December 22, 2011

ON DEC. 19, 2010,Belarusan strongman Alexander Lukashenko turned his back on a budding relationship with the West to rig his reelection as president; when tens of thousands of people turned out in Minsk to protest, his forces brutally attacked them. A year later, the consequences of his fateful decision have come into focus. Among them is the prolonged suffering of some of the brave people who opposed him, including two presidential candidates who remain in jail. Another is more broad: the loss of another measure of Belarus’s fragile independence to neighboring Russia.

Mr. Lukashenko’s crackdown preserved a regime that has endured since 1994, but it also created the worst crisis he has faced. Western governments appropriately responded by withdrawing aid and renewing sanctions; the result, a few months later, was an economic crisis caused by the country’s inability to obtain foreign financing. Not for the first time, Mr. Lukashenko faced a difficult choice: He could try to restore relations with the West by freeing political prisoners and making other concessions, or he could seek help from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who for a decade has been trying to restore Kremlin suzerainty over Belarus.

Mr. Lukashenko made a feint in the West’s direction in October by freeing a few prisoners. But he held on to Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich, presidential candidates who have been harshly treated since their arrest last December. In November Ales Byalyatski, a leading human rights defender, was sentenced to prison on tax evasion charges. Predictably, the Obama administration and European Union said that the regime had not done enough. Sanctions were not lifted; this month Congress passed the Belarus Human Rights and Democracy Act, which tightens them further.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lukashenko was forced to surrender to Mr. Putin. Last month he signed a deal with the Russian leader that will provide $14 billion in loans and energy subsidies — enough to patch the economy for a year or two. In exchange, Mr. Putin won full Russian control over a gas pipeline that carries energy from Russia to Western Europe, a prize he had sought for years. He also extracted Mr. Lukashenko’s signature for a declaration on the creation of a Eurasian Union, which Mr. Putin dreams will restore Moscow’s control over large parts of the former Soviet Union, starting with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Mr. Lukashenko has been dodging the reintegration of his country with Russia for years — perhaps the only accomplishment in a career of corruption and brutality. Now he has placed Belarus’s sovereignty in serious jeopardy to preserve himself in office. European Union governments will be tempted, as they have been before, to overlook his crimes in order to help him resist the pressure from Mr. Putin. They should not. In the long run the neo-imperial Russian project is doomed; so too, if the West is patient, is Mr. Lukashenko.