An autocracy faces an existential crisis the moment that its subjects perceive they are not alone in their discontent. For Nicolae Ceaușescu, the kleptocratic thug who tyrannised Romania for more than two decades, it came one day in December 1989. Herded unwillingly into Revolution Square in Bucharest to listen to the dictator’s hollow slogans, crowds started booing him. The horror and disbelief on Ceaușescu’s face were immortalised on film.
Something strikingly similar happened this week in Belarus, formerly a Soviet republic and an independent state since the collapse of communism in 1991. Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled continuously since 1994, addressed workers at a state factory. The appearance was intended to bolster his disputed rule after he stole the presidential election of 9 August. Instead of deferentially applauding Lukashenko’s bombast, workers jeered him and demanded his departure. Perhaps Lukashenko, by obduracy and repression, will hang on. But the courage of a people who are no longer prepared to tolerate official lying has been made plain. The western democracies need to give them an unyielding assurance that they have our support.
The most apt point of comparison in present-day Belarus is probably not, in fact, with Ceaușescu, but with Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serb president. An intellectual mediocrity and ludicrous dissembler, Milosevic was exceptional only in his appetite for genocidal violence and blatant ballot-rigging. He is best known in the west for his pitiless assault on the Muslim populations of Bosnia and Kosovo, but his downfall ultimately lay in electoral fraud. Serbs rose up against him, and arraignment at The Hague swiftly followed.
Lukashenko has stood six times for election to the presidency. Only the first contest, in 1994, even came close to international standards. The sixth, last week, was absurdly reported in some leading western newspapers as a landslide victory for him, based on the official returns. Belarusians knew what these tallies were worth. Instead of a purported 80% share of the vote, with his nearest rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, on 10%, the real result will have been close to the reverse.
Even if Lukashenko had really polled a majority, or just a plurality, of the vote, the election would still be an unequivocal fraud. You cannot have a democratic contest where rival candidates are locked up and their supporters are intimidated and beaten. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, in a country of less than 10 million people, have filled the streets demanding that Lukashenko go. That they have done so while many of their compatriots have been viciously beaten in detention, and show bruises and frightened countenances, evinces a spirit reminiscent of the popular revolt against communism from 1989 to 1991.
The question for western policy is what can be done to support the people of Belarus. The answer is sadly not much, but “not much” is not “nothing”. A credible and reputable policy response has three elements. The first is what Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has already done, which is to explicitly declare that the election outcome is fraudulent and that Britain will not recognise it.
The second is to impose targeted sanctions, on the model of the principles codified in the Magnitsky Act passed by the US Congress in 2012 and partially incorporated into the new Sanctions Act of July 2020 in the UK. Under this legislation, the British government has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials who they suspect were instrumental in the murder of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and on Saudi officials alleged to have murdered Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, in the country’s embassy in Istanbul. These measures should now be applied to Lukashenko and his henchmen in Belarus, but with the explicit assurance that officials who abandon the regime by a specified date will be exempt.
The third is broader. It is to abandon the habits of realpolitik and of seeking to calculate the effect of western actions on alliances in an anarchic international order. This is especially important in the context of Lukashenko’s relations with Vladimir Putin. The reason that western sanctions have been eased on Belarus in recent years is to encourage Lukashenko to break free of the Kremlin’s orbit. Since Putin’s illegal war on Ukraine and his annexation of part of its sovereign territory, Lukashenko has recognised the dangers of being a Russian neighbour. In 2018, Putin explicitly linked economic aid to Belarus to “deeper” political integration between the two states. On the pretext that the 2015 presidential election in Belarus was peaceful (though not democratic), the US began to encourage links with Belarus and is – or was, before the events of the past week – about to appoint its first ambassador to Minsk since 2008.
Ostracising Lukashenko is certain to place him at Putin’s mercy. That is no reason for going soft on this corrupt and brutal despot. Symbols matter. Belarusians need to know that the west will not play games with their yearning for liberty. At the nadir of western diplomatic influence during the Cold War, in 1975, the United States and its allies signed the Helsinki Final Act with the Soviet bloc and others, addressing a range of global issues. The accord appeared to be an acknowledgment of weakness and an acquiescence to the reality of Soviet power. Yet that wasn’t how it appeared to dissidents in the eastern bloc. They saw instead an assertion of the importance of human rights, and they stepped up their demands.
Statecraft involves trade-offs and compromises but it must not occlude the central importance of liberty. Lukashenko’s despotism is an affront to European ideals and, more prosaically, an assault on Belarusians themselves. The west must stand by them and work for the overthrow of their oppressor.