Are we going to let this village tyrant enjoy a respite from scrutiny and accountability
Is the Belarus story important? Careful how you answer. The story doesn't photograph well, and it's hopeless for TV. The mere fact of a corrupt and vindictive autocracy is hardly news anyway in this wicked world.
So you could be forgiven for asking: set against the scale and violence of the retaliation by autocracies in North Africa and the Gulf, don't we have worse things to worry about than the crimes of Alexander Lukashenko and his bully boys?
It's the wrong question.
Better to ask: are we going to let this village tyrant enjoy a respite from scrutiny and accountability because, for the moment, our attention is engaged by larger, louder, more sensational and more photographable news elsewhere?
"President" Lukashenko rigged his election, and is now busy rigging the trials of the opposition candidates who presumed to stand against him. They were among hundreds arrested. More than 30 are held in the KGB cells in Minsk. Others are under house arrest and close guard. Things are shaping up for a legalistic atrocity.
My interest in all this is not impersonal. One of the presidential candidates, Andrei Sannikov, has been a friend since I met him in Minsk a few years ago. So, too, his wife Irina. (Both have been arrested, charged and detained.)
I also met Vladimir Neklyaev, another candidate (arrested, badly beaten up, awaiting trial under house arrest) who – would you believe – is the Belarusian national poet.
There was no need for any of this. Lukashenko has had a lock on this country for at least a dozen years – going back to a very dark period when four of his most active and prominent opponents disappeared in murderous circumstances. Last December, he was home and dry again with a huge notional majority, and – let it be said – for many of the older voters, especially army veterans, he represented the national pride in independence, as well as a dictatorial stability.
When some 10,000 people gathered for a peaceful demo on the Sunday after the election, diplomats who came to observe things concluded there was going to be no trouble, and returned to their embassies. Then, late at night, thousands more citizens who had kept back came to the same conclusion. Before midnight the crowd had tripled. It was then that the army waded in with astonishing brutality.
It looks in hindsight, for there were some pre-emptive strikes against individuals, that Lukashenko had decided on a showdown. It was as though dissent, which he might have deemed an irritant, had become an affront to his majesty.
So now Belarus festers like a blister on the map of polite, politic Europe.
What is to be done?
To start with, in Europe's acronymic maze there is something called the OSCE – the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It has the right to invoke, by vote, a procedure called the "Moscow mechanism", by which, amazingly, it can force any European country to accept investigators into malpractice. The Moscow mechanism is a rare recourse, but Belarus seems like an appropriate occasion for it.
Second, and more piquantly, there is the course of launching a private suit in a civil court against Lukashenko personally. There is a group of lawyers who have been examining this possibility for weeks now. It has looked like a long shot (there are issues of national sovereignty) but last week a new factor entered the argument: torture.
Ales Mikhalevich, presidential candidate, arrested, charged and released by the KGB into house arrest, publicly tore up his deal to keep quiet, and described the treatment he had received at the hands of the secret police, including being stripped naked and kept outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.
In the words of one of the lawyers, "torture is a game changer". European foreign ministers, including our own, seem to need a game changer, too. Is this the moment for their actions to suit their words?
Tom Stoppard is on the board of the Belarus Committee, a group of NGOs and individuals brought together to campaign on Belarus