Belarusian Dreaming

Wall Street Journal, by David J. Kramer

Almost two weeks since Belarus held its presidential election and the country has all but disappeared from Western news coverage. But the situation there remains grave, with more than 600 Belarusians in jail following a crackdown by authorities against demonstrators protesting electoral fraud and the regime of Aleksander Lukashenko. Among those in detention are four opposition leaders who challenged Mr. Lukashenko in the election. They have been beaten, their homes and offices have been raided, and they and more than a dozen others now face sentences of up to 15 years for "organizing mass protests."
 
Despite the wishful thinking of some Western leaders and analysts, the Dec. 19 election and its aftermath have revealed that Europe's last dictatorship is as barbaric as it ever was. But two things have changed since Belarus's last presidential election in 2006—one positive and one negative.
On the positive side, tens of thousands of protestors turned out as the polls were closing in downtown Minsk to rally against Mr. Lukashenko's dictatorship. Never before have so many Belarusians challenged the regime so openly. Such activism represents a healthy spike in interest in the country's future, no matter how violently authorities suppress that engagement.
 
On the negative side, many in the West have spent the last couple of years going wobbly over Mr. Lukashenko. This softening began in Oct. 2008, when the European Union suspended visa bans against dozens of Belarusian officials who had been involved in human-rights abuses following the 2006 election fraud. The EU lifted the bans in 2008 despite deeply flawed parliamentary elections only three weeks earlier, after Mr. Lukashenko released all political prisoners in the country. The prisoners' freedom was secured by pressure from joint U.S. and EU sanctions in 2006 that included a visa ban and asset freeze targeting regime officials. In Jan. 2008, two months after the U.S. unilaterally ratcheted up its sanctions, Minsk began to release the prisoners. But by the end of 2008, when Europe began to loosen its sanctions, it wasn't long before Mr. Lukashenko resumed harassing and jailing opponents and critics. More

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