Leading article: Dealing smartly with Lukashenko

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Once again Russia and the West are circling each other and locking horns over a third party. The last time was over Ukraine, where Europe and the US denounced the 2004 presidential election as a farce and Russia defended the result to the hilt.

This time the storm is over Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko's isolated fiefdom, and the script is a similar one: a presidential election denounced by outside observers as a farce.

This time the stakes are higher for Russia, for after the orange revolution brought a pro-Western leader to power in Kiev, Belarus is the Kremlin's last European dependency.

Fortunately, fear of Russian ire has not caused the Europeans or Americans to muffle their dismay. Both have greeted Mr Lukashenko's claim that he won 82 per cent of the votes last week (against 6 per cent for his rival) with scorn. The response to the weekend arrest of one opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin, after an anti-government rally in Minsk, has also been swift. Brussels and Washington have promised "smart" sanctions on the Minsk government, blocking its officials from travelling to Europe or the US.

Some will dismiss this as a cosmetic gesture. But a calibrated response such as this is right, at least for now. Much as the West may deplore Mr Lukashenko's thuggery, his popularity at home has to be taken into account. His contempt for democratic norms, a free press or an independent judiciary is an affront to European standards, but it does not appear to worry most Belarussians, many of whom prize jobs and regular pensions over abstract-sounding promises of greater civil liberties.

Mr Lukashenko's eccentric brand of socialism has, moreover, profited from popular dismay over the kind of "wild capitalism" practised in Russia, which has seen obscene amounts of wealth falling into the hands of a clique of so-called entrepreneurs while millions sink into poverty.

So Europe is right to tread carefully when dealing with a figure such as Mr Lukashenko whose unsavoury style of government rests on a large degree of popular consent.

Brussels and Washington should continue to do what they are doing now; withhold all recognition of Mr Lukashenko's sham elections, stop him from boasting of his achievements outside his borders and remind his sponsor, Vladimir Putin, that Russia's ties with Europe are worth more in the long term than Mr Lukashenko's gratitude. Beyond that, change is up to the Belarussians. As events in Ukraine and Georgia showed, people power can displace undemocratic leaders whose time has passed. The same fate may befall Mr Lukashenko if he remains on his present path.

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