Bully boy of Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko has realised the worst fears of those who warned that Sunday's presidential election in Belarus would be anything but free or fair.

Mr Lukashenko, brightly dubbed Europe's last dictator, made sure he won by a margin unprecedented in the region since Soviet times. His 82 per cent vote is an insult to Belarusans and a reminder to other Europeans that even their own continent is not yet free of the scourge of dictatorship.

Election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe found extensive shortcomings. If Mr Lukashenko gives a fig about this judgment, he does not show it. At a press conference yesterday, he fielded questions for more than an hour and dismissed all complaints as absurd.

He also made light of the demonstrations staged by Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, saying they showed to the world that Belarus was a democracy. But Mr LukaA'A-shenko's defiant joke should be treated with caution. There is every risk that, once the caravan of foreign observers has moved on, he will turn on his opponents with a vengeance. He thinks his dictatorial regime is not only better than liberal democracy but superior to the semi-repressive administration of Vladimir Putin, Russian president.

Apologists for Mr Lukashenko argue he has genuine support among BelaA'A-rusans who value political and economic stability. This is true. But the country is heavily dependent on subsidised Russian oil and gas. Also, Mr LukaA'A-shenko's approach is politically unA'A-sustainable. As incomes rise, Belarusans are demanding the same freedoms as others. It is no accident the greatest opposition is in Minsk, the richest city.

The European Union and the US are right to condemn Mr Lukashenko. The EU must follow up its tough words with co-ordinated action: it should make more Belarusan officials subject to visa bans and isolate the regime further. It should increase aid for civil society through the remaining inA'A-dependent institutions and assistance for individuals through cut-price visas, scholarships and training grants.

Economic sanctions are not the way. Belarus plays a key role in the transit of Russian oil and gas and the EU should not intrude politically into this trade at a time when it is trying to persuade Moscow to depoliticise it.

But the EU and US should press Russia over Belarus. The Kremlin should be advised that a democratic Belarus with an open economy would not be a threat but an asset. Western leaders must ensure Mr Lukashenko is on the agenda for the Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg this summer.

However, the west cannot bring down Mr Lukashenko. The anti-Communist revolts in central Europe, the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, Serb leader, and Ukraine's Orange Revolution all show it is largely domestic rebellion that topples autocrats. Belarusans now face the same challenge.