On March 19, Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, will hold presidential elections. These elections occur in an atmosphere of political repression, and in all likelihood, President Aleksander Lukashenko will win an easy victory, thanks to thuggish tactics, a crooked electoral system, and a large slush fund courtesy of Russia.
With Belarus’s terrible human rights record and its intimate relations with other rogue regimes, including Iran, Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the West cannot be complacent. The United States and the European Union should take steps to strengthen the Belarusian opposition and prod the Lukashenko regime to change course.
The country suffers from President Aleksander Lukashenko’s cult of personality and his 12 years of heavy-handed rule. Lukashenko took office in 1994 and extended his term two years later by way of an illegitimate constitutional amendment. A rigged "referendum" in 2004 abolished presidential term limits. In 2006, Lukashenko criminalized "disseminating lies" about Belarus abroad — that is, criticizing his regime and making jokes about him.
Travel in and out of the country is restricted, unexplained arrests and kangaroo courts substitute for rule of law, and citizens have little freedom of speech. Political power is concentrated in Lukashenko’s hands. Lukashenko also controls the country’s finances, circumventing parliament and his cabinet. He has even admitted to the existence of a "presidential reserve fund" containing over $1 billion.
Belarus’s relationship with Russia is key to the Lukashenko regime. Russia sells gas to Belarus at a steep discount — $46.68 per thousand cubic meters (tcm) — which Belarus then resells to Europe at or just below market rates of about $250/tcm. All proceeds go to Lukashenko’s presidential fund. These proceeds fund an extensive social safety net, assuring Lukashenko’s reelection, while keeping the population at subsistence level.
A Rogue State
Lukashenko’s friendly relations with rogue regimes, particularly his willingness to sell arms to Syria, Iran, and (until March 2003) Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, are a source of unease in the West. Belarusian exports to Iran have included tank parts, conventional weapons, and Soviet-trained Belarusian scientists to work with Iranians on uranium enrichment and the Shahab missile system. The two countries have pledged mutual support in the face of international criticism. Their close cooperation could blunt the effectiveness of sanctions on either country.
In the run-up to presidential elections, human rights abuses and political abuses have run rampant. Lukashenko has already slashed the time candidates had to fulfill eligibility requirements, criminalized criticism of his regime, and banned demonstrations. Secret police have targeted opposition groups, and hundreds have suffered arrests and prosecution as a result. While Minsk has officially invited Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election monitors, each monitor must have an invitation from the pro-Lukashenko Central Election Commission (CEE). This commission has publicly stated that the expected number of observers (700 to 800) is excessive and that no monitors from Georgia, Latvia, or Lithuania will be invited. U.S. envoy to Belarus George Krol has described the odds of these elections being free and fair as "dismal."
Three opposition candidates are campaigning for the presidency: Sergey Haydukovich, Aleksandr Kozulin, and Aleksandr Milinkevich. Their electoral campaigns have been marred by detentions, harassment, and police beatings. On March 2, Kozulin attempted to enter the all-Belarusian People’s Congress but was beaten and arrested by police; journalists and Kozulin supporters were arrested, as well. Authorities declared illegal an election rally for Milinkevich, attended by thousands, and security forces dispersed the crowd. On March 9, members of Milinkevich’s campaign were sentenced to 15 days in prison for participating in an illegal demonstration.
Throughout the campaign season, the opposition candidates have been denied access to media outlets. The government has shut down several newspapers, and while others publish from Russia, their shipments are blocked at the border. Journalists have been beaten and harassed, and members of Lukashenko’s entourage are suspected in the disappearance of two prominent journalists investigating stories damaging to Minsk officials.
The presence of foreign media in Belarus has been insufficient to counteract Lukashenko’s methods. Belarusian-language broadcasting by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is popular but not enough to compete with the state-run media.
The U.S. and countries in Europe have condemned Lukashenko’s electoral tactics. That Lukashenko will be reelected, however, is all but certain. Still, the West should support opposition forces in Belarus and the movement for future democratic change.
The Belarus Democracy Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004, provides for sanctions and visa bans against Belarusian officials, freezing Belarusian assets, banning government loans and investments in Belarus, and funding for expansion of broadcasting to Belarus. Thus far, these tools have seen little use. Employed more aggressively, these measures could put pressure on Lukashenko to pursue a more democratic course.
Recommendations for the U.S. and EU
The U.S. and the EU should take several steps to promote freedom in Belarus:
- Shine a spotlight on the upcoming elections. A stronger foreign media presence will pressure Belarus to adhere to international electoral norms. Western officials, human rights activists, and non-governmental organization representatives should speak up on behalf of Belarusians to encourage the media to cover the run-up to the elections and the poll itself. To make an impact, Radio Liberty America should increase its broadcasts in Belarusian.
- Avoid conferring legitimacy on Lukashenko’s presidency. In the likely event that elections are not free and fair, the countries of the West should announce that they do not view Lukashenko as a legitimate head of state.
- Freeze Belarusian state assets in the West.
- Begin criminal proceedings against Lukashenko and his supporters. The regime’s more heinous acts, such as political killings, should have repercussions.
- Monitor Belarus’s relations with rogue states. This should also include investigation of its criminal activities, such as arms smuggling, illegal arms trading, and possibly money laundering.
Strong pressure for change from the democratic opposition within Belarus and from foreign countries via punitive measures against Lukashenko’s regime may prove effective in dislodging Eastern Europe’s last Soviet-style dictatorship.