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.