Updated at 23:52,23-01-2020

Crackdown in Belarus

The Washington Post

Western governments imposed new sanctions on the Belarus government of Alexander Lukashenko this month and announced millions of dollars in fresh support for his opposition. The aim was to punish a regime known as Europe's last dictatorship for a brutal crackdown following a fraudulent presidential election in December and to keep pro-democracy forces alive. This week may provide an indication of whether the policies are having an effect. On Thursday Mr. Lukashenko's regime is expected to begin the trials of dozens of people arrested on the night of the Dec. 19 election and in the weeks afterward.

If - as many expect - the result is a parade of show trials followed by harsh sentences, the Obama administration and its allies in the European Union will know that they have not yet done enough.

In all the regime has brought 46 cases; those accused include four of the nine presidential candidates who ran against Mr. Lukashenko; several journalists; and other opposition activists. Many are charged with organizing a riot, an offense carrying a prison term of five to 15 years. Thirty of the accused, including three of the presidential candidates, are still detained, while another of the candidates is under house arrest.

There was, in fact, no riot on Dec. 19 - except that carried out by Mr. Lukashenko's security forces. These attacked the tens of thousands of people gathered peacefully in the center of Minsk to denounce the election, which the president claimed to have won with 79 percent of the vote. Some 700 people were arrested, and many, including presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Vladimir Neklyayev, were brutally beaten.

To their credit, Western governments responded relatively vigorously to this outrage. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on the state oil company and joined the European Union in targeting more than 150 officials with a travel ban and asset freezes. A donors conference raised tens of millions of dollars in aid for pro-democracy groups, independent media and student organizations.

If the trials go forward, however, the sanctions must get tougher. The Obama administration should try to persuade E.U. governments to adopt sanctions against the oil monopoly, Belneftekhim. Alexander Kozulin, who ran for president against Mr. Lukashenko in 2006 and was subsequently imprisoned for more than two years, says that he is convinced his release stemmed from such company sanctions. Mr. Kozulin and other Belarusan leaders say that they also hope President Obama will personally and publicly condemn Mr. Lukashenko, which would, at least, boost the morale of those facing trial.

Belarus also ought to be placed firmly on the agenda of U.S.-Russian and E.U.-Russian relations. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has sought for years to restore the Kremlin's rule over Belarus and despises Mr. Lukashenko for resisting. Yet now Moscow cynically accepts the crackdown as a way of distancing Belarus from the West. Russia says that it wants a new security relationship with Europe; it should be told that a condition for that is giving up its imperialist ambitions and supporting a democratic Belarus.