A Dictator's Elections

Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko claims to be far ahead in his campaign for reelection this month. And he should be: Mr. Lukashenko, widely known as Europe's last dictator, has deprived his opposition of funding, media, and the opportunity to demonstrate and organize. He has stacked the election commission with his party hacks to ensure that the vote count can be manipulated. He has passed legislation that makes it a crime to "slander" the president, so that his challengers can't criticize him without risking imprisonment.

And yet, with the election in Belarus just two weeks away, Mr. Lukashenko seems to be getting worried. On Thursday he delivered a three-hour rant to a captive party audience, denouncing "dark forces" that he said were plotting against him, as well as Western democracies, which he said were "soaked in blood." Even as he spoke, the president's security forces outside the hall were soaking one of the two opposition candidates in his own blood: Alexander Kozulin, a former academic who heads the Social Democratic Party, was beaten up and then arrested. A local human rights group said 60 other opposition activists had been rounded up.

What's Mr. Lukashenko worried about? Maybe that the principal opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, has been rapidly picking up support: Several thousand people attended a rally he staged in Minsk on Thursday, and he says that his polls show him leading the race in the capital. Or maybe that Mr. Milinkevich, who says that he fully expects the election to be stolen, has called on Belarusans to gather in Minsk on election night, March 19, to learn the real results. If he loses, he says, he will admit defeat then and there. But if the evidence is that he has won, Mr. Milinkevich will demand a transfer of power -- and hope for a repeat of the post-election "color revolutions" in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. In Belarus, the opposition already has its color: denim blue.

Mr. Lukashenko is loudly threatening to suppress any such opposition demonstrations by force, which means there is a real risk of bloodshed. To their credit, Western governments have been trying to show support for the opposition: Last Monday President Bush met with the widows of two Belarusan leaders who were abducted and murdered by Mr. Lukashenko's government. The West should now prepare to take action in the event that international monitors report electoral fraud or the regime again resorts to violence. At a minimum the Belarusan president and his family and all senior members of his government should be targeted by financial sanctions aimed at their Western bank accounts and other assets. And Mr. Bush should ask for accountability from Mr. Lukashenko's chief economic and political sponsor. That would be Russian President Vladimir Putin, the only leader besides Mr. Lukashenko himself who still supports dictatorship in Europe.