While much of the world’s attention the past few months has been focused on the volatile Middle East, citizen activism against dictators is spreading in another part of the world, this time in the former Soviet republic of Belarus. Dubbed the last dictator in Europe, Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko is under growing domestic and international pressure because of his gross human rights abuses and responsibility for his country’s worst economic crisis since gaining independence 20 years ago.
The people of Belarus are signaling that they have had enough. While working to accelerate the demise of the current regime, Belarusan civil society, ordinary citizens, opposition forces, and European and American governments should also be preparing for a post-Lukashenko Belarus.
Lukashenko’s reckless economic policies — he raised the average monthly wage by one-third ahead of last year’s election, increases the country could ill afford — have caused massive shortages, long lines, serious inflation, sinking hard currency reserves and a significantly devalued currency. The hardships Belarusans are experiencing are leading many of them to take to the streets in protest.
The regime’s thuggish response to such demonstrations is also backfiring. Since the Dec. 19 presidential election, when tens of thousands protested Lukashenko’s rigged reelection and hundreds were beaten up and arrested, including a number of presidential candidates, protests have been occurring regularly. Most recently, in the capital of Minsk and around the country, thousands of people have turned out on the streets and engaged in the simple act of clapping in public. The security services continue their brutal methods for dealing with such protests — more than 700 people were detained during the elections, 1,800 were arrested in the past month’s street protests — and yet the protestors are not deterred.
The result of all this is a serious decline in Lukashenko’s support, recently dropping below 30 percent for the first time since he came to power in 1994. The European Union and United States have also responded by imposing a visa ban and asset freeze against Belarusan officials responsible for election-related fraud and violence, and they have imposed economic sanctions as the human rights abuses have continued. Both the E.U. and the United States should also make clear that they will not support any loans to Belarus from the International Monetary Fund. With the economy in freefall, Lukashenko is desperately pinning his hopes on a bailout after an IMF delegation visited Belarus last month.
Russia, too, is making life difficult for Lukashenko, alternately cutting off electricity supplies and balking at desperately needed financial bailouts. Russia and the West, to be sure, are motivated by different factors: the West by its revulsion over Lukashenko’s human rights abuses and Russia by its interest in acquiring attractive Belarusan assets from a vulnerable Lukashenko. But the result is that Lukashenko is caught in a vise, which will only continue to tighten. The West alone offers him a reasonable way out — and this only if Lukashenko unconditionally releases all political prisoners.
But Lukashenko once again put himself above the needs of his people, passing up an opportunity last weekend in connection with Belarus’s independence day to grant a general amnesty as some had hoped. Instead, the BKGB (the country’s security services) violently broke up gatherings of clapping, peaceful protesters on several occasions, throwing hundreds in jail. But protesters continue to turn out, despite risk of injury and imprisonment, revealing the growing dissent and empowerment of the people around the country, not just in Minsk. The erosion of the fear that the regime had instilled in the populace, combined with the disastrous economic situation and Belarus’s increasing isolation on the world stage, suggests that the people of Belarus may be ready to end Lukashenko’s 17-year grip on power.
For the United States and Europe, the outcome in Belarus matters greatly. A brutal dictatorship on the doorstep of the E.U. is unacceptable and contrary to the decades-long vision of a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” Should Lukashenko attempt to extend his rule by selling the country’s valuable economic assets to Moscow, he would weaken Belarusan independence and stability. That is why, while ratcheting up pressure against the regime, the West also needs to prepare a package of economic and political assistance should Lukashenko flee or be removed from power one way or another. Those around Lukashenko need to know that a brighter future lies ahead after he is gone, but they also need to understand that replacing one dictator with another is not the solution. That is not what the Belarusian people will accept or deserve.
Unconditional release of all political prisoners, elimination of repressive security measures, support for independent media and civil society, respect for rule of law, and free and competitive elections are essential for Belarus to take its rightful position as a European nation-state. A Belarus without Lukashenko — and it looks increasingly likely that his days are numbered — will mean one less dictator in the world. That’s something we all can applaud.
The authors are, respectively, president of Freedom House and president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, both in Washington, D.C., and co-chair a working group on Belarus.