Editorial: Meeting sends message: Meeting sends message

(Tribune, The (Mesa, AZ) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 4--At the outset of a busy week in which he was preparing to receive the Italian prime minister and to depart on a trip to India and Pakistan, President Bush took time to meet with two widows, Svyatlana Zavadskaya and Irina Krasovskaya.

Their husbands, one an outspokenly pro-democracy businessman and the other an independent journalist, disappeared in Belarus, and several outside investigations have concluded, to no one's great surprise, that they were murdered by the government of Soviet-style dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus, a nation of about 10 million, is a fragment of the old Soviet empire that Lukashenko has grand dreams of reconstituting, with himself at its head. He took office in 1994, and through rigged elections and the usual police-state tactics has kept himself in power ever since. On Thursday, security goons arrested his opponent in an election set for March 19, Alexander Kazulin. Kazulin was released, but not before clashes with police left dozens of his supporters detained.

The White House accused Belarus of failing to seriously investigate the disappearance of the two men. Spokesman Scott McClellan said, "The president expressed his condolences to the widows over the loss of their husbands. The president underscored his personal support for their efforts to seek justice for the disappeared and for all those who seek to return freedom to Belarus."

It was a small gesture but a worthwhile one because, other than showing that the Belarusan people are not forgotten, there's little the U.S. can do. Lukashenko is already a pariah and Belarus already the target of sanctions and embargoes. The European Union has set up a broadcast facility to promote independent media in Belarus.

Given the corruption of previous ballots, there is little hope that the March 19 vote will be conducted any more honestly. Still, the noxious presence of the last dictator in Europe should not be forgotten.