August 23, 2005

As Minsk goes

EVEN AS Russia and China pursue their wide-scale saber-rattling war games in the Far East, what is likely to be Moscow's next genuine flash point lies more than 4,000 miles to the west - in Belarus, one of Europe's worst-run nations.

For more than a decade, Belarus has been under the thumb of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has kept himself in office through rigged elections, a controlled press, and the convenient disappearance of opponents. It is a nation, in other words, more than ripe for the sort of peaceful democratic revolution that arose last year in neighboring Ukraine.

In fact, the state-run newspapers in Minsk, the capital, have already been warning about American attempts to intervene in next year's elections. On Friday, a letter calling for Europe and the United States to work together for the democratization of Belarus was published in an Austrian newspaper; it was signed by former presidents Vaclav Havel, of the Czech republic, Frederik W. de Klerk, of South Africa and Mary Robinson, of Ireland, and by George Soros, the financier, among others. Earlier, Lech Walesa, of Poland, called for a "people's revolution" in Belarus. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the regime as "the last true dictatorship" in Europe.

All of this poses a major challenge to Moscow, which blundered badly in Ukraine when it overtly backed the corrupt - and, in the end, losing - presidential candidate. The Kremlin does not want to see a similar turnabout in Belarus, because that might get Russians asking about reform in their own country.

Up to now, Mr. Lukashenko has been very useful to Russia. His presence, and the actions of his corrupt and unchecked government, make Vladimir Putin's Russia look mild and civilized by comparison. They also serve as a warning of sorts to would-be Russian reformers - make too much trouble, and you'll get what the Belarusians got.

But he may have served his purpose by now. Afraid of the Ukrainian model, some Kremlin advisers have reportedly urged that Russia step in to embed a more acceptable president, yet one still amenable to Moscow's will, before the West has a chance to act in the upcoming elections. Eventually, a much-talked-about union of the two countries would follow.

Europe and America are not likely to stand idly by in such an event, nor should they. The fate of democracy in post-Soviet Europe may depend on events in Minsk.