All Alone: 'Elections' in Europe's Last Dictatorship | Freedom House

All Alone: 'Elections' in Europe's Last Dictatorship

Wall Street Journal Europe By Amanda Watson Schnetzer
Belarus celebrated its independence earlier this year with a massive military parade. It marked the country's breakup with the Soviet Union, but as tanks and troops filed through Minsk, the capital, President Alexander Lukashenko made a reference to the heroic struggle against Nazis in the 1940s, warning that "it's not enough to defeat an enemy in an open fight, you also have to know how not to lose the fruits of victory."

Except that, the second part of his warning clearly referred not to the invaders 60 years ago, but to NATO and any Western nation that would condemn his authoritarian regime. What should have been a celebration of 10 years of postcommunist freedom proved no more than a self-serving salute to the presidential powers he enjoys, which come draped in Soviet-style trimmings. Once again, Mr. Lukashenko proved that he is trapped in the past and determined to keep his people there with him.

As Belarusians prepare to vote for president this Sunday, it is important to recall that after his genuine victory in 1994, Mr. Lukashenko promised economic renewal and assured voters that "there will be no dictatorship." Seven years later, it's obvious the president has reneged.

Belarus remains in perilous economic shape with a GDP per capita of only $1,104 and approximately a quarter of