November, not April, may be the cruelest month when it comes to politics.
While Americans enjoy freedom at the polls, other countries are plunged into election turmoil. I could only wonder the other day if the orderly lines of voters under brilliant autumn sunshine truly appreciated their freedom of choice.
In Azerbaijan, the recent parliamentary elections were declared fraudulent: ballot stuffing, and all that. Bordering Iran and Russia, that oil-rich country is strategic for the United States and demonstrations planned in the city of Baku are likely to destabilize the situation, not to mention further derail big hopes of spreading democracy.
Of course, there is no such problem in nearby Belarus.
There will be a presidential election in the country next year, with one lone candidate. That will no doubt make voting much simpler. No need for election monitors or exit polls. Why? Because President Alexander Lukashenko (who refers to his detractors as “baby killers”) has already declared himself the winner, which certainly ends the need for campaign spending and well-paid advisers.
“What can you do? You’ll elect me,” said Mr. Lukashenko, also known as the “Fuehrer of the Slavs,” a former chicken farmer who has expressed admiration for both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Belarus was recently described as the “last true dictatorship in Europe” by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,
Mr. Lukashenko’s regime rules with a rusted iron fist. Political opponents have “mysteriously” disappeared over the last few years, along with several prominent journalists and dissidents.
Last year, the city of Minsk was shocked by the brutal murder of investigative journalist Veranika Cherkasova, found stabbed to death in her apartment. She had been working on stories investigating the possibility Belarus sold arms to Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
There has been no investigation. Her family still awaits answers.
This Oct. 18, the bloodied body of political journalist Vasil Grodnikov was discovered in his apartment. There were no signs of a break-in. In July, in another incident, a Polish journalist from TV channel TVP1 was detained and jailed.
There are no police in Belarus. The security guards still goes by the moniker “KGB” and prisons are filthy, overcrowded gulags.
Why should America care about Belarus? Because it is surrounded on all sides by reality, sworn to resist any Western influence and stubbornly maintaining its isolation among emerging civil societies. Like Osama bin Laden, Mr. Lukashenko has sworn vengeance against America.
The Belarus government is dogged by allegations of money laundering, drug smuggling and arms dealing to terrorist groups. The European Union in September placed travel bans on six Belarusian politicians for their roles in vote rigging and human rights violations.
Mr. Lukashenko, with his trademark mustache and perpetual scowl, was first elected in 1994. He changed the constitution last year to allow him to run for a third term. “What can you do? You’ll elect me.” Essentially, he is president for life.
His henchmen raid opposition political offices and harass campaign workers accused of “illegal protests.” Recently, police beat United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko, sending him to the hospital and no doubt political Siberia.
Even as European governments condemned Mr. Lukashenko’s extension of term limits and would love to see his government — like that of former Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma — overturned, no one seems ready to take on the challenge. Belarus and the new democracy of Ukraine share a common border and trade agreements, that’s about it. While Ukraine had it’s “Orange” Revolution, Mr. Lukashenko has vowed there will be no “color” revolutions, yellow or banana, in Belarus.
Last October, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the Belarus Democracy Act, pressing for reforms in a country “longing for freedom.” Mr. Lukashenko responded that the U.S. has the most “archaic elections system in the world.”
The Belarus Democracy Act also called for investigating human-rights violations. Since Mr. Lukashenko took office, hundreds of political protesters have been arrested and jailed. Well-known journalist Dimitri Zavadsky was murdered. Former Belarus officials confirm the president was involved personally in these bloody acts of vengeance. The regime routinely harasses religious groups, and the reign of terror strengthens every day.
Human Rights Watch called for a resolution condemning the repression and Reporters Without Borders has issued reports on the missing and dead journalists.
Mr. Lukashenko, who rarely travels abroad, still talks about “the good old days” of the Soviet Union, apparently nostalgic for long bread lines, genocide, mass executions, destruction of churches and misses the other atrocities committed by communists. Russia still supports the country by subsidizing natural gas at a cost of more than $2 billion a year.
By law, heads of state can be prosecuted, including leaders of post-Soviet states, some of whom have been tried and convicted in U.S. courts.
If diplomacy doesn’t make inroads, perhaps Miss Rice should consider asking the U.S. Justice Department to intervene. There is more than enough evidence to convict this man, who seems to have formed his own personal “democracy” without the bother of free elections. Assets could be seized if the country has violated international sanctions against illegal arms sales and money laundering. Perhaps prominent American journalists could take up the cause of freedom of the press.
Educational institutions could fund exchange information programs. Broadcasters could launch a radio and television blitz on Belarus. The Belarusians deserve free elections, which means a loyal opposition. They must understand freedom cannot be achieved under one man’s thumb.
Last month, Britain’s ambassador to Belarus said the human rights situation “is getting worse” and suggested using European Union funds to back an opposition party. The only candidate is Alexander Milinkevich, who has compared the current government to Stalin’s dictatorship. His chances are slim to none.
Watching the recent election coverage and reading the post-victory stories this week, I was amazed by the frank and unintimidated tone of political opponents in America. The losers, like Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore and Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, aren’t jailed. They write books and go on the lecture circuit.
No wonder the bully of Belarus, under his totalitarian tortoise shell, considers the United States his No. 1 “main enemy.”
Worthy opponents are hard to dismiss.
Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of the Georgian Parliament. Currently, he is a visiting scholar in international affairs at George Washington University.