Forget the quiet life, it's time to get tough with Belarus

The EU will be sending out dangerous signals if it fails to take action following December's rigged election.

The post-election crackdown in Belarus is a bleeding wound in Europe and a defining test of the European Union's willingness to stand up for itself and its principles.

For the past few years, the EU, spurred by Swedish, Polish and Czech politicians, has tried to woo the regime in Minsk in the hope of capitalising on the many frustrations and failures in its relations with Russia. In pursuit of this policy, the EU broke ranks with the US and dropped sanctions (chiefly travel bans on senior officials), and dangled a ?3 billion carrot of trade, investment, aid and other concessions. In return it wanted modest political liberalisation.

Until the presidential election on 19 December, the policy seemed to be working. Opposition candidates got their chance on state-run media. Outside election observers and monitors were allowed in to observe the campaign and the count.

Now that policy is in ruins. Not only was the election ludicrously rigged, but opposition candidates have been beaten and detained (in some cases their whereabouts are unknown), journalists harassed, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe ordered to leave Minsk. In a disgusting echo of Soviet practice, the authorities appear to be considering the forcible consignment of a three-year-old child to a state orphanage while his parents - an opposition candidate, Andrei Sannikov, and his wife, Irina Khalip - are in jail.

So what next?

Diagnosing a problem is hard when you don't know the pathology. Was the crackdown because of pressure from hardliners (or Moscow-run elements) in the regime, who feared that the EU gambit might work? Was it because the leadership suddenly realised that it was in danger of an embarrassingly poor result in the election on 19 December? Was it because Russia's last-minute $5bn (?3.9bn) offer of duty-free oil and gas was simply more tempting than the EU offer? Maybe the regime was never seriously interested in the European option but was just flirting with Brussels in order to win better concessions from Moscow. The answer may be all of the above.

Amid confusion and disappointment, Poland has acted firmly and wisely. It is imposing visa bans on the senior figures in the regime while opening its universities to Belarusian students, sharply raising its backing for Belarusian opposition and free media activities, and waiving the ?20 visa fee for ordinary Belarusians visiting Poland.

The EU should follow suit. But as so often, it is proving too disunited to be effective. A joint statement from Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, was a good start, but follow-up is lacking.

It should be no surprise that Silvio Berlusconi's Italy is in the forefront of efforts to stop the EU imposing even a limited visa ban on top Belarusian officials. But it is startling (and even a bit shameful) that Latvia and Lithuania are in the same camp. It is easy to argue against isolating the regime on the grounds that such an approach simply drives it into the arms of Moscow.

But the friendly approach has been tried, and has failed. If the EU does nothing, or nothing that matters, it shows that it does not really believe in all that stuff about democracy, and just wants a quiet life.

That is a bad signal to send to Belarus. But it is also a dangerous one to send to Kiev and Moscow. Leaders there are watching closely to see how the EU reacts to the repression and state beastliness in Belarus. They would like to give their own countries a dose of the same nasty medicine. Nothing in the EU's response so far would give such people pause for thought.


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