- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

The business of freedom in Eastern Europe is not over. Belarus, just like Ukraine and Moldova, has not completed its transition to democratic capitalism. It is the duty of neighbors near and far to help its people reach the safe coast of democracy, security and prosperity.

As the 2004 Belarussian parliamentary elections are approaching, the West should support democratic opposition’s struggle against Alexander Lukashenka, the last European dictator.

At a recent conference in Riga, Latvia, on Democracy Beyond the Baltics, a U.S. congressional delegation and Belarussian opposition leaders have agreed that Belarussian democrats must unite, but they also needs massive Western help.

A democratic Belarus will be a beacon of freedom for increasingly authoritarian Russia. However, if Mr. Lukashenka clings to power, his country will be reabsorbed in a quasi-imperial Russia.

At stake in Belarus is how we handle rogue regimes — and friends of rogue regimes. Mr. Lukashenka has supported every tin pot dictator from Kim Il-sung to Yasser Arafat to Saddam Hussein, and whether we sacrifice support of freedom while building an important relationship with Moscow. Washington also does not want to see more Russian troops on NATO’s Polish border.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus has remained a Jurassic Park of authoritarianism in the heart of a democratizing Europe. However, it is also a huge lab in which ex-Soviet secret policemen are attempting to develop new models of repression.

Performance of Belarus has been a disaster. Inflation is rampant; there has been no privatization; agriculture is still collectivized. Seventy percent of the country’s economic output of state-owned enterprises piles up in warehouses. The country’s human rights track record is so abysmal that the U.S. State Department’s human rights report uses language reserved for totalitarian states.

The regime has been cracking down on political opposition, non-government organizations (NGOs) and independent media. Mr. Lukashenka, with only tepid popular support of approximately one quarter to one-fifth of the population, turned out to be in a league of his own — a true authoritarian: nasty, brutish and power-hungry. He is a Voldemort in search of his personal Harry Potter.

This year, the rumors of extending presidential terms in violation of existing constitutions are repeatedly floated and then vehemently denied — which makes them ever more credible — in Minsk, Moscow and Kiev.

In Belarus, like in a sci-fi movie, time is running backward. It is true that Belarus was one of the most Soviet among all Soviet republics and that Russia’s hardliners supported Mr. Lukashenka through and through. However, many in the Kremlin today have become exasperated with Mr. Lukashenka’s antics, and even those with lower democracy standards may finally recognize that the dictator is becoming a liability for Moscow.

As the Rose Revolution in Georgia demonstrated, Mr. Lukashenka’s failure to provide Belarussians with a road to a decent future may yet become the seed of his own demise.

This may be the year in which he could be returned to the kolkhoz — or tried for murder of his political opponents and abuse of power. Another solution for Mr. Lukashenka would be political asylum in North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan or Cuba.

A local NGO-organized effort and international support, culminating in political protests tied to stolen elections, may be the magic mix, which makes dictators disappear. The freedom bug is contagious.

To facilitate the dictator’s road back to the farm, the opposition, with the help of friends of Belarus abroad, should unite its three main groups and implement a joint electoral strategy. The opposition should nominate single viable candidates in each district. The democrats must launch a voter turnout campaign focused on youth and urban voters, who traditionally mistrust Mr. Lukashenka.

The opposition should also question the idea of a joint army with Russia: Belarussian boys should not be sent as cannon fodder in Chechnya, while Russian soldiers should not be posted on the Polish-NATO border. This is a prescription for more, not less, instability in Europe. The consequences of such friction are hard to predict.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should be ready to publicly and severely criticize violation of election procedures, and demand that the electoral laws are amended. The OSCE observation mission should be allowed to deploy in Belarus well ahead of the October 2004 elections. It should be prepared to declare elections illegitimate in case of falsifications. Europe and the United States should reach out to Belarussians through international broadcasting from countries around Belarus in the AM band and by launching opposition TV.

The United States and the European Union should support an international campaign to investigate the disappearance of Mr. Lukashenka’s opponents and initiate criminal procedures in Europe or the United States against those who ordered and participated in the murder of opposition politicians and journalists.

Finally, Russia needs to be advised that a possible change of regime will make Belarus more predictable and will benefit Russia by eliminating the need to subsidize the Belarussian economy through below-market-price natural gas, which provides a more than $2 billion-a-year subsidy to the inefficient state sector. Making the transit route for Russian gas to Europe more stable and less prone to interference by Minsk will benefit the main Russian stakeholder in Belarus — Gazprom.

Belarus should become a test case of Russian policy of integration with the West based on democratic values. Belarus may yet become a litmus test on Russia’s future relationship with the West.

Ariel Cohen is research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies with the Heritage Foundation, and author of “Russian Imperialism, Development and the Crisis” (Greenwood Praeger, 1998).

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