Tough Times for the People of Belarus

August 31, 2020

Following the Belarus presidential election, protesters took to the streets claiming that the result was rigged. With Ukraine conflict continuing across the border, theirs was an act of courage. Riot police reacted with violence. President Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years and foreign election observers have been barred since 1995.  Two days after the election, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, left Belarus for neighboring Lithuania. From safety in Vilnius she said, “The Belarusian people are no longer afraid. We will win.”

German Chancellor Merkel, French President Macron, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, President of the European Council Charles Michel and, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had telephone calls with President Putin. Readouts of these calls by the Kremlin are similar. Mr. Putin emphasized that “interfering in the republic’s domestic affairs and putting pressure on the Belarusian leadership would be unacceptable; some countries’ attempts to put pressure on the Belarusian leadership would destabilize the internal political situation and be counterproductive”.

On 19 August, President of the European Council, following a video conference of the members, announced their conclusions on Belarus. Members of the Council said the elections were neither free nor fair, therefore the results not recognized. They condemned the disproportionate and unacceptable violence displayed by the state authorities against peaceful protesters.

The US also condemned the violence and expressed support for the aspirations of the Belarusian people to choose their leaders and to choose their own path, free from external intervention.

Last Thursday President Putin gave an interview to Rossiya TV channel. He said:

“… we have certain obligations towards Belarus, and this is how Mr. Lukashenko has formulated his question. He said that he would like us to provide assistance to him if this should become necessary. I replied that Russia would honor all its obligations.

“Mr. Lukashenko has asked me to create a reserve group of law enforcement personnel, and I have done this…”

The same day NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met Chancellor Angela Merkel. In remarks to the press following the talks he said: “… It is for the people of Belarus to determine their own future. All NATO Allies support a sovereign and independent Belarus. The regime in Minsk must demonstrate full respect for fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.

“NATO has no military build-up in the region. So, any attempt to use that as an excuse to crack down on peaceful protesters is absolutely unjustified.”

Is President Lukashenko a democratic leader? Certainly not. Would he do anything to remain in power? Yes, he would. Was the latest election result rigged? Most probably. Are the people of Belarus fed up with Mr. Lukashenko after 26 years? Yes. Should the West react? Yes.

The last and toughest question: How and to what extent?

In November 2003, thousands of Georgian demonstrators took to the streets to protest the flawed results of parliamentary elections. They gave red roses to the soldiers symbolizing their peaceful intentions. And soldiers who were expected to quell the protests laid down their guns. Thus, it became known as the “Rose Revolution”. No one was hurt. President Shevardnadze was replaced by Mr. Mikhail Saakashvili who led Georgia into a disastrous confrontation with Russia in 2008. Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia declared independence and were recognized by Russia.

In November 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in Kiev to protest at the government’s sudden decision to abandon plans to sign an association agreement with the EU. In February, dozens died, and hundreds were injured in a day of violence. On 21 March 2014, Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of the parliament, endorsed Crimea’s annexation. The Ukraine conflict drags on.

In February 2019, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau proposed amendments to extradition laws that would allow extraditions to mainland China. Thousands took to the streets to protest the proposed bill. On May 28, 2020 China’s parliament approved imposing security legislation on Hong Kong to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference. A growing number of Hong Kong protesters have fled Hong Kong since then. Nathan Law, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent young democracy activists proclaimed from safety in London, “Hong Kong people will not give up“.

In an earlier post[i] said,

“Much would depend on the attitude of the Hong Kong protest movement. Because there are redlines beyond what is said in the agreement between China and Britain on the future of Hong Kong which they cannot totally disregard. Although these may not have been stated with precision, their essence is no secret. In continuing their protests, they must take care to avoid having to admit in the future that they have overreached. They must not lose sight of the fact that Hong Kong’s democracy can serve as a source of inspiration for Chinese people when democracy’s decline is a current topic.”

Now, some worry about Peking’s plans to “reunite” Taiwan with the mainland under Chinese Communist Party’s rule. Nothing unexpected.

The Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts were mishandled by their leaders and the West. Protesters in Hong Kong with Western encouragement overreached themselves.

Neither Russia nor China is a democracy. Nonetheless, leadership of both countries should stop seeing aspirations to democracy in their neighborhood as an existential threat. Respect for the independence and sovereignty of nations is the fundamental principle of international law and international good conduct as enshrined in the UN Charter. Standing solidly behind Mr. Lukashenko would not serve Russia’s long-term interests.

Should peoples aspiring to democracy succumb to authoritarianism and their powerful neighbors? No. Should Western countries continue to support democratic aspirations of peoples? Yes. But they must not be selective. They conveniently dealt with some Middle East autocrats for decades because their economic interests prevailed over everything else. It is now up to them to prove that democracy is not in decline; to eliminate what has given rise to populism; and to prove that racism is no longer an issue.

In taking positions regarding political problems in Russia’s and China’s vicinity the West should be careful. Today’s reality is that Moscow and Peking also have their Monroe doctrines. And three major powers’ inability to make decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two is part of that reality. Western countries should take a principled stand on democracy but avoid overextending themselves. Experience shows that diplomatic dialogue and multilateral approaches are better options than outright defiance and interference which undermine aspirations to democracy. Unfortunately, in wrangling between major powers losers always the peoples in the area of competition like in Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Hong Kong.




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