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Outposts of Tyranny: Belarus

Dr. Vitali Silitski
Fellow, International Forum for Democratic Studies
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; 1:00 PM

In January at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to consider her nomination for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice named the nations of Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Burma, North Korea, and Zimbabwe as "outposts of tyranny."

Rice's nomination speech may have provided insight into her foreign policy agenda for the next four years. "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom," she said. Rice Stays Close to Bush Policies In Hearing (The Post, Jan. 19)


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Dr. Vitali Silitski was online Tuesday, April 12, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss democratizing efforts in Belarus and the country's relations with the U.S.

Dr. Silitski worked as an associate professor of economics in Minsk, Belarus until 2003 when he was forced to leave for publicly criticizing the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. He has a number of forthcoming works on Belarus, in both English and Belarusian and is a regular contributor to online publications Transitions Online Magazine, the Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty Poland-Belarus-Ukraine Online Report, as well as Nasha Niva, the oldest newspaper in Belarus.

This is second in a six-part series focusing on the nations Secretary of State Condolezza Rice named "outposts of tyranny" and the specific issues that have caused tensions with the U.S. Authors, journalists, representatives from foreign policy think tanks, and professors will take questions from readers.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Washington, D.C.: In September of 2001, Zubr, along with the opposition in Belarus, attempted to be the first to apply the 'Yugoslav Model' of democratic revolt outside of Serbia. Now, after Georgia, Ukraine, and maybe Kyrgyzstan do we have any more insight into why they failed? or did they fail entirely?

Dr. Vitali Silitski: Good question. You have to understand that democratic revolutions are made by much more broader movements than sorts of Zubr or Otop or Pora. These revolutions are about elections, and civil society groups can only be as good as political opposition is. In Belarus, the political opposition was extremely weak and hardly electable. Zubr tried to mobilize the people to defend the victory that was never achieved. My second answer will be that Zubr has to operate in a much more repressive environment, in which one cannot expect as much achievement per effort invested as was in the case of Pora in Ukraine or Khmara in Georgia. Third point: Belarus has yet to come to the point when there is an overall consensus that the regime needs to be changed. The president, however tyrannical, still maintains a high level of public support. It is not as high as he claims (at 70-80%) - maybe half as much, but this is still enough to outdo the opposition and convince the population that he is invincible. Repression and vote rigging helps nicely to this. I still do not believe that they 'failed entirely'. Belarus is a much harder nut to crack, and this definitely take a much longer time than in some rotten-door regimes where a crowd of 7 thousand people like in Kyrgyzstan was able to oust the president.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Silitski -
I tend not to think of Lukashenko as tyrannical, but more wacky like his Turkmen counterpart Niyazov. For example, mandating that all advertisements use Belarussian photomodels because Lukashenko was tired of driving on the streets of Minsk seeing French models on billboards, since Belarus has it's own beautiful women. It's this type of ridiculousness that makes him a laughing stock, not a madman. Could I have your comments on this observation?

Dr. Vitali Silitski: I think that replacing bilboards makes him a laughing stock but closing the best private university in the region makes him a madman. Lukashenka is not Niyazov so far as he does not punish dissent as harshly: the top oppositio leaders get several years in jail not life in prison with obligation to write a book about one's sins. He does not build memorials for himself. His portraits are everywhere indoors, but not outdoors. But consider political disappearances in 1999 when all top contenders for forthcoming presidential elections on the opposition side suddenly vanished. I guess, this is a tyranny.

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Arlington, Va.: It seems to me that Lukashenko is quite different from other dictators/strongmen who have led post-Soviet successor states in that he seems to want power for power's sake, not for personal enrichment. Am I wrong about this?

I would guess this would help explain his enduring popularity, at least among a certain sector of the population, as an honest man trying to look out for the interests of the common people.

Dr. Vitali Silitski: There was a good joke about the differences between the socialist and capitalist systems. In capitalism, he who has money has power. In socialism, he who has power has the money. Lukashenka is the second sort of the person. What you suggest is the myth carefully nurtured by Lukashenka. Of course, I DOES help to support his enduring popularity. On the surface, there is no private wealth in Belarus, as everything is controlled by the state. But Lukashenka IS the state. Also remember that maybe half of the state revenues in Belarus (most profitable businesses controlled directly by the presiden't office and arms trade) are unaccounted for in budget. No one knows where the money is. Perhaps, in 20 years we will all know.

Former presidential property manager estimated in 2001 that more than 2 billion dollars was sent from Belarus to offshore accounts for the first six years of Lukashenka's rule alone.

I will also mention that in 1999, the largest oppositon newspaper in Belarus, called Svaboda (Freedom) was closed down immediately after it started investigation into Lukashenka's subordinate business and property. That is how myths are maintained.

