Alyaksandr Lukashenka is the brutal ruler of Belarus, “the last dictator in Europe” to use the phrase often employed by Western diplomats and human rights activists. He has falsified elections to keep himself in power, he has imprisoned and exiled his political opponents, and he has trampled on the rights and freedoms of the Belarusian people.
The West’s policy of isolating him is emotionally satisfying, especially for those of us concerned about democracy and human rights. The Belarusian people would be far better off with a different leader and a different political system. At the same time, many of us would like to see the kind of policies the West has adopted against Lukashenka applied to other leaders in the region who are just as bad or worse.
But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the West’s approach is cynical, ineffective, and no longer in the interests of the West or ultimately of the Belarusian people. It is cynical because the West doesn’t apply similar policies to other leaders in the region; indeed it sometimes appears that criticizing Lukashenka is a way of avoiding doing precisely that.
If one looks around the post-Soviet region, there is nothing Lukashenka has done or is doing that others haven’t or aren’t. The Russian and Uzbek presidents, to give only two examples, have done everything Lukashenka has done and more, including in the former case annexing part of a neighboring country. And yet they routinely escape the kind of criticism he receives.
Some justify this by saying that the West has vital interests with these others and thus cannot behave in the same way and must engage with these governments however unpleasant, but such statements often seem hollow and suggest there is a deeper problem at work: a contempt many in the West appear to feel for the countries in between Russia and Europe.
In addition, the West’s approach so far has been ineffective. The European Union and the United States have succeeded in gaining the release of a small number of political prisoners, but they have not opened the way to broader change, thus raising suspicions that Lukashenka is behaving as Soviet leaders used to and thus re-enforcing the view that he should be isolated.
And finally, the West’s approach has not been in the interests of the Belarusian people, and it is not now in the interests of the West itself. If Western policy were leading toward a change in the regime in Mensk, that would be laudable. But it isn’t. Instead, Lukashenka like other dictators is using the “besieged fortress” model to keep his people in line and in his case to line up with the Kremlin.
As a result, it may very well be the case that Belarus, especially to the extent that it is isolated from the Western democracies and driven into the arms of authoritarian Moscow may be further from democracy even than it was. That can’t be in the interest of anyone who cares about the Belarusian people, democracy and freedom.
But countries, including those in the West, seldom craft their policies toward other countries on the basis of concerns about the internal dynamics of the latter. Instead, they focus on geopolitical issues and the positions of the governments of the countries they are interacting with on issues of common concern.
And it is on these last two points that Western policy toward Belarus is especially dispiriting. The key geopolitical position of Belarus is typically overlooked entirely. Those who have followed recent Western commentaries about events in Ukraine might conclude that Ukraine is the country between Russia and Europe.
But a glance at a map shows that it is not so much Ukraine that occupies that prime geopolitical space but Belarus. In fact, a line drawn from Moscow to Berlin goes through Belarus, not Ukraine. That is why Belarus has been invaded so often and why it has had even more difficulty than Ukraine in maintaining its independence.
However, the really compelling reason for rethinking the West’s approach lies elsewhere. In recent months, Lukashenka has taken positions consistent with Western ones on Ukraine. He has criticized Putin’s annexation of Crimea, he has expressed doubts about the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, and he has now refused to have his country join a Russian trade war against Ukraine.
Given that many in the West routinely dismiss Lukashenka as nothing more than Moscow’s stooge, his comments in this regard are clearly worth noting. Russian reaction has been savage (See here) But because the West has not responded as some in Mensk had hoped, the Belarusian leader has not gained the freedom of action he clearly wants.
Obviously, the West has no basis for embracing Lukashenka. He is a dictator, and it will be better for everyone when he is replaced by a democratically elected leader. That, of course, is true of a number of other countries as well with which the European Union and the United States maintain good ties and routinely argue that engagement is the path to that end.
But the West clearly has an interest in exploring the meaning of Lukashenka’s recent statements and encouraging him to make additional steps in the direction of Western values not only on foreign affairs but also inside his own country. A truly independent and democratic Belarus is very much in the West’s interests: it is time to re-examine how it can become one.
to really help it become one.