Double Standard for Dictators

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Friday, April 14, 2006

THIS WEEK the European Union took an important step toward sanctioning Europe's last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, banning the Belarusan president and 30 of his aides and political collaborators from entering any of the union's 25 countries. Mr. Lukashenko staged a rigged election last month extending his term in office and arrested many of the people who tried to protest. While Mr. Lukashenko's regime is hardly likely to collapse under pressure from Brussels, the E.U. foreign ministers at least delivered the message that the union will isolate dictators.

Or will it? Even as Europe's policymakers were stoking their outrage over Belarus's tyrant, they were quietly preparing to approve a trade agreement with Central Asia's Turkmenistan -- home to Saparmurad Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi the Great, a ruler whose absolute power, cult of personality and repression of his people make Mr. Lukashenko look, well, Small. Mr. Niyazov doesn't bother with elections: He declared himself president for life long ago. He has no opposition protesters to arrest, since all dissenters are jailed, exiled or forced into mental hospitals long before they can congregate in the capital. He has renamed months of the year after himself and his mother, banned recorded music, closed most hospitals outside the capital, and removed almost all books from libraries and the educational system other than his own.

Mr. Niyazov has something else Mr. Lukashenko doesn't have: natural gas, in huge quantities. Some of it is already exported to Europe, via Russia, and European governments, which depend heavily on gas imports, lately have grown interested in increasing Central Asian supplies. Might that explain a request by the European Commission that the European Parliament approve the new trade agreement? The proposal, which would grant Turkmenistan "most favored nation" trading status in the European Union, was approved last month by the parliament's international trade committee; it awaits a vote by the full plenary.

European officials protest that this is not about wheedling more of Turkmenistan's gas. The dictator has taken some positive steps recently, they claim, such as agreeing to a "human rights dialogue" with Europe. Anyway, they argue, it's not constructive to isolate Mr. Niyazov. Really? Mr. Lukashenko might find that excuse hard to believe.


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