This thugocracy must go

PAUL WELLS March 20 2006

This thugocracy must go

PAUL WELLS March 20 2006

This thugocracy must go

Ottawa has to take a strong stand against Europe’s last dictator


On March 19, the citizens of Belarus will vote to elect a president. Alexander Lukashenko, the incumbent, has been working diligently to

prepare. In the last week

or February he sent commandos to carry out a wave of arrests against human-rights activists and independent election monitors. On March 3, Alexander Kozulin, an opposition candidate and a former university president, was beaten as he tried to register for a party conference Lukashenko was addressing. Reporters watching were beaten too. Four days later, a supporter of the principal opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, was arrested and another heavily fined for participating in unauthorized campaign events. Two days after that, the deputy director of Milinkevich’s campaign was jailed. He won’t be released until after the election. Reporters who sought comment from the railroaded pol were, again, beaten.

Deputies from the European Parliament who wanted to monitor the election have been told they’re not welcome. Buses and trains into Minsk have been cancelled for March 19 and 20, so the opposition can’t stage a rally.

This late-blooming crackdown on simple dissent suggests Lukashenko is starting to sweat as opposition to his thuggish regime grows. The 51-year-old former collective farm manager won re-election handily in 2001 and easily carried a 2004 referendum designed to eliminate his term limit. Mind you, international observers say neither of those votes was clean, either. People entered the voting booth only to discover their ballots were already marked with the choice Lukashenko preferred. Independent exit pollsters were arrested.

This is how Lukashenko plays. The U.S. State Department has called him “Europe’s last dictator.” Belarus’s neighbours in the EU— and especially those on its western borders that have known life under Lukashenko-style thugs, like Poland, Latvia and Lithuania—are desperate to see the back of him. Or at least to see the country’s 10 million citizens finally get a chance to decide, fairly and without intimidation, whether they want him around.

Just because Lukashenko is paranoid doesn’t mean a lot of people aren’t out to get him. The opposition movements in Belarus have been heavily supported by non-governmental organizations funded by governments and private individuals in the United States and Europe. Poland broadcasts independent radio into Belarus from a transmitter just outside

the border. It’s much the same set-up that has seen pro-democracy movements in Slovakia, Ukraine and Georgia defeat authoritarian governments, with outside help, since the late 1990s. No wonder Lukashenko is so worried: he’s seen what citizens can do if they are reminded of their rights as citizens.

Yet it’s not axiomatic that he would lose even a fair election. The Orange Revolution in

In the run-up to the March 19 Belarus election, candidates and reporters have been beaten

Ukraine in 2004 was a fight between neophyte candidates in both main parties; Lukashenko has the benefits of incumbency. He has managed to provide some economic growth in Belarus, thanks to sweetheart deals on natural resources from Belarus’s only ally and sponsor, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“We don’t need democracy with hullabaloo,” he said in 1998. “We do need the type of democracy where people work and get paid, even if not much, but enough to buy bread, milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, and sometimes a piece of meat in order to feed their children.” Then he added: “Well, as regards meat, let’s not eat too much of it in summer.”

The more you look at Lukashenko, the more you see a classic populist agrarian thug, says David Marples, a University of Alberta historian who is one of the West’s

leading authorities on Belarus. (When I called him the other day, he was preparing a trip to Washington to brief the State Department on the elections.) “All he talks about is his close partnership with Russia and what a tragedy it was that the Soviet Union ever collapsed,” Marples said. “He exercises for three hours a day. He’s built hockey rinks all over the country. He has his own hockey team, and it never loses.” This sort of stuff goes over better in the countryside, where many peasant houses are adorned with Lukashenko icons on the walls, than in Minsk. “I never met anyone who supported the president among the students,” Marples said.

Why should Canadians care? Well, theoretically, we’re fans of multi-party democracy. The presence of a glowering thugocracy at the doorstep of Europe is an affront to our values. It comforts Putin, who will host this summer’s G8 summit despite a profoundly lukewarm commitment to democratic values, in his worst habits. And it means the extraordinary progress democracy made across Europe since 1989 has still left work undone.

In 1999, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident turned president, addressed a joint session of the Senate and House of Commons in Ottawa. He defined, more eloquently than most Canadians have managed, the “responsibility to protect” that is, we flatter ourselves, a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy. “Human rights rank above the rights of states,” Havel said. “Human liberties constitute a higher value than state sovereignty.” This month, Havel has thrown his support behind fair elections in Belarus. He urges Western governments to “say openly what they think and not shut their eyes.” For the new government in Ottawa, that sounds like a challenge worth taking. IVI