Updated at 16:11,02-12-2016

A Victory for EU Diplomacy in Belarus

The European Union scored a rare foreign-policy success last weekend when, following mounting pressure from Brussels, Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko pardoned two prominent political prisoners.

The release of former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his associate Dmitry Bondarenko resulted directly from EU political and economic sanctions against Minsk. It provides fresh hope to Belarus's embattled democracy activists and especially to its dozen or so remaining prisoners of conscience. The question now is how Europe can build on this modest victory and push for lasting change.

Messrs. Sannikov and Bondarenko had been in the hands of the Belarussian authorities since Dec. 19, 2010. They were arrested after leading tens of thousands of Belarussians to protest a presidential "election" - more than a little suspect, according to outside monitors-in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote.

Along with hundreds of others, Messrs. Sannikov and Bondarenko were beaten, detained and later put on show trial along with dozens of other outspoken dissidents, all of whom received multi-year sentences. They said that they endured physical and psychological torture while in prison. Their families, friends and associates suffered under a massive campaign of harassment that sent many of them underground or into exile.

These horrors unfolded to the complete surprise of the EU. Prior to the 2010 elections, Europe's leaders had taken pains to convince the Lukashenko regime to allow a modicum of democracy in exchange for Western cooperation and assistance. Minsk was invited to join the EU's Eastern Partnership program and received promises of aid for its wobbly economy, and European leaders met with Mr. Lukashenko to cajole him in person. However, all this engagement proved worthless in the post-election crackdown, which appeared to be eye-opening for Europe.

As Messrs. Sannikov and Bondarenko and a few brave others had warned before, the regime in Minsk is a brutal autocracy that will hold on to power by any means. Engagement, dialogue and gentlemen's agreements were always going to prove futile, since Mr. Lukashenko and his thugs will not keep their side of any bargain. This renders impotent Europe's preferred brand of soft-power persuasion, which is based on other governments' willingness to cooperate and evolve. In short, Europe learned the hard way that it needed to fundamentally change its approach to Belarus.

Since early last year, the EU has gone somewhat in this direction. It immediately condemned the post-election violence and followed up by extending and expanding existing EU visa bans and asset freezes against the Belarussian leadership; the blacklist now includes some 220 officials. In parallel, the EU has increased its assistance to victims of political repressions, to democratic civil-society groups and to independent media. Finally, the EU has moved to leverage its status as a key destination for Belarussian exports by imposing a trade embargo against 32 Belarussian companies.

The shift to a tougher stance has been gradual and difficult. More than once, European national leaders with business contacts in Belarus have tried to block the tougher EU action. Nevertheless, the trend is clear: More than before, the EU is responding to developments in Belarus promptly and in a principled fashion, with clear support for democratic change coupled with punishment and isolation for those responsible for human-rights violations.

This trend has not been ignored by the Lukashenko regime. Initially, it railed against Europe and tightened the screws on dissidents. Then it tried to sabotage EU policy by attempting to convince individual member states to flout the sanctions, while paying lip service to renewed dialogue and releasing some political prisoners. When the EU reiterated its condition that all political prisoners must be released, Mr. Lukashenko expelled EU and Polish envoys from Minsk and turned to Russia for political support. But Moscow gave Minsk only a lukewarm response, and Europe's leaders outran Mr. Lukashenko by recalling all their envoys and imposing fresh economic sanctions.

This is the backdrop against which Messrs. Sannikov and Bondarenko finally left prison last weekend. Both immediately acknowledged that, along with a wave of solidarity by ordinary Belarussians, the EU pressure had been instrumental. But they also stressed that their release was only a small step.

European responses to the news have remained cautious. While welcoming Mr. Lukashenko's decision, Brussels again demanded freedom for all remaining prisoners of conscience and full rehabilitation for those who have been detained and tried-for instance, that they be permitted to return to their homes and jobs. As long as those long-standing EU demands remain unmet, there is no reason to ease current pressure and sanctions. At most, the EU might consider welcoming Belarussian envoys back to the EU and Poland.

The EU could follow up by making the return of its own ambassadors to Minsk dependent on the release of all political prisoners. If that happens, the European envoys could return as a bloc. The reinstatement of detainees' and prisoners' full rights must come next, and must include those who have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Only after Minsk fulfills these conditions can Europe start to ease its other sanctions and resume broader political dialogue. Failure to comply must be met with further EU measures against the regime, especially economic sanctions. For the first time in many years, Europe has gained some real leverage over Mr. Lukashenko and his cronies. Now is not the time to let this hard work and momentum go to waste.