When you think of Europe, you might think of Mediterranean beaches or the remnants of once-powerful monarchies who now fill our tabloids with silly gossip. Perhaps you conjure up German beers or Italian pastas. What you probably do not think of are dictators — something Europe has been free of since 1945. With one country as the exception: Belarus.
The history of Belarus is a story of perpetual oppression. The last century alone has seen pogroms that caused Jews to flee Belarus and Eastern Europe for America, and the Belarusian people helpless as members of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regimes. Freedom was finally achieved in 1991 when the Soviets saw their country disintegrate, but for Belarus, the liberty was short-lived.
Alexander Lukashenko has been the country’s president since July 1994 — almost twenty years. He won 80% of the vote at that time on a platform opposing corruption and supporting a stronger union with Russia. While the first promise may have been neglected, the second was not: a treaty signed between the countries in December 1999 called for greater political and economic integration.
Despite objections from Western governments, Lukashenko has pursued Soviet-era policies, such as state ownership of the economy, and reintroduced Soviet symbolism. About 80% of all industry remains in state hands and state banks account for 75% of the banking sector. According to some organizations and countries, elections have been unfair, and political opponents have been violently suppressed. There have been harsh restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly and the practice of religion. One woman has been imprisoned for publishing a satirical poem, and scientist Yury Bandazhevsky has been in jail since 1999 for publishing his findings about diseases caused by the Chernobyl disaster. An “unauthorized” act of worship in the home has landed citizens in jail, and antisemitism has been on the rise. Ironically, neo-Nazi gangs are not uncommon in the former Soviet republic.
The four television stations and three radio stations are state-controlled and subordinate to the president, though in certain areas Polish broadcasts can be picked up. Access to the Internet and cell phones is scarce, with only about 10% of the population having such luxuries. Life in general is a daily struggle for many, with the death rate exceeding the birth rate. While the government boasts a 1% unemployment rate, this statistic only serves to hide the grossly overwhelming underemployment rate (those who are not able to get paid well enough to support themselves).
The rights of homosexuals have diminished since 1994. According to Bill Schiller, coordinator of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, “While the rest of Europe is moving forwards, this last dictatorship in Europe is trying to push its homosexual community into a 1930s Nazi style concentration camp.” While what he says is hyperbole, there is the kernel of truth: authorities have threatened to arrest anyone taking part in a gay pride parade, causing all such planned parades to be canceled thus far. The country’s only gay club was closed in 2000, and homosexual websites have been banned as pornographic, despite not depicting nudity or sexual acts.
The Constitution states “the death sentence may be applied in accordance with the law as an exceptional penalty for especially grave crimes and only in accordance with the verdict of a court of law.” This may not strike pro-death penalty people as unusual, until you ask what a “grave crime” is. To their credit, Belarus does condemn the execution of minors, the elderly and the mentally ill. But they do include “treason” and “sabotage” as executable crimes — terms that are highly subjective in a dictatorship.
A referendum in November 1996 expanded the president’s powers and, in another referendum in October 2004, a constitutional amendment lifted the restriction on the number of terms for president. Lukashenko claimed about 76% voter support for this second referendum while results were denounced by opponents as fraudulent. He may now be the president forever, a nice euphemism for dictator. Lukashenko has the power to appoint certain members of the assembly and all the Supreme Court justices. After eighteen years in power, we can safely conclude that the judges are unlikely to rule against any of Lukashenko’s policies.
The United States is not blind to the abuses there. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus an “outpost of tyranny” alongside Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe. (They do not receive as much press as the other “outposts” because they only spend 1.4% of GDP on their military and are therefore no threat to their neighbors. As comedian Eddie Izzard observed, America will tolerate a country that kills its own people — just do not kill others.) Furthermore, the United States does not recognize the results of the December 2010 elections wherein the Central Election Commission declared Lukashenko president (again). Any action he has taken since then — not to mention many things he had already done — should be seen as illegitimate.
Andrei Sannikov was a presidential candidate in 2010. He was brutally beaten, searched and the regime threatened to put his 3-year old son in an orphanage. Journalists covering the election were arrested and detained without charge, some for long periods of time. American attorney Emanuel Zeltser was kidnapped in London, drugged and brought to Belarus where he was detained and tortured for 473 days in an attempt to get the United States to lift sanctions; they refused, and international pressure eventually freed the attorney.
In November 2011, Belarus and Russia reached an agreement to drastically reduce the price of Russian natural gas in exchange for selling to Russia the remaining share of Beltransgaz, the Belarusian natural gas pipeline operator. 2011 saw a record-breaking year of trade between the two countries, with $39 billion worth of goods crossing the border. Lukashenko recently reaffirmed that Belarus “has been and will always be Russia’s closest and most reliable ally.” Another dangerous alliance is with Syria. Belarus’ state-owned weapons development company is suspected of working with its Syrian counterpart to build new fiber-optic gyroscopes that can make surface-to-surface missiles significantly more accurate. How many dead Syrians can blame their murders on Lukashenko?
The European Union in Brussels imposed sanctions on Minsk (Belarus’ capital) on March 23 of this year, aimed against several Belarus companies and individuals who are on the list of financiers and supporters of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. Other non-EU countries, such as Serbia, joined in on the sanctions. President Obama continued the sanctions the United States has enforced since 2006, saying “the Government of Belarus has taken additional steps backward in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights.â€ Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, agrees. “Human rights defenders are now being prosecuted more than even before,” she says. Imprisoned “opposition activists were released only after severe physical and emotional torture that was used on them as a way of forcing them to sign a letter to the president asking to be pardoned.”
Aside from being Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko has one more dubious distinction to add to his resume: he is one of only three men banned from the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The other two are Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Zmitser Barodka of the European Belarus Foundation summed up everything for reporters in early June, â€œThe situation in Belarus causes a real tide of emigration. People vote by their feet because they do not see any other ways out.”