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Misery in Minsk

March 23, 2006

IT CAME AS NO SURPRISE that Sunday's rigged election in Belarus gave a third term to President Alexander Lukashenko. But his defeat of pro-democracy candidates, and his longtime persecution of protesters, is no less depressing for having been predictable. President Bush has rightly refused to recognize the results, while Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has once again lined up on the wrong side of democracy in his support for Europe's last dictator.

Lukashenko has had more than 100 activists arrested since Monday, many culled from the daily protests by thousands in downtown Minsk. Many fear a violent crackdown when the opposition mounts a major rally Saturday. Belarusians are justifiably upset that in a post-communist region where freedom and prosperity are on the march, Lukashenko has maintained state control over the economy, stifled the media and kept the KGB in business.

Washington is weighing sanctions against individual Belarusian election officials. These will be meaningless unless joined by the Europeans because the elite of Belarus shop, bank and send their children to study in Europe. Fortunately, the European Union appears to be serious about isolating Lukashenko.

Russia's behavior, on the other hand, is inexcusable. It voiced no qualms about the election, despite arrests and beatings of opposition candidates and threats against those who dared attend campaign rallies. Instead, Moscow declared that the people of Belarus had spoken. This was gratuitous; Russia could have expressed concerns about the election while recognizing its validity, a tactic Washington has used with its friends in Azerbaijan. Lukashenko is the most pro-Russian leader in the former Soviet republics, but his human rights record is deteriorating and unworthy of even Putin's stamp of approval.

Regrettably, both Washington and Moscow appear to be treating benighted Belarus as the latest pawn in a sort of Cold War-lite, this one being fought over influence in what Russia calls its "near abroad." The United States, under presidents Clinton and Bush, has fueled Russian mistrust by rushing to bring the newly independent Baltic nations, and now Ukraine, into NATO. And Washington's credentials as a disinterested promoter of democracy have been undermined by its near-automatic support of post-Soviet governments that have broken with Moscow -- and condemnation of those that haven't.

The Bush administration does deserve credit for taking a stand against repressive Uzbekistan last year, knowing the price would be eviction from a key Uzbek airbase. But Washington hasn't turned up the political heat on Turkmenistan, where a bizarre dictator sponsors a personality cult and horrific human rights abuses. Turkmenistan, like Azerbaijan, controls crucial oil pipelines.

If the administration wants to dispel suspicions that its promotion of democracy is opportunistic and inconsistent, here's a crude but effective solution: pick on a friendly dictator with oil.

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