TCS Daily


The Last European Dictator

By Ariel Cohen - February 23, 2004 12:00 AM

As the 2004 Belarussian parliamentary elections are approaching, it is time for the democratic opposition to act. The West should support its struggle against Alexander Lukashenka, the last European dictator. At a recent conference in Riga, Latvia, on Democracy Beyond the Baltics, a U.S. Congressional delegation led by Senator John McCain and Belorussian opposition leaders have agreed that the Belarussian democrats must consolidate, but they also needs massive Western help.

A democratic Belarus will be a beacon of hope and freedom for increasingly authoritarian Russia. However, if Mr. Lukashenka clings to power, his country will be reabsorbed in quasi-imperial Russia, a first step in a broader process of aggrandizement.

At stake in Belarus is how we handle rogue regimes -- and friends of rogue regimes. Lukashenka has supported every tin pot dictator from Kim Jong Il, to Yasir Arafat, to Saddam Hussein.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus has remained a Jurassic park of authoritarianism in the heart of a democratizing Europe. However, it is also a huge lab, in which ex-Soviet secret policemen are attempting to develop new models of repression, which they may apply in Russia and Ukraine.

The economic performance of Belarus has been a disaster. Inflation is rampant; there's been no privatization; agriculture is still collectivized. Seventy percent of the country's economic output of state-owned enterprises piles up in warehouses. The country's human rights track record is so abysmal that the U.S. State Department's Human Rights report uses language reserved to totalitarian states. The regime has been cracking down on political opposition, NGOs, and independent media. Mr. Lukashenka turned out to be in a league of his own -- a true authoritarian: nasty, brutish, and power-hungry -- a Voldemort in a desperate need of his personal Harry Potter.

The rumors of extending presidential terms in violation of existing constitutions are repeatedly floated and then vehemently denied -- which makes them ever more credible -- in Minsk, Moscow and Kyiv.

In Belarus, like in a sci-fi movie, a new physical anomaly appeared: time is running backwards. It is true that Belarus was one of the most Soviet among all Soviet republics. It is true that Russia's hardliners were supporting Mr. Lukashenka through and through. However, many in the Kremlin have become exasperated with Mr. Lukashenka's antics, and even those with lower democracy standards may finally recognize that the dictator is becoming a liability for Moscow.

As the Rose Revolution in Georgia demonstrated, Mr. Lukashenka's failure to provide Belarussians with a road to a decent future may yet become seeds of his own demise.

2004 may be the year in which he could be returned to the kolkhoz -- or even better, be tried for abuse of power and for murder of his political opponents. Another solution for Mr. Lukashenka would be political asylum in North Korea, Syria, or Cuba.

Political protests tied to elections -- with appropriate preparation through political activities, public education, and international support -- may be the magic mix, which makes dictators disappear. The freedom bug is contagious.

What Friends of Freedom Should Do

To facilitate Mr. Lukashenka's road from presidency back to the farm, the opposition and friends of Belarus's freedom abroad should unite its three main groups and implement a joint electoral strategy. Opposition should nominate a single viable candidate in each district. The democrats must launch a turn-out-the-vote campaign for the elections focused on youth and urban voters who traditionally mistrust Mr. Lukashenka. The opposition should question the idea of a joint army with Russia: Belarussian boys should not be sent as cannon fodder in Chechnya, while Russian soldiers should not be posted on the Polish/NATO border. This is a prescription for more, not less, instability in Europe. The consequences of such Russian/NATO friction are hard to predict.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should be ready to publicly and severely criticize violation of election procedures, and demand that the electoral laws are amended. The OSCE observation mission should be allowed to deploy in Belarus well ahead of the October 2004 elections. It should be prepared to declare elections illegitimate in case of falsifications. Europe and the U.S. should reach out to Belarussians through international broadcasting from countries around Belarus in the AM band and by launching opposition TV.

The U.S. and the EU should expand an international campaign to investigate disappearance of Mr. Lukashenka's opponents and initiate criminal procedures in Europe and the U.S. against those who ordered and participated in the murder of opposition politicians and journalists.

Finally, Russia needs to be advised that a possible change of regime will make Belarus more predictable and will benefit Russia by eliminating the need to subsidize the Belarussian economy through below-the-market price natural gas, which provides an over $2 billion a year subsidy to the inefficient state sector. Making the transit route for the Russian gas to Europe more stable and less prone to interference by Minsk will benefit the main Russian stakeholder in Belarus -- Gazprom. Belarus should become a test case of Russian policy of integration with the West based on shared democratic values. Belarus thus becomes a litmus test on Russia's future relationship with the West.

The business of freedom in Eastern Europe is not over. Belarus, just like Ukraine and Moldova, has not completed its transition to democratic capitalism. It is the duty of neighbors near and far, to help complete the process and to reach the safe coast of democracy, security and prosperity.

The author last wrote for TCS about the UN's Oil for Fools Program.

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