania has proposed that Brussels challenge Minsk on the election result; Slovakia apparently wants an official EU statement that refuses to recognize Lukashenko as the winner, while the Czech Republic wants to invite the losing democratic candidate, Aleksandr Milinkevich, to attend the European Council summit this week in Brussels.

Poland, which shares the largest border with Belarus and is therefore most sensitive to events there, is going for broke and proposing an ambitious visa ban and the freezing of assets of Belarusian officials responsible for human rights and election violations. Currently the EU has such a ban in place on only six Belarusian officials; Lukashenko, strangely enough, is not among them.

But it appears the voice of Eastern Europe will be drowned out by the "usual doves" of Western Europe. Older EU members are urging restraint in dealing with Belarus. Germany and Austria, in particular, have said that hasty responses could backfire, and it is important for the EU not to burn bridges that could be used to support the democratic opposition.
This is diplo-speak for appeasement, and any such policy would be a huge miscalculation. Belarus is no China. It is small enough, and close enough, to be affected by a rigorous regimen of penalties, sanctions and other measures, not to mention an all-out public relations war.

In fact, it is Europe's fault that the pro-democracy rallies in Minsk are comparatively lackluster. The EU was grossly late in setting up a Belarusian-language news service in the run-up to the election; had Brussels taken the Lukashenko-threat seriously, it would have been broadcasting two years ago. As it was, the 2 million euro radio program wasn't even ready two months before the election.

It is time for Germany's leadership 's the EU leadership 's to show some backbone. Now that Ukraine is leaning westward, now that the Caucasus nations are knocking on Europe's door, now that even Serbia is itching to increase cooperation, the European Union cannot afford to become complacent. It needs to build upon democracy's successes. Furthermore, Belarus represents a unique opportunity for a joint EU-U.S. foreign policy effort, the fruits of which both sides could one day enjoy. In recent years the world's two great economies and democratic powers have not seen eye-to-eye on foreign policy, but Belarus could change that. It would, of course, boil down to a slow war of attrition, and essentially pit the civilized world against Russia, but it is a battle worth fighting. Belarus is an affront to European integration. The time has come to do something about it.