More than 600 activists have been arrested and five presidential candidates jailed in Belarus in a violent crackdown on dissent following Sunday’s disputed re-election of Alyaksandr Lukashenka as president.
Video footage posted on YouTube and similar websites by opposition activists and journalists shows police and paramilitary militia attacking peaceful demonstrators and brutally dispersing crowds after 20,000 citizens took to the streets of Minsk to protest the poll.
The government today threatened to “liquidate” political parties associated with the protests.
The crackdown confirms a U.S. diplomatic assessment of Lukashenka’s government as a “criminal regime of a violent and authoritarian nature.”
The election was dismissed as fraudulent by the Obama administration, the European Union and independent observers. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe described the poll as “flawed,” falling short of democratic standards.
But Venezuela’s president congratulated his counterpart, calling the election “an extraordinary day for democracy.” An open admirer of Europe’s last remaining dictator, Hugo Chavez has said that he wants Venezuela to become a “social state” like Belarus.
The opposition seemed well-placed to challenge an incumbent who had failed to deliver on promises of “prosperity and stability,” according to Rodger Potocki, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Europe director.
As in Russia, the regime depends on “a social contract with most ordinary Belarusians – relative prosperity in return for a relative lack of political freedom,” as a recent European Council on Foreign Relations analysis observes.
Disputes with Russia had alienated Lukashenka’s most reliable ally and economic lifeline, notes Potocki, but the democratic opposition failed to unite around a single candidate or a coherent alternative vision for the country.
The regime’s spats with Moscow prompted European Union initiatives to engage the regime by diluting sanctions and offering economic inducements in exchange for liberalization.
Minsk gave undertakings to the European Union and the OSCE that the election would be free and fair, motivated by the prospect of substantial financial assistance of up to $3.5bn in EU loans and credits.
Minsk’s commitments led some observers to believe that the election would be “much freer than the past.”
But the concessions “were carefully crafted so that the race merely seemed democratic,” writes James Kirchik, a contributing editor for The New Republic and writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The EU’s overtures raised anxiety amongst democratic and civil society activists that the West’s geo-strategic play to woo Lukashenka from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence would be at their expense.
Democracy advocates feared the West would turn a blind eye to the regime’s pre-election political engineering and curbs on independent media, civil society and opposition groups in the run-up to the election.
“Recognition or non-recognition of the elections should be defined not by the [geopolitical] calculations but only by the elections themselves,” said Silitski, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the NED, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“It would be more honest if Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus’s thuggish and dictatorial president, did away with elections altogether,” The Economist notes.
But the regime’s strategy is consistent with the current authoritarian orthodoxy that prizes elections – even transparently fraudulent ones – as a mechanism for mobilizing supporters and for claiming a spurious form of legitimacy.
The election and its aftermath demonstrate that “after a long flirtation with the liberal West and the authoritarian East – the Belarusan dictator has made his choice,” writes The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum:
This, then, is what the “decline of the West” looks like in the eastern half of Europe: The United States and Europe, out of money and out of ideas, scarcely fund the Belarusan opposition. Russia, flush with oil money once again, has agreed to back Lukashenko and fund his regime.
But the democratic West has its own choice to make, according to RFE/RL’s Kirchick:
It can return to its tougher, more effective approach to Lukashenko, punishing his government for its violations of Belarusians’ political and human rights and pushing for reform. Or it can let itself be fooled—and allow Belarus to continue suffering under the thumb of Europe’s last tyrant.
The opposition’s foreign partners must rethink their strategies for Belarus, writes the NED’s Potocki.
While civil society donors should help strengthen opposition structures in ways that enhance cooperation, governments should exploit the current relative liberalization to press for the registration of parties, NGOs, unions, and other independent groups, to “help the opposition to break out of its ‘democratic ghetto’.”
“Despite the opposition’s miscues, the regime is unlikely to benefit substantially from this election,” he concludes. “The question isn’t if the regime’s problems will offer further opportunities, but whether the opposition can mend its ways and take advantage.”
Lukashenko’s crackdown may give the regime a temporary respite, but history suggests that repression is no long-term solution, notes a leading opposition figure.
“You can’t keep turning the screws indefinitely,” said Alexander Milinkevich. “We need gradual liberalization if we don’t want a Romanian scenario.”