I like reading Paul Goble. He writes well and he has ample knowledge of our region. He seldom writes about Belarus, just mentioning it occasionally. In his recent piece, though, he looks at the case of my country: It’s time to Rethink the West’s Approach to Belarus.
When I see titles like that I know exactly what the article will be about. I can even tell what clichés will be used to support the arguments of an author. Sometimes they are more clever, like Paul’s, sometimes they are too obvious, but eventually they aim at legitimizing Aleksandr Lukashenko in the West. That’s exactly what the dictator wants — to be accepted in the West with all his ruthless regime that he’s been building for twenty years using, inter alia, the ambiguous position of the West.
He discovered that he can survive being illegitimate, making his opponents “disappear,” putting them in jail, rigging elections in a most blatant way, destroying free media, harassing journalists and civic activists, using foul language to describe European and American politicians, and paying no attention to any international obligation, even the ones he personally signed, like the Istanbul Declaration (1999). He discovered that not only can he survive but that the West inevitably gets tired of its own principles and goes back to its policy of appeasement. Even after he kicks all Western ambassadors out from their residences as in 1998, or rigs every election and referendum from 1995 to 2010.
It was really appalling to see how fast the West started to look for the ways to appease the dictator after the most vicious crackdown in Belarus on the 19th of December 2010, a crackdown which continues to this day. Then it was clear that Lukashenko lost the election and the West had the power to question the illegal dictator’s rule. The West hesitated, then backed off from strong pressure on the regime. Lukashenko was scared on election day and used force against a peaceful demonstration. Then he became scared that the reaction of the West would be different from what he was used to. The West did indeed start to get tougher on Belarus in the beginning of the crackdown, but then, step-by-step, it reverted to its more convenient posture of expressing “serious concerns” and applying proportionally less pressure.
Now things are even worse. There is a tendency to promote the supposed “independence” of Lukashenko in the West, as someone who stands against Kremlin in supporting the Ukrainian fight for freedom — if only because he fears that Belarus might be invaded and annexed by Russia next.
The absurdity of this thinking is self-evident. Lukashenko is a well-known and well-documented tyrant with a long-standing record of suppression of human rights and basic freedoms in Belarus. He does everything to preserve his regime, which actually served as a model for the regime in Kremlin, and for Yanukovich who was ousted by the Ukrainians. It is simply impossible to regard him as any kind of ally, even a geopolitical one, in the fight for democracy.
Lukashenko knows very well how to use words to cheat the West again and again. Now he uses words to demonstrate some difference with Russian position on Ukraine, but these are just words and the deeds prove the opposite. He speaks about territorial integrity of Ukraine but his delegation in the U.N. votes against this territorial integrity. He is involved in numerous military preparations with Russia and promised Putin yesterday to fight together with Russians. Today there are Russian troops under Russian flags on a military parade in Minsk.
Lukashenko defends his regime, not Belarus and its independence. It is he who made the country completely dependent on Russia and its rulers and he will obey any orders from Kremlin to survive. He needs money to stay in power. The money usually comes from Russia, but today the main sponsor of the dictator is in a difficult financial situation because of the war and sanctions. So the money to support Lukashenko’s regime has to come from the West — and that is well within Russian interests. It is the only explanation of Lukashenko’s verbal juggling.
Paul Goble in his piece raises very appropriate and very important questions and they have to be answered with real strategies as regards all dictators and autocrats in the post-Soviet area. So far the West has limited itself to the policies of reacting. It’s time for strategic thinking to save the values of Europe. There cannot be any difference in how to treat dictators or any lowest denominators to measure the strength of response to the gross violation of human rights. It’s time for principles.
The debate over Belarus — and whether sanctioning the dictator is effective or not — takes place regularly in Europe. At a conference about ten years ago, I tried to warn European experts and politicians that without finding a soft power mechanism with which to combat Lukashenko, the EU would have to deal with hard power aggression from the the region of the Former Soviet Union.
Ten years later: the dictatorship in Minsk has survived and there is a war raging in that region. The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine — in defiance of all norms and principles of international law — should lower the West’s threshold of tolerance for authoritarian and dictatorial rulers. Putin’s attack on Ukraine, in my view, was not a response to Kiev’s wish to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. It was a reaction to the demise of the Yanukovich regime which was regarded as a serious threat to the “Dictators’ International” that Kremlin has been building for many years based on the model tested in Belarus. It is today an attack on Europe and values that are rejected both by Lukashenko and Putin.
Belarus is crucially important for the strategy of freedom, for defending freedom in Ukraine and for bringing freedom to the region. And it’s not the dictator but freedom fighters, democratic movements, civil societies and free media which are partners in such an enterprise.