THE LEADERS of post-Soviet republics found it easy at first to proclaim a new era of democracy. Now that their terms of office should be coming to an end, many of them are finding it more painful actually to let democracy take its course. This is particularly so in the republics of Central Asia, where even those most wedded to the rhetoric of democracy seem even more wedded to their positions, and in the European nation of Belarus. There the legal five-year term of President Alexander Lukashenko came to an end this week, but Mr. Lukashenko shows no signs of vacating the presidential mansion any time soon.
Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective-farm chairman, was chosen in a legitimate 1994 election. But in 1996 he staged what a U.S. spokesman called "a flawed and unconstitutional referendum" to extend his term by two years and give himself the right to run, in 2001, for reelection. He also disbanded the legally elected parliament and installed a legislature friendlier to his ambitions and amenable to his control. Since that time, he has hounded the opposition, muzzled the press and in many other ways recreated Soviet conditions with remarkable success.
All of this makes Belarus the ugly exception in its neighborhood. Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine all have managed successful democratic transitions of their top leaders and their parliaments. The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe both said this week that Mr. Lukashenko can no longer be regarded as Belarus's legitimate leader. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Mr. Lukashenko's legitimacy "can only be restored by free and fair democratic elections."
The only European leaders expressing approval of Belarus's autocracy are Slobodan Milosevic, who sees in Mr. Lukashenko a kindred spirit, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his government, who welcome Mr. Lukashenko's pro-Russia, anti-NATO stance. In the long run, though, an alliance with this small-time tyrant does Russia no good. It only serves to further isolate Russia from the West while undermining prospects for democracy in Russia itself. Vice President Gore, who holds his first official meetings with Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin next week, should make sure Belarus is on the agenda.