Last week, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, did something novel: He spoke honestly about what he aims to bring his country. In two words, more dictatorship. In his view, too much democracy was the explanation for a recent bombing of a subway station. “We have had so much so-called democracy that it has made us nauseated,” said Lukashenko, adding that democracy should be “limited to a square meter around where you stand. Brush shoulders with another person, and that is where your democracy ends.”
Earlier Wednesday, a court in Minsk helped add substance to Lukashenko’s words. Dmitry Bondarenko, an opposition leader, received a two-year prison sentence for organizing a rally in December protesting Lukashenko’s fraudulent reelection. Seven other opposition leaders have already received jail sentences, and 10 more are still being tried.
What provoked Lukashenko’s frank words? Of course, the subway bombing was part of it. After ruling Belarus for 17 years, Lukashenko doesn’t have many more advertisements for his rule other than “stability.” If his repressive rule can’t even keep people safe on the subway, what does he have left?
But it runs deeper than that. Lukashenko is still smarting from what you might call “dictator’s remorse.” Ahead of last year’s election, the president thought that he could benefit from showing a softer side of himself. He has surely watched as authoritarian leaders elsewhere have loosened the reins a little to create the appearance that their regimes are more democratic than they actually are. They allow for a measure of free speech. They permit a handful of genuine civil society groups to do their work. They permit opposition groups to hold the occasional rally and criticize the ruling party.
So, borrowing from this modern dictator’s handbook, Lukashenko let opposition candidates compete in the presidential campaign and gave them airtime on national television. It was a very brief experiment. Unaccustomed to criticism and worried that opponents might actually gain a foothold, he quickly resorted to old form, rigging the election to give himself 80 percent of the vote.
What made Lukashenko’s words so remarkable last week was how they broke from the typical public rhetoric of dictatorial regimes. It isn’t that authoritarian regimes don’t do precisely what Lukashenko and his cronies are doing; they just rarely talk about it. If anything, they bend over backward to paint their regimes as exemplars of democracy.
This norm has been in place since roughly the end of World War II. In 1951, a UNESCO report made this observation: “For the first time in the history of the world, no doctrines are advanced as antidemocratic. The accusation of antidemocratic action or attitude is frequently directed against others, but practical politicians and political theorists agree in stressing the democratic element in the institutions they defend and the theories they advocate.” In essence, democracy — as a legitimate form of government — had won the argument, if not the war. (Remember, even East Germany, an arch dictatorship, called itself the German Democratic Republic.)
That’s why to this day you can never simply listen to a government to determine if it is democratic. Everyone claims to be a democracy. You must look at how a regime behaves, not what it says. Unless, of course, you are talking about the man from Belarus.