The tyrant of Belarus

'Europe's last dictator," as the Bush administration has aptly tagged him, is up to it again. This time, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has gone after ethnic Poles living in western Belarus, accusing them of "fomenting revolution." On Wednesday, Lukashenko sent riot police to seize the headquarters of an association that represents the 400,000 Poles and hauled in several leaders for questioning. Poland then pulled out its ambassador in Minsk, charging Lukashenko with trampling on human rights. The state-run news media in Belarus have often accused Poland of using the Polish minority in Belarus to stir up a revolution like the "orange revolution" in Ukraine a year ago, something Lukashenko has vowed to block. When dictators of his kind start identifying minorities as enemies, there is every reason to be alarmed.

Lukashenko, a former state farm manager, was first elected president of Belarus in 1994, at the age of 40, on a wave of popular resentment against the madcap privatization and massive corruption that characterized the first post-Soviet years. Indeed, Belarus has no oligarchs, and has not suffered the massive dislocations of Russia and other former republics. But Lukashenko achieved this essentially by freezing Belarus in time - Soviet time. Hardly anything has been privatized, television programs focus largely on agricultural exhortations, and Lukashenko even brought back the Soviet republican flag, minus only the hammer and sickle. Above all, Lukashenko has established himself as the complete Soviet-style dictator.

When his Parliament rose up against him in 1996, he chucked it out and set up a rubber-stamp Parliament next door, while strengthening the reach of the KGB (as it is still called). Since then, he has ruthlessly clamped down on any opposition, and any foreign organizations he suspects of working against him. Even Russia, with which he longs to reunite, is wary of Lukashenko.

But the pressures on Lukashenko have been steadily growing from the West, first of all Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - now all members of NATO and the European Union - and Ukraine. In the United States, the Belarus Democracy Act passed by Congress last year authorized payments to nongovernmental groups. Like Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, one of Lukashenko's heroes, the Belarus dictator is likely to become ever more dangerous as the pressures grow on him to exit. Nonetheless, out he must go, and the sooner the better.