The monthlong crackdown on peaceful protests over a blatantly fixed election in Belarus is an affront to everyone who cherishes democracy and elemental fairness. The question is how to respond.
The Belarusian strongman, Aleksandr Lukashenko, tried at first to quell the protests with a dictator’s basic tool, violence, unleashing his police and secret services to beat and round up thousands of marchers. But, as he should have known, that only fanned the flames, bringing up to 200,000 people into the streets. Now, aided and abetted by his Russian mentors, Mr. Lukashenko has begun forcibly expelling leaders of the protests to neighboring countries.
The tactic is a familiar hand-me-down from Soviet repression. Back then, dissidents who were too well known to be beaten or arrested were frequently exiled to the West, where they could be portrayed as agents of the enemy. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, an alumnus of the K.G.B. political police, has demonstrated a particularly cruel variant of that gambit with his political archenemy Aleksei Navalny, who was poisoned and sent for treatment abroad only to have Kremlin stooges suggest that the poison was administered in Germany.
One of the brave women at the forefront of the Belarusian protests, Maria Kolesnikova, founder of a prominent cultural center in Belarus and a former flutist with the state philharmonic orchestra, is said by her allies to have avoided being exiled by ripping up her passport and jumping out of a car en route to the Ukrainian border. True to form, Mr. Lukashenko claimed that Ms. Kolesnikova was arrested for “violating the rules on crossing the state border,” suggesting she had been trying to flee to Ukraine.
Ms. Kolesnikova is one of three women who assumed leadership of the protests when the men they supported were barred from running in the presidential election. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a prominent blogger who was jailed after announcing his candidacy, entered the race and drew huge crowds of supporters. When official results of the Aug. 8 vote were announced, she was assigned only about 10 percent of the vote, to Mr. Lukashenko’s 80-plus, though unofficial exit polls indicated that she garnered far more and may have won.
Threatened with prison and separation from her children, Ms. Tikhanovskaya was forced to leave Belarus for Lithuania. The third of the women, Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of a former ambassador to the United States, is in Poland.
Whether the protesters can persevere when their leaders are systematically forced out remains to be seen. A small country of about 9.5 million people, Belarus has not known the nationalist or geopolitical passions of its far larger southern neighbor, Ukraine, and Mr. Lukashenko’s 25-year reign has not been seriously challenged until now. Though called “Europe’s last dictator” in the West and periodically slapped with sanctions by the European Union, he has been adept at maneuvering between the European Union and Russia.
It is precisely the simplicity of the protests that make them so compelling and so worthy of support. After a quarter-century of having no say in how they are ruled, the Belarusians declared that they’d had enough of Mr. Lukashenko and his lies and fake elections.
The protesters have not reached out to the European Union, NATO or the United States for support. The men who tried to run against Mr. Lukashenko, and the women who tried to take their place, were not activists or dissidents like Mr. Navalny in neighboring Russia — they were a popular blogger, a former ambassador to the United States, an oligarch, an English teacher and a musician.
Yet to Mr. Lukashenko, and more so to Mr. Putin, the notion of allowing people to choose their government is anathema. In Mr. Putin’s vision, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were the core of the Soviet empire, and already one republic has slipped the coop. A free and democratic election in Belarus would not only risk a government with different ideas, but could serve as an inspiration to Russians to follow suit. One possible reason for poisoning Mr. Navalny was his public sympathy for the Belarusian demonstrators.
Mr. Lukashenko is scheduled to visit Mr. Putin soon in Moscow, and he may find that the Kremlin is prepared to dump him in an attempt to calm the waters in Belarus. Moscow may also try to draw the European Union into some form of dialogue that would give a patina of legitimacy to Russia’s search for a way to resolve the crisis to its advantage.
That must not be the European Union’s role, or America’s. Any Western participation in a Russian-controlled transition would support Mr. Lukashenko’s and Mr. Putin’s claim that the street protests are the work of “foreign enemies.” That would amount to a betrayal of what the Belarusians seek and hope for. If there is to be any dialogue, it must be with the opposition as a full participant.
The West’s role — that of governments, human rights organizations and the social media-wielding public — is to demonstrate to the many courageous people who cast their ballots for Ms. Tikhonovskaya, and who have braved beatings and arrest simply to demand that these be counted, that free people everywhere are on their side and support their demand for new elections, the release of all detainees and the return of opposition leaders who have been driven into exile.
The message ought to be underscored by serious personal sanctions — frozen foreign bank accounts, travel bans and the like — against Mr. Lukashenko’s cronies and those who falsified the election results and then cruelly abused those who dared to protest.