MINSK, Belarus – In 2006, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus as Europe’s last dictatorship. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been in power for 17 years and has suppressed opposition and free press severely during this time. With most totalitarian states in Europe falling in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Belarus remains a stubborn anomaly.
After the Soviet Union fell, Belarus declared independence in 1991 and elected Lukashenko three years later. During his terms, which should have only numbered two and lasted for five years, Lukashenko kept many Soviet programs and policies, such as keeping the economy and press owned by the government and continuing to use the KGB, the country’s Committee for State Security.
In an Eastern European region that is actively looking West, Belarus takes its cues from other former Soviet autocracies. While Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have joined the European Union, Belarus advocates “Eurasian integration” with fellow outlier neighbors such as Russia and Kazakhstan.
While other countries in the region have seen sweeping changes and reform in the last two decades, very little has changed for the 9.5 million Belarusians who inhabit the country. Traditional vestiges of the Soviet Union such as jailing of political opposition and the suppression of protest are still common practice. More than 2,200 Belarusians were detained for their political actions between 2010 and 2012, and 13 were held long term in severe conditions as “showcase prisoners.”
Censorship and Cultural Suppression
Belarusians Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, founders and artistic directors of The Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), are viewed as public enemies.
Established in 2005, BFT is an underground theater company that focuses on the daily struggles that people in Belarus face. After six years with the theater company, Kaliada and Nicolai sought political asylum in the United Kingdom, where they now live, due to alleged persecution by officials from the Lukashenko regime.
Kaliada understands fully the danger that people face when they attend a performance at BFT. She states, “People, when they come to our performances, they know that they are not safe – that they might be arrested just for being in the audience – but they come anyway. It feels like, when we perform, we are all speaking the same language and they are not afraid anymore.”
BFT is certainly not the only group to be censored and targeted in Belarus. The State controls art galleries, theaters, and radio, and artists generally must seek government approval if they are to receive any press or recognition for their work.
The Belarusian government considers metal band Rammstein and actor Jude Law as enemies of the state because they have spoken out against the regime, and any sort of expression against the government is generally dealt with swiftly.
Europe’s Last Dictatorship?
While Rice and many other analysts have used the label of “Europe’s last dictatorship,” others are not convinced.
Foreign Affairs’ Robert Legvold, while reviewing Brian Bennett’s book “The Last Dictatorship in Europe: Belarus under Lukashenko,” states that the label has become “cliché.”
He continues, “The description is accurate but incomplete, and thus misleading. It suggests that the dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime represents a vestige of the past likely to go the way of its kindred anachronisms. In fact, Lukashenko’s authoritarian system constitutes a fresh incarnation of repression, with no end in sight.”
While there is much to support the idea that Belarus will remain a totalitarian state, protests against the Lukashenko government have broken out in the past few years.
Following the 2010 elections, with Lukashenko opponents accusing the reelected leader of vote-rigging, protesters took to the streets to call for the president’s resignation. Many protesters were arrested, including a former presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov, who spent a year in prison.
In 2011, large-scale protests broke out again but this time against the economic crisis, leading to more arrests of protestors and inspiring some to predict that the regime was about to be toppled.
Ukrainian political scientist Vladamir Gorbach asserted that when Belarusians “are no longer being arrested by the hundreds but by the thousands, an irreversible process has begun.”
Public opinion polls during this time showed that almost two-thirds of Belarusians believed it was “not good for the country” that Lukashenko maintained so much power. About 73 percent said their quality of life had gotten worse, and almost 50 percent blamed the president.
German publication Der Spiegel postulated, “In the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, are we now witnessing the twilight of a regime that has persisted for so many years, wedged between the Western European democracies and the new Russia?”
Three years later, while Ukraine experienced massive and nation-altering protests, Belarus, despite predictions, remains relatively politically stagnant.
However, when reacting to Ukrainian protests, former jailed presidential candidate Sannikov states he feels optimistic about Belarus.
He declares, “It is not a question of if but when Belarusians will rid themselves of Europe’s last dictatorship and join the community of European democracies…by supporting democratic movements, free media and freedom fighters, along with transparent cooperation and concerted diplomacy with the European Union, the Obama administration can significantly reduce this time from years to months.”
– Kaylie Cordingley
Sources: Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Washington Post, New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Al Jazeera
Photo: The Epoch Times