An extraordinary drama is unfolding in Belarus, the country of 9.5 million on the eastern edge of Europe. People are losing their fear, rising up against the dictatorship that has ruled them for 26 years. The United States should be unequivocally on the side of this democratic uprising.
The dictator is Alexander Lukashenko, who “won” his latest “election” on August 9 by “80 percent.” This is the way it has typically gone in Belarus, since Lukashenko took power.
He took power legitimately in 1994. That is, he won an election fair and square (same as Hugo Chávez won fair and square in Venezuela initially, same as dictators often begin). Lukashenko was bad news from the start: an open admirer of Hitler.
After he won election, he quickly turned Belarus — which had enjoyed democracy for a scant three years — into a personal fief. He took control of the courts, the banks, the universities, and so on. The Belarusian intelligence agency works for him, strictly. Charmingly, it is the only such agency in the post–Soviet Union to retain the old name: “KGB.”
For years, people have referred to Lukashenko as “the last dictator in Europe.” He held his sham elections from time to time, maiming or otherwise sidelining the opposition candidates. (They were incredibly brave to attempt to run in the first place.) One of the sham elections took place in 2010. Afterward, there were widespread democratic protests, which the dictator cracked down on, hard. We published a piece by our Jay Nordlinger called “The Assault on Belarus.”
An exasperated dictator told his subjects, “That’s it. I warned you that if some commotion started, we’d have enough forces. Folks, you tangled with the wrong guy. I’m not going to hide in the basement. So let’s be done with it. There will be no more hare-brained democracy. We won’t allow the country to be torn to pieces.”
What he meant by that last sentence was, “I won’t allow democracy to dislodge me.”
As in the past, there were protests after the election this month, and, as in the past, Lukashenko has cracked down very, very hard. It is hard to read the testimonies of the tortured. It is hard to see videos of Belarusian security forces, making the blood flow in the streets. It is hard to listen to recordings made outside the detention center in Minsk: The screams of the tortured will send chills down your spine.
So far, about 6,700 protesters have been detained.
Instead of cowing the nation, the arrests and the torture have had an interesting and opposite effect: People are turning out in greater numbers than ever before, shedding their fear, figuring they have little to lose. On Sunday, Belarus saw its biggest demonstration ever: some 200,000 people.
Some people are singing, as in the Estonian revolution — the “Singing Revolution” — of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Police officers are turning in their badges, saying they cannot participate in the abuse of their fellow citizens. State workers are going on strike.
Lukashenko showed up at a tractor factory, once a bastion of support. Instead of greeting him warmly, the workers shouted, “Go away! Go away!” Some people speak of a “Ceausescu moment” — a moment like that in December 1989, when Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, was taken aback by catcalls and boos in the crowd.
For his part, Lukashenko is calling democratic protesters “rats,” “trash,” “bandits,” and the like. They are “controlled by puppeteers, by outsiders,” he says. All this is straight out of the longstanding Soviet/Russian playbook.
Lukashenko blames such figures as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny for the unrest in Belarus. Khodorkovsky and Navalny are both Russians. The former is the onetime oligarch who for years has been a leading democracy advocate; the latter is the main opposition leader to Vladimir Putin.
Adhering to the playbook, Lukashenko claims that the West and NATO are “encircling” Belarus: “escalating” and “building up.” In an interesting twist, he has played the race card, saying, “Europe wants to turn Belarus into a toilet! They want to send NATO soldiers here, black and yellow, to whip us! You want this?”
Clearly, Lukashenko knows that he and his rule are hanging on for dear life. “We had elections,” he told the people. “Until you kill me, there will not be any more elections.” Like all dictators, everywhere, he has linked his own fate to that of the nation: “If you destroy Lukashenko, it will be the beginning of the end for you.”
He has appealed to Putin for help, and the Russian strongman is playing his hand cagily, as usual. It remains to be seen whether he will intervene for Lukashenko.
What will the United States do? What is it doing now? A touching moment, for us Americans, occurred when Belarusians gathered in front of state-television offices in Minsk and chanted, “Radio Svaboda! Radio Svaboda!” That is the way they say “Radio Liberty,” this service being an outlet of the United States, on which many in unfree countries rely.
In 2004, President George W. Bush signed the Belarus Democracy Act. (He and his administration took a keen interest in Belarus and its travails.) That act was most recently updated in 2011. It authorizes assistance to those working for democracy in Belarus. The United States should be using the powers of that act to the full, right now.
And the president of the United States should speak up for the people of Belarus and their rights. He should place this country on the side of their cause. We urged that he do the same for Hong Kong. The United States should stand for freedom, democracy, and human rights against the tyrants and torturers. In this way, we will be true to ourselves. It is hard to be genuinely American otherwise.
Garry Kasparov, the chess champion who became a democracy champion, made an interesting observation last week: “As we’ve said in the Russian opposition for years, resisting a dictatorship is a marathon, but you have to be ready for a 100-meter dash at any moment.” That moment seems to have arrived in Belarus.
Following the 2010 election and its aftermath, Jay Nordlinger wrote, “On one thing, all observers agree: The dictatorship is scared.” Lukashenko was spooked by the election — which he had to steal — and was therefore lashing out, and cracking down. “Observers also agree on something else: that he is doomed. That this dictatorship will fall.”
The problem was, “Lukashenko can break a lot of bones, and wreck a lot of lives, before he’s through.”
Yes. He is doing that right now. But let it be, if at all possible, for the last time.