Former state farm director Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 20 years. He and his regime have enjoyed some support from citizens who, deprived of information and civil and political rights, don’t understand democratic alternatives, and preferred life in the Soviet Union, which Mr. Lukashenko opposed leaving.
Unrest, however, has been growing, and the regime only stays in power by manipulating elections and intimidating opponents with violence. Now it has been given a fresh coat of philosophical paint. Mixed by Russian political philosopher Alexandr Dugin and marketed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the new color is “Eurasia,” trotted out as the alternative to neoliberal Atlanticism.
During the current meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Belarusian Ambassador Mikhail Khvostov, when confronted with a report on egregious violations of basic freedoms, responded in pretentious “Eurasian” language apparently plucked from such philosophical luminaries as Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, both of whom glorified fascism and provided the Third Reich with fancy intellectual window-dressing.
Defending his one-party state and a legal system instrumentalized to maintain power, Mr. Khvostov said his government had been successful at “organizing the political life of society.” The legal system is “secondary to politics,” and “without politics, there is no purpose, and without purpose, there is no state.” The state, Mr. Khvostov intoned, “is the guarantor of our system of values and way of life.”
These ideas are, of course, antithetical to the concept of universal, individual human rights and the rule of law. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea and Mr. Putin’s ongoing infiltration and political destabilization of Ukraine, commentators have tried to fit many labels on an ideology that confidently aims to vanquish liberal democracy. It has been called, among other things, “19th-century Russian imperialism,” “neo-czarism,” “nationalism,” “national socialism,” “neo-totalitarianism,” “neo-Sovietism,” “fascism” and “neo-fascism.”
We need to focus less on labels and more on the meaning of this political theory for basic freedoms. In Mr. Dugin’s book “The Fourth Political Theory,” he proclaims the virtue of a seamless unity between state and the individual, as opposed to a society in which independent institutions struggle to ensure freedom of individuals from state control. Freedom, for Mr. Dugin, means freedom from disharmony between one’s own ethos and that of society; from the dichotomy of “subject and object.” His book reads like a turgid, utopian college term paper from the 1970s. However, we cannot afford to dismiss it for being full of obtuse language used by corrupt intellectuals such as Schmitt and Heidegger.
The author of the U.N. report, Miklos Haraszti, is known for his penetrating and poetic denunciation of totalitarianism as a Hungarian dissident and his later work in defense of freedom of media. He was appointed to monitor Belarus in 2012, largely in response to brutality that surrounded presidential elections in 2010. Candidates opposing Mr. Lukashenko were beaten, arrested and jailed. The frustrations of thousands of protesters boiled over into a riot, met in turn with disproportionate police violence. In his report, Mr. Haraszti described a system in which all non-state media have been shut down, independent trade unions are banned, human rights groups are harassed and their leaders incarcerated, and some students have been pressed into forced labor. Legislation proposed by the government would prohibit agricultural workers from leaving their jobs.
Yet these practices were defended as only the business of Belarus by numerous delegations to the U.N., which demanded an end even to speaking of specific human rights violations in the Human Rights Council. A growing chorus of “like-minded” countries want to sap the U.N. system even of its weak tools for holding members accountable. They want instead to debate only in anodyne, “thematic” terms. Defenders of Belarus included Latin American countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela (which said human rights reports are weapons for “imperial domination by the hegemonistic bloc”); U.S. ally Azerbaijan; China, which preferred “constructive dialogue” about “complex and sensitive” issues; Myanmar; and Syria, which said the only aim of such reports was to “denigrate” opponents. Eurasianism, while associated with Slavophile state absolutism, is embraced far beyond Eurasia.
Mr. Haraszti pushed back, saying the way to solving human rights problems was to respect the rights of citizens and the freedom of civil society. However, no delegate from any democracy bothered to confront the anti-human rights rhetoric at the U.N. with strong countervailing ideas. In general, references to freedom are increasingly rare in the international human rights system, receding in proportion to the rise of a new rhetoric of human rights that concerns itself not with freedom, but focuses instead on positive state obligations to provide economic security.
The upsurge of the Eurasian model, despite its ugly pedigree, finds a foothold not only among authoritarian states, but also with European populist parties, which have just made huge gains in EU parliamentary elections. In order to effectively counter it, leaders in liberal democracies need to bone up on the ideas underpinning the liberty their citizens enjoy. They need to join a battle of ideas that they seem now to be losing by default.
Aaron Rhodes is a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom — Europe. He was executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993 and 2007.