Solidarity and consistent policy of the West will lead to changes in Belarus.
It was stated by the former head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia, a member of the European Foundation for Democracy, an expert of German Marshall Fund Pavol Demeš. An excerpt from his book published by edition of the Transatlantic Academy «The Democratic Disconnect».
The socio-political transformation of post-communist Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries provides a wealth of experience and a knowledge base for those who are dealing with the theory and practice of democracy. Voluminous books and articles written about our region over the last two decades contain pieces on heroic and inspirational struggles for freedom, but also pieces about profound failures of efforts aiming at establishing democratic, rules-based societies.
The former Eastern bloc country where domestic struggles for democracy and Western democracy assistance have failed to the most glaring degree is Belarus. Belarus is the only country that was excluded from the Council of Europe due to the gross violation of human rights violations conducted by the head of state Alexander Lukashenka and his regime. It is the only country whose president, foreign minister, and over 200 top officials cannot land at any airport in the European Union because they are included on the EU’s visa ban list due to anti-democratic behavior. And lastly, it is the only EU-neighboring country where opponents of the ruling regime, including a minister of interior, have been kidnapped and killed, and where presidential candidates protesting against rigged elections have been imprisoned and brutally tortured.
A grandmaster in bluffing, Lukashenka has performed a skillful balance between Russia and the EU, and built a stable, fear-based system, which was recently labeled “Jurassic Park” by the wellknown Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky. Vardomatsky, of course, is in exile, along with hundreds of other Belarusians who raised a critical voice against the political situation in their country.
Belarus’ autocrat has repeatedly proved wrong those democracy practitioners and theoreticians, both domestic and international (of whom I was one), who predicted his departure on various occasions. In his almost 19 years of rule, Lukashenka has already outlived several European and U.S. presidents, ministers, and commissioners, with their tough rhetoric concerning his land. Why has Belarus, a country of 10 million souls with relatively high levels of education, a shared history, and borders with two new EU member states — Poland and Lithuania — evolved into this European stranger? Why have significant efforts on behalf of the West aimed at overcoming Lukashenka’s unprecedented abuse of power, and his country’s self-isolation, so far failed? There are domestic and international reasons.
Lukashenka, step by step, modified the political system in Belarus in such a way that it is now entirely under his personal control. Not surprisingly, his international relations techniques have been heavily influenced by his domestic habits. He wants to be the master who dictates the rules of the game at home and abroad. He expelled all international organizations dealing even remotely with democracy and a human rights agenda from Minsk. The OSCE and all foreign foundations were among them. Although he cannot kidnap or eliminate diplomats, he discredits or expels them periodically from his land if they “misbehave.” It is therefore not surprising that lessons learned from assisting democratic transitions in other CEE countries have so far mostly failed in Belarus.
One might assume that the situation in Belarus is hopeless. And it is true that the country’s judiciary, political opposition, civil society, media, academia, and church are either fully under the government’s control or otherwise scared silent. This is particularly the case since the screws were tightened on the population subsequent to the massive protests against the manipulated presidential elections of December 2010, when Lukashenka himself got scared. It is also true that the West, given the situation both inside and outside Belarus, does not have the effective tools and strategy to help the country become a standard and responsive European state. Lukashenka and his loyalists know very well what could happen to them if Belarus’ citizens were to gain basic freedoms. The good news is that Belarus is not an abandoned island, particularly in this digital age.
Belorussian freedom fighters, be they at home or in exile, are more than ever able to get their message out and form links with like-minded people around the world. Transatlantic solidarity, consistency, and value-based positions are the key elements for developing proper and effective policy toward this country. Those who want to assist Belarus in its transformation to an open country must use long-term and unconventional approaches. All donor agency representatives are targeted by the regime. Naturally, they are also often banned from entering the country. Therefore, a very important issue is to carefully monitor and guard information and activist networks as the safety of assisted individuals and groups is at stake. In most cases, receiving foreign aid in Belarus is illegal and can lead to confiscation of resources or property, job loss, expulsion from school, or even imprisonment.
I have been involved in democracy promotion work for over 20 years and must admit that Belarusians have inspired me the most. I have met dozens of enormously brave politicians, civic activists, journalists, artists, men, and women, who despite having withstood inhuman treatment and humiliation and all the odds against them, still struggle and believe in their motherland. They, not the oppressive and isolated regime, are the future of a European Belarus.
Being born in Czechoslovakia, and personally knowing Vaclav Havel, I believe in the concept of the power of the powerless and the power of solidarity. And I know for sure that in the end, it is the power-abusers, including Lukashenka, who are truly fragile, and truly terrified.