A joke told in the old Soviet Union opened with a leader declaring the whole world had gone communist except New Zealand. Why not New Zealand? asks one man. "Because we need one place to determine prices," the leader admits.
In post-Soviet Europe, the joke has been turned around and used by the continent in its judgment of today's Belarus, a small country of 10 million where Soviet-style rule persists, leaving it a pariah.
An election there on Sunday allegedly gave a 75 percent victory to the Belarus strongman, President Alexander Lukashenko. The largely discredited vote was the latest in a string of actions in the former Soviet state that serves to help European nations, from Serbia to Poland, see just how advanced their democracies are.
As a negative model for freedom, Belarus takes the catwalk. It's a police state in which several political opposition figures have mysteriously disappeared and all independent media is threatened. During the election, both foreign and domestic poll watchers were harassed. What has largely prevented a revolt against Mr. Lukashenko is the fact that the rural elderly are grateful to him for continuing their Soviet-era pensions.
Even though the United States provides millions of dollars a year to independent groups to help build democracy in Belarus, it is Russia that holds the key to whether its tiny neighbor will join the rest of Europe. So far, however, the Kremlin seems to prefer having a loyal ally that is also economically dependent on Russia. And Belarus serves as a front blocker for the expansion of NATO and the European Union to Russia's border.
Belarus remains Europe's weak link as it tries to build a community of market democracies. It needs help in rising above its past.