The Devil We Know in Minsk

The Devil We Know in Minsk

Shortly before Christmas, I traveled to Belarus, hoping to understand why the European Union was cozying up to a dictator. I found myself in an empty café in Minsk with Mikolai Statkevich, who was imprisoned while running for president against Alexander Lukashenko, often called the last dictator in Europe.

Sipping his coffee, Statkevich told me what it was like to be incarcerated for nearly five years. “They asked me to confess and beg for forgiveness from the president. If you sign this document, they told me, you can go home tomorrow. I refused. After years of pressure and isolation, they tried a new approach. Rather than isolate me, they forced me to share a cell with a certified psycho. I shared a cell with him for two months. I was only allowed to meet with my family once a year, for two hours each time, behind glass.… But I still refused to sign.”

As he was telling me about his ordeal, a young woman walked into the café. Rather than sit at any of the dozens of empty tables, she made a beeline for the booth directly next to ours. She sat down opposite me, took out her phone, and pretended to read. Statkevich paused, leaned forward and whispered: “I picked a café without any microphones hidden in the tables, so they have to do it the old fashioned way.”

The “they” he was referring to was almost certainly the Belarusian KGB, which unlike Russia’s FSB, still uses the antiquated Soviet acronym. This is fitting. Belarus is a living museum of the Soviet Union. The economy is still 70 percent state-run and the politics are just as ruthless.

For years, the West has shunned Belarus over its blatantly rigged elections and its routine violations of human rights. But in just a few days, that relationship could shift drastically. On February 15, the European Union will decide whether to reinstate economic sanctions on the country — sanctions that were imposed in 2004 over the forced disappearance of four political activists and then suspended after the October 2015 elections went off relatively peacefully. For the sanctions to be reinstated, all 28 EU member states must agree; if even one country dissents, they will be gone.

As a result, no serious analysts believe that the sanctions will return. And this is part of a bigger change — the geostrategic winds have shifted. The West is giving up on Belarusian democracy, at least for now. They accept that Lukashenko will remain in power, and have decided to work with him rather than against him, even though they know he’s still the same old despot.

For Lukashenko, the West’s new eagerness to play nice couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks to a drop in imports and deep-seated structural problems, the Belarusian economy is falling apart, contracting by 3.5 percent last year, according to the World Bank. Since the Russian economy is also drowning, Vladimir Putin can no longer afford to bail Lukashenko out, as he has done in the past. To weather the economic storm, Lukashenko needs to thread a difficult needle: he has to stay on good terms with Russia while simultaneously wooing the West.

And western support may be on its way. The volatility in neighboring Ukraine and Crimea — and the souring of Russia’s relations with the West — have transformed Belarus in the eyes of Western diplomats from a place that urgently needs democracy and human rights to a place that just needs to remain stable. “We have lowered our bar a little bit,” a senior Western diplomat told me. “We’re trying out a bit more carrot, a little less stick.”

Like many dictators, Lukashenko tries to legitimize his illegitimate system by demonstrating popular support through rigged elections. As one senior Belarusian political analyst who wished to remain anonymous explained to me, “Luksahenko instructs everyone as to what percentage he wants. Maybe it’s 76 percent. But then, his aides don’t want to get in trouble in case someone fails to deliver. So they tell the regional staff to ensure that it’s 79 percent just to be safe. Then the regional staff tell the local staff to make sure Lukashenko wins 83 percent. Then, everyone delivers, and Lukashenko gets 83 percent.”

This dynamic explains why Lukashenko may be the only president in modern history to have publicly admitted to rigging an election, claiming that he massaged the 2006 vote tally downward in order to make it seem more plausible to outsiders. He may have been telling the truth.

In the 2000s, Western governments responded to these blatantly rigged elections with undisguised hostility. In 2006, the EU issued a visa ban to people responsible for fraudulent elections and repression of peaceful demonstrators and froze the assets of Lukashenko and his entourage.

