Mr. Lukashenko’s Prisoners

sannikov010410.jpgWhen Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko stole an election last Dec. 19, followed by a violent crackdown against protesting citizens and the arrests of some 600 political prisoners, among them, five presidential candidates, you could hardly say that this was his first rodeo.  Lukashenko, though only 56, has enjoyed a stranglehold on power ever since he chucked out his predecessor on corruption charges and won an election in 1994, and has organized similar deficient elections in 2001 and 2006.  This time though it appears that he may be suffering the consequences of heightened expectations, as many were led to believe that Belarus would try opening up the system a little bit for a somewhat pluralistic experiment.  Then the opposite occurred.

Apart from Hugo Chavez’s warm embrace (and billions in Venezuelan oil) and the visibly reluctant tolerance from Moscow, Belarus is quickly losing friends.  Back on Dec. 23, the foreign ministers of Sweden, Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic published a stinging indictment of Lukashenko.  George W. Bush, bear with me, is reading the names of prisoners on RFE/RL’s Belarus service.  Navi Pillay at the UN put down a statement, while neighbors from the Netherlands to Lithuania are making their voices heard, especially after Lukashenko decided to close down the Minsk office of the OSCE.  Lukashenko was most recently added to the EU’s visa ban list – joining an unfortunate crowd of statesmen such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (at least he’s among friends).

Some political prisoners have been released, such as the presidential candidate of the Christian Democratic Party Vitaly Rymashevsky, who was apparently forced to write some kind of humiliating confession to Lukashenko, while the other leaders such as Andrei Sannikov (pictured above), Vladimir Neklyaev, Alexei Mikhalevich, and Nikolai Statkevich have not been so lucky.  The prison conditions for many detainees are deplorable, while the courts have made a mockery out of due process.

Following the post-rigged-election-repression handbook, Lukashenko hascombined some light amnesty of a few of the detained right along withthe ambiguity of a renewed crackdown against the media.  The Committee to Protect Journalistshas urged the immediate release of some 20 journalists who have comeunder arrest, noting that Irina Khalip of Novaya Gazeta and NatalyaRadina of Charter 97 (a must-read source) have been held for three weeks in a KGB interrogation center and are facing charges that could land them 15 years in prison.  Those who are not arrested are simply hounded and threatened, as the police have been ordered to raid and search offices, homes, and even family of the media.  Computers are seized, files are destroyed, and financial resources hindered to as to prevent these organizations from operating.

The bold and unapologetic authoritarianism of Lukashenko was made possible thanks to two critical bilateral deals, without which it is difficult to imagine him having the political capital to pull it off.  Two weeks before the elections on Dec. 9, Lukashenko agreed to ratify all the agreements the Russians had been asking for with regard to the “Unified Economic Space,” and in return he secured a cancellation of all oil duties of exports shipped from Russia to Belarus.  As a critical pipeline transport route, the duty-free oil represents a windfall for Lukashenko, easing up about $4 billion.  Vastly more important was the deal Lukashenko signed with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in October to supply 30 million tonnes of oil to Belarus, making them a net exporter.  It’s unclear what economic benefit Venezuela would receive apart from small arms and paltry payments – but the political alliance of mutually reinforcing and legitimizing dictatorships is where the real value is.

The current political crisis in Belarus illustrates the problem of the state sovereignty and non-interference doctrine in the new BRIC world order.  As Peter Ackerman and Michael Glennon wrote in a 2007 essay:

Contemporary autocrats hide behind the principles ofsovereignty and its corollary prohibition against meddling in a state’sinternal affairs. (…) Claiming that “foreign influence” is to blame forsuch events, and concerned that colored bells may soon toll for them,today’s autocrats are determined to root out democracy advocates throughpolice harassment and intimidation, false accusations and arrests,revoked registrations and shuttered offices. Security forces in China,Venezuela, Egypt, Iran, Zimbabwe and the former Soviet states of Eurasiahave been among the most single-minded in this effort, forcing a numberof democracy assistance programs to close. There is also evidence ofcoordinated activity among authoritarian regimes. Venezuelan PresidentHugo Chávez visited President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus in July2006 to bring him good news: “There are many possibilities now forforming a strategic alliance to save the world from madness, wars andcolor revolutions.”

What, precisely, does the Bolivarian revolution taking place inVenezuela have in common in terms of ideology, culture, interests, oraffinity with Lukashenko’s dictatorship over Belarus?  For that matter,why do both systems encourage and endorse the fallacy of Russiansovereign democracy, or whatever the latest nonsense being said by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?  Admittance to the pariah club of world affairs has a pretty simple litmus test – that somewhere, somehow, other governments would prefer that you change.  This club instead is locked into the 19th century fantasy of isolationism despite, like it or not, an increasingly globalized world. 

The commonality of the super sovereignty doctrine is that all these countries are focused depriving their people of rights and protecting the status quo power, than the other way around.  And the jails get more crowded, be it in Belarus, China, Russia, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe, as a result of just a few people’s desire to participate in the administration of public affairs outside the official structures of the ruling regime. The competition for political power through democratic process is criminalized and made illegal, pushing the disaffected to the margins and branding anyone demanding their rights as a foreign threat to “national interest.”

We can talk all we want about the consequences that can be placed upon this regime, but in the meantime the new class of political prisoners of Lukashenko can send their holiday cards to Moscow and Caracas, and perhaps ask what they ever did to offend them.