Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Putin and Europe's Last Dictator

With most of his neighbors preoccupied with the war on terrorism or crises in the Middle East and South Asia, Europe's last dictator was enjoying a quiet year until recently. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was free to continue propping up his regime with Soviet-style police-state tactics. Last month, for example, two journalists were sentenced to two or more years of unpaid public labor for "libeling the president"; they were bold enough to refer in print to the abduction and disappearance of several prominent opponents of Lukashenko.

Belarus has been able to limp through the past decade thanks to massive subsidies from Russia. Lukashenko has helped to keep the money flowing by pledging fealty to Moscow; unlike every other leader in Central Europe, he scorns NATO and the European Union. That's why Europe still has a dictatorship, two years after the downfall of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic -- because both of Russia's post-Communist presidents have found it convenient to preserve Lukashenko's regime.

Putin, who says Russia belongs in the club of Western democracies, stood by last September while Lukashenko blatantly rigged a presidential election to extend his term in office. Putin's government did not act on abundant evidence that Lukashenko was murdering his political foes, even though one of them, Dmitry Zavadsky, worked for a Russian news organization. Now, at last, Putin is suggesting a change of policy. Twice in the past few weeks he has publicly condemned Lukashenko's fondest scheme: the construction of a union between Belarus and Russia in which Minsk would have equal weight with Moscow. There is no reason to recreate "something like the Soviet Union," Putin said; if the two countries really were to join, Belarus would have to give up its sovereignty or accept a limited partnership along the lines of the European Union.

Putin was only stating the obvious. Until now, however, neither he nor any other Russian leader has been ready to say publicly that Lukashenko's plan is "legalistic nonsense." It's not clear that democratic principle motivated the change of heart; Lukashenko reportedly has been stiff-arming Russian oligarchs who have been seeking to take over Belarus' state-owned industries. But now that he has popped Lukashenko's bubble, Putin has the chance to demonstrate that he really shares the values and interests of the Western democracies by joining in their effort to end a dictatorship that, without Russia, would have collapsed long ago. Belarussian activists and Russian lawmakers reported last week that Putin had agreed to take up the cases of Lukashenko's disappeared opponents; that would be an excellent way to start.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.