Earlier this year, the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, proclaimed that Europe must do more in managing crises near its borders. It must “step up” and be “more assertive in the world.” This week, her words finally met their match in Belarus, a country at the center of Eastern Europe.
A flawed election in Belarus on Sunday has led to mass protests in a number of cities and violent crackdowns by special forces. To her credit, Ms. von der Leyen has called on the country’s longtime dictator, President Alexander Lukashenko, to publish accurate poll results. And she added, “Harassment and violent repression of peaceful protesters has no place in Europe.”
A special European Union meeting will be held Friday to discuss the crisis. Lithuania is caring for the safety of the election’s main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile. And Germany, which stated that there was “absolutely no sign” of a free election in Belarus, has demanded that “peaceful protesters” in detention be released.
Is this Europe’s moment to step up and safeguard democracy in the world, perhaps leading instead of following the United States in that role? The coming days will tell if the EU sees itself as something more than a trade union with minimal engagement in promoting democracy.
The democratic revolution underway in Belarus is one of the unfinished pieces in the restructuring of Europe after the collapse of communism in 1989. With the U.S. largely preoccupied with a presidential election and deciding its role in the world, the EU has an opportunity to support the expansion of its values on the continent. Given the size of the crowds coming out for Ms. Tikhanovskaya during the campaign, Belarus is ripe for a transition. The country is considered the last Soviet-style dictatorship in Europe.
Germany has called for sanctions against the leaders of Belarus, not only for the rigged election but also for the brutality against demonstrators. Such actions would show the EU, despite its own current problems, is stepping up in the world. The first step is right in its backyard. The people of Belarus have clearly made a choice for democracy. Now the EU can, too.