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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Most Popular Leader

Who will cry, after Sunday's fiasco of a presidential election, for Belarus? More to the point, who can find this nation of 10 million (mostly delightful) Slavic souls without a peek at a map? Safe to say, not many, which is good news for Alexander Lukashenko's career plans.

In the club of democracy's enemies, Lukashenko is an elder statesman, a Hugo Chavez of the steppes. He is a clever populist who cultivates other pariahs and holds an old Bolshevik's contempt for opposition and political compromise. The 51-year-old collective farmer is widely known, thanks to Condi Rice, as "Europe's last dictator," though that nickname sells Vladimir Putin and other recent arrivals short.

This election will even the score, so to speak, in the democracy battles of the former Soviet Union. After Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan tossed out authoritarian regimes, the Kazakh and Azeri strongmen last year held on after their own rigged polls. Lukashenko, with Russia cheering him on, will make it three apiece. Official exit polls released two hours after voting started Sunday -- it was that sort of election -- gave Lukashenko more than 80 percent in his bid for a third term, while his leading challenger Alexander Milinkevich, who'd scored up to 25 percent in opinion polls, got around 5 percent. The ballot count released Monday was little different.

Milinkevich, a bearded physicist with a soft voice and pleasant manner, called the outcome a "farce" and his people onto the streets. He talks of a peaceful "denim revolution" to match Ukraine's Orange or Georgia's Rose. Jeans are still the symbol of youth, freedom and the West out East. Don't hold your breath. The riot police usually outnumber anti-Lukashenko demonstrators at opposition rallies.

For promoters of democracy, Lukashenko is a reality check. Twelve years ago, he came out of nowhere to win nearly three in four votes in the country's first and last free elections. The young country's institutions were too weak to resist his frontal attack -- and the populace too scarred by decades of Soviet repression to care. Charismatic, to a Belarussian peasant at least, Lukashenko made wild allegations of corruption against the post-Soviet rulers. In power, he repressed in the name of fighting graft, proving a point I recently heard made by the Venezuelan editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Moises Naim, that "anti-corruption campaigns" often end up subverting democracy in developing countries.

In addition to his KGB (the Soviet anthem and flag stayed the same, too) and selective murder of opponents, President Lukashenko used a series of popular votes -- the very symbol of suffrage -- to short-circuit democracy. In 1995 and 1996, the regime rammed through referendums that neutered parliament and boosted presidential powers. Independent polls show him to be the country's most popular leader, and he has delivered strong economic growth, powered by Russian subsidies, while playing to nostalgia for Soviet days. With no independent press or TV widely available, most people don't know any better.

So things will stay as they are? Naturally Lukashenko, like a Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, wants nothing more than for the world to resign itself to a few more decades of him. A tyrant's best ally is fatalism.

Milinkevich at least recognizes the terms of the fight. "A majority of Belarussians want a change and want democracy," he said over dinner in Brussels recently. "People must start to believe that change is possible."

The Milinkevich candidacy was in itself a step forward. Last October, the opposition -- small except for the egos -- for the first time backed a single man to lead them. (Nothing moved in authoritarian Croatia, Serbia or Slovakia of the 1990s until the fractious democrats united.) Milinkevich surprised everyone by shooting up from nowhere in credible polls. He had no national media exposure, but word spread by mouth and blog, largely thanks to a lively student movement, Zubr. He went door to door to win votes, a first for a politician in Belarus. "Half the doors remained closed to him," said Vintsyuk Vyachorka, who leads the largest opposition party. "The main problem is the fear of the people. To overcome it, we must show this hesitant majority that there is a responsible leader who has no fear himself." A fortnight ago, Vyachorka, a key Milinkevich campaign aide, was jailed for 15 days for organizing "unauthorized rallies." Supporters fear for his life.

Belarus is as fallow a ground for democracy as exists anywhere today, the Arab world included. Support from abroad helps make the playing field slightly less skewed against the opposition. The United States this year provided $21 million for democracy in Belarus. This money is best spent on media, Milinkevich told me, to better inform people about their own country. But foreign cash didn't bring the bodies out on the streets in Ukraine or Georgia, and can't do so here. That's up to Belarussians themselves.

In discussions of democracy-promotion today, it's fashionable to say, "Forget Poland." By that, skeptics mean that the experience of 1980s Poland, the first European Soviet satellite to fall, doesn't apply to "non-Western" cultures -- Arab or Russian or Central Asian. Try telling that to the Belarussians, who are the Poles' eastern neighbors and once shared a state with them. On hearing the early results, Milinkevich said Sunday that "people will laugh at those figures. In Poland, people began laughing at communist authorities and this is when Solidarity won. We are getting there."

It may take longer than Milinkevich might wish. Democracy isn't inevitable in Belarus, Europe or anywhere else. But nor is another 12 years of rulers like Lukashenko. "We are not romantics," Vyachorka told me before his arrest. "We are pragmatics."

Matthew Kaminski is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, where this comment first appeared.