And so once again a Belarusian presidential election has become a problem for the West. The beating of the incumbent’s rivals by the police, clubbing of anti-government protesters, arrests of opposition leaders – all that is hardly doing anything to encourage an opening towards Lukashenko’s Belarus. Rather, it looks like a return to those grim times when Alexander Lukashenko was called the “last dictator in Europe”.

The results of the Sunday ballot (79.67% for the incumbent) are being called into question in Minsk, with opposition sources estimating Lukashenko’s score at half of that reported by government-commissioned exit polls. So what should be our reaction to the official results? Should we reintroduce sanctions against the Belarusian regime, again ban their officials from visiting the West, cut Lukashenko off from the Alpine slopes and get-togethers with Berlusconi? It is easier to say what should be our reaction to the beating of opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev – sharp criticism and indignation.

We should not, however, be making hasty emotional decisions. I am not suggesting we should pretend nothing has happened. A lot has happened and we should say this out loud. Explanations have to be demanded about vote counting and police attacks on opposition leaders.

Belarus isn’t an easy partner for anyone

The West must not, however, vacillate between sanctions and promises, threaten the regime with a stick one day and offer the carrot on another. Did those offering a bunch of carrots before the elections really expect them to observe democratic standards? Did they expect, for instance, the poll station officials’ mentality to change overnight?

Belarus is not the only country east of the EU where election results are, to put it mildly, open to doubt. And the West sees nothing wrong in talking to the other regional leaders and doing business with them. There is a certain country east of the EU where the police attacks an 82-year-old lady (Ludmila Alekseyeva, Russian opposition figure -ed) and this doesn’t cause any deterioration in its relations with the West.

Mr Lukashenko has many sins on his conscience and one day his own people will probably force him to account for them. But under his reign, Belarus has strengthened its sovereignty. This isn’t an easy partner for anyone. And that isn’t going to change.

The West should seriously consider whether to turn its back on Lukashenko. And it certainly shouldn’t be turning its back on the Belarusians. Belarus hasn’t been irrevocably lost for the Western world yet.