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Kostanai, Kazakhstan: Dr. Silitsky: Why do you think Dr. Rice has singled out Lukashenko when clearly Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) is more tyrannical? Niyazov forces his citizens to read his book and closes universities. This is cultural tyranny plain and simple. Now ethnic Russians are experiencing discrimination. Is it because Niyazov has the most natural gas reserves in the world? Or is it simply a geopolitical decision, seeing that Turkmenistan does not border the EU? Thank you for considering my question.

Dr. Vitali Silitski: There are constant moral questions. I will also single China, Byrma, and North Korea - those are really worse than Belarus. I think the issue of ethnic Russians has also to be addressed to Kremlin: but we see that lack of democracy in Russia means that Kremlin is unable, or unwilling to protect its citizens. It is much easier to moan the 'sufferings' of Russian speakers in Latvia. (It is always safe to criticize democracies for human rights abuses). But yes, geopolitics do matter. Turkmenistan has gas (as does Kazakhstan have oil - not very democratic state either). There is another issue that Lukashenka is constantly picking up fire by his anti-Western rhetoric - he is hard to ignore.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: To what would Lukashenka respond? Would trade embargos or world criticism mean anything to him? Are there any external pressures that might cause him to be a more responsive leader?

Dr. Vitali Silitski: Lukashenka is not too integrated to the Western world to lose much once sanctions/embargoes are applied. Belarus' major export item to the Western Europe is processed Russian oil - not something Europeans will be able to abandon for the sake of ousting dictator. He does not cause problems outside of the borders so there is no talk about any military intervention, however much Lukashenka himself insists. And of course, no one is pressing from Kremlin to democratize, especially after the Orange revolution. The external actors can only build the pressure from inside the country - this is one of few available choices for now.

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Washington, D.C.: Given your argument that Lukashenko isn't as bad as Niyazov, can I assume from you that he is the lesser of two evils? What is your concrete stance on Lukashenko, and why should he be condemned?

Dr. Vitali Silitski: If a guy robs your house instead of killing you, will you like him for he is 'lesser of two evils?' And why do you believe that my country has to chose between evils? One anyone has? I believe bad should be condemned. Violation of human rights should be condemned. Disappearances of opposition leaders and journalists should be condemned. Press censorship should be condemned. Murky arms deals with rogue states should be condemned. Sentencing innocent people for just speaking up their mind should be condemned. Closure of universities that offer academic freedom should be condemned. Not just in Belarus - everywhere. Soft dictators, 'lesser of two evils' quickly turn into hard ones, and than the world pays price.

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Boston, Mass.: Is there a movement within Belarus to become integrated with Russia? Not just economically, but actually removing the borders? I heard about this once, but now not as much.

Dr. Vitali Silitski: There is a custom union between Belarus and Russia which is more on paper than in reality - some checkpoints still exist. You can travel to Russia without a passport - unless you are a democratic activist, than you may be deported according to the law on foreigners. Belarus and Russia have a union superstructure to coordinate common affairs, but this is largely ceremonial. There was a strong push to unite with Russia about a decade ago when first years of independence were extremely difficult. Nowadays, the idea is less popular and Lukashenka will have to report to Putin, so he is not very enthusiastic either.

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Tulsa, Oklahoma: Can you explain something about why there is an independent country called Belarus ? It seems like there is no historical identity for it except as an administrative republic of the former Soviet Union or a kind of variation on a Russian theme. Do people feel a national identity or are they simply Russians in the 'near abroad'?

Dr. Vitali Silitski: History is written by the winners. Belarus was under 200 years under the Russian rule, and much was done to spread the claim that there is no historical Belarusian identity. Many people in my country think otherwise, ever though, I tend to argee with you, national identity in Belarus is very weak. I believe that if your claims were completely correct, 14 years from the break-up of the USSR was a perfect time to reunite back with Russia, much as it was willing to. East Germans used their chance within a year. I would also add that the national identity strenthened simply because a generation had already lived in their own country. Nowadays, there is no much discussion in Belarus about joining Russia. But overall, the fact that Belarus continues to exist as a sovereign state confirms that it is more than another Russia.

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Washington, D.C.: How has the last year of events in Georgia, Ukraine, and now Kyrgyzstan inspired the Belarussian people? Or how has these events inspired you?

Dr. Vitali Silitski: Good question. My friend's friend, who is Russia, said that when she wore orange in Moscow she saw anger, and when she did so in Minsk, she saw hope. Of course, it inspired many people because it showed the change is possible. But it also put Lukashenka on alert. He beefed up security forces, and the new law was promulgated allowing police shooting in peace time when president decides. So, on the other hand, there is even more fear in Belarus. I would not say these events affected my mindset much. I see why Ukraine and Georgia are different and why the same is still unlikely in my country. And, of course, revolutions did not motivate me to think that Lukashenka is eternal. So, this is a long-term project - hard, painful, but I believe doable.

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The "Outposts of Tyranny" Series
Iran
Burma
Cuba
Zimbabwe
North Korea

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