March 30, 2004 | Lecture on Europe
It is time to consolidate opponents of the status quo, reach out to the people, and give them hope. This is the task, first and foremost, for the Belarussian opposition, but also for those who understand that at stake is more than just the future of Belarus, important as it is. At stake is how willing--or unwilling--the West is to fight for liberty.
If the West is ready to defend freedom, what is a better place to start than its own home base--Europe? At stake is our own future. At stake in Belarus is how we handle rogue regimes--and friends of rogue regimes. Alexander Lukashenka was elected president in 1994 and then engineered his own re-election in 2001 with major violations of the Belarussian constitution and international democratic norms. The opposition refused to recognize the legitimacy of those elections.
In 1996, Lukashenka dismissed the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court and imposed his own constitution, further alienating the Belarussian elite. He has supported every dictator from Kim Jong Il, to Yasir Arafat, to Saddam Hussein.
In the case of Belarus, it is important to recognize that hard-line elements of the Russian government were strongly supporting Mr. Lukashenka and his pro-Russian rhetoric and policy. However, many in the Russian leadership have grown exasperated with Lukashenka's antics, and even those with lower democracy standards may finally recognize that the dictator is becoming a liability for Moscow.
The struggle for freedom in Belarus is greater than Belarus itself. It is about Russia helping, tolerating, or opposing democracy next year. It is about setting a good example for Russia and Ukraine. And it is also about preventing the process of rebuilding the Soviet empire--regardless of how nostalgic some people get in Moscow.
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 retrograde forces of the old Soviet regime are attempting to develop new models of repression, which they may apply in Russia, and possibly Ukraine. It is not accidental that 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.
It is true that Belarus was one of the most Soviet among all Soviet republics. It is true that the anti-communist and nationalist movement there was among the weakest. However, I do not want to blame the people of Belarus for what happened next.
There are other examples of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet camp, where the pre-reform conditions were appalling. Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine had all started from a point of severe disadvantage in comparison with the Czech Republic and Estonia. Nevertheless, their achievements are quite remarkable. Romania and Bulgaria are in NATO and on the way to EU membership, and in Ukraine, the democratic opposition leader Victor Yushchenko consistently remains the most popular presidential candidate.
If Russia's main priority in Belarus--safe and secure gas transit--is assured, it certainly should be no problem for Moscow to cooperate with the West to ease Lukashenka out. Can Belarus become a test case of Russia's policy of integration with the West based on shared democratic values? In a way, Belarus becomes a litmus test on Russia's future relationship with the West.
However, Lukashenka's repression may be sowing the seeds of his own demise. The recent events in Georgia, some fatigue in Moscow with Lukashenka's escapades, and--most important--his utter failure to provide Belarussians with a road to a decent future may indicate that 2004 will be the year in which he could return to the kolkhoz--or, even better, be investigated and tried for abuse of power, for the disappearances and possibly murder of his political opponents, and for other crimes. Another solution for Lukashenka would be political asylum in North Korea, Syria, or Cuba--albeit those regimes may not last very much longer either.
The historic experience of the Soviet Union shows that pro-independence forces, from Central Asia to Moldova, learned from the leadership of the Baltic States. Once the communist leadership failed to stop the surge to freedom in Vilnius, Riga, and Tallin, others followed in Kyiv and Baku.
As revolutions in Georgia and Serbia have demonstrated, political protests tied to elections--with appropriate preparation through political activities, public education, and international support--may be the magic mix that makes dictators disappear. The freedom bug is contagious indeed.
The business of freedom in Eastern Europe is not over. Belarus, just like Ukraine and Moldova, has not fully completed its transition from the Soviet system 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.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered a t the Conference on the Future of Democracy Beyond the Baltics, held in Riga, Latvia, on February 5-6, 2004.