The bully of Belarus

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is unfortunately living up to his advance billing as the last dictator of Europe. On the eve of tomorrow's election, he vowed in Stalinist fashion to "wring the necks as one might a duck" of his opponents if they dared protest the outcome.

Such threats, and worse -- last week a presidential candidate was beaten by police -- have been the hallmarks of his repressive regime for more than a decade, leaving Belarussians unable to shed their totalitarian legacy. Mr. Lukashenko, 51, a former state farm apparatchik, came to power in 1994 on promises to end corruption and on some ill-founded nostalgia for the good old Soviet days. He hasn't delivered on the former, but he has come through with flying colours on the latter and is reinforcing Lord Acton's observation that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He has used the country's security service, aptly still known by its Soviet acronym KGB, as his personal police force, strengthened the powers of the presidency and won a dubious referendum, which the international community found to be neither free nor fair, allowing him to seek a third presidential term.

In the runup to the current campaign, he has monopolized the state media, imprisoned civic activists and intimidated his opponents. He calls them scum. He has ranted about Western democracies plotting against him, blocked a delegation of European Union MPs from entering Belarus to monitor the election and confiscated 200,000 copies of one of the few independent newspapers. He has also warned that Western governments will be responsible if unrest erupts in the streets after the election. To which EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana quite properly replied, "The use of violence on peaceful demonstrators exercising their indisputable right of freedom of expression and assembly would meet with strong international reaction."

Given Mr. Lukashenko's tactics and his willingness to grossly manipulate the vote to his advantage, it's hardly surprising that the outcome of the election is not in doubt. But he should not be allowed to get away with it. Already there is talk among Western governments of imposing economic and political sanctions. If not carefully targeted, such sanctions could hurt long-suffering and oppressed ordinary Belarussians. That's why it might be better to start by freezing the Western bank accounts and assets of Mr. Lukashenko, his family and top members of his government. Such action would give hope to Belarussians yearning for freedom, democracy and a better standard of living. In the words of Mikulas Dzurinda, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, "a free Belarus would send a message to the world that the last dictatorship in Europe has finally come to an end."