The United States was on board too. Just a year after invading Iraq in pursuit of regime change against another despot, President Bush signed the 2004 Belarus Democracy Act, authorizing direct government assistance to pro-democracy activists. It also effectively prohibited any form of non-humanitarian aid so long as Lukashenko failed to implement democratic reforms. Waves of biting economic sanctions soon followed.

Last October, President Lukashenko was “re-elected” in yet another landslide victory, winning an announced 83 percent of the vote. Naturally, the election was just as rigged as ever. Another Western diplomat confirmed as much to me: “They let us ‘monitor the election’ by watching ballots being counted from 50 meters away. You can’t see anything from that distance.” Another lamented that the only improvement was that “a few of the ballot boxes were transparent this time so you could see if they had been stuffed.”

But, unlike in 2010, this election went off relatively peacefully. Perhaps sensing the possibility of an opening, Lukashenko released a handful of political prisoners, including Statkevich, in August. These gestures would not have been enough to placate the West in 2010 — but they are enough today. The European Union suspended its sanctions, and they may be about to be fully withdrawn. The united front of Western pressure has now cracked.

European diplomats and election monitors I spoke to referred to injecting “balancing language” into the most recent OSCE election report to hide the scabs, paving the way for more normal relations with Lukashenko. Multiple Western diplomats indicated that it was time to stop challenging him, but instead extend an olive branch of “evolution, not revolution.”

This approach is indicative of a shift in attitudes towards democracy promotion in the West. Crimea, Ukraine, the quagmires of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring have primed Western countries to prioritize the status quo of stability over democratic change. For Washington, London, and Brussels, the prevailing wisdom today is to live with the dictatorial devil they know in Lukashenko, rather than risk yet another crisis ushered in by the democratic devil they don’t. As an added bonus, luring Belarus away from Putin would be a victory on the global chessboard.

But this approach has left brave Belarusian pro-democracy activists out to dry. Ales Byalyatski, a Belarusian opposition figure who spent three years in jail on politically motivated tax charges, says that little has really changed inside the country. “We are only hearing beautiful words from Belarusian diplomats about their readiness for cooperation [with the West],” he said. “Nevertheless, we are witnessing no actions in Belarus itself to improve the standing of democracy.”

Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, a presidential candidate in 2010, recalls being attacked by the regime during that campaign. “I was beaten nearly to death in the street. Then, as my wounds were still healing, I was abducted from the hospital and taken to prison. These abuses won’t stop with the suspension of sanctions. Change can only happen if the West finds the line where helping Belarus begins and helping Lukashenko ends.”

Foreign human rights organizations and international observers agree. In a blog post for Freedom House, the organization’s Belarus specialist Sofya Orlosky writes that “the Belarusian regime is hoping to improve ties with the West while avoiding any political opening.” And the United Nations’ rapporteur for human rights in Belarus notes that there have been “no changes in the dismal human rights situation… since the presidential election.”

The West’s approach is understandable but misguided. Lukashenko is aiming to play the Russians off the European Union to exploit maximum concessions, while changing nothing about his authoritarian rule. If he does not produce a roadmap to genuine reform, with a timetable, European sanctions should be reinstated. Any further thaw should be contingent on real, benchmarked steps toward democracy and respect for human rights. 

Simultaneously, the EU and the United States should announce a new and more tantalizing slate of economic incentives that could be triggered by the fulfillment of specific democratic reforms; these have been hinted at, but should be laid out clearly. Part of this could be coordinated in conjunction with the IMF, as Belarus has recently turned to the IMF hoping for a major new loan.

The future looks bleak for democracy in Belarus. As Lukashenko achieves warmer relations with Western governments while producing no meaningful democratic reform, the pro-democracy forces fighting for a better and more democratic future in their country are being disarmed. In Minsk, spring may be around the corner. But for Belarusian democracy, Lukashenko’s winter is unlikely to end for years, even decades, as reformers are left out in the cold.

Photo credit: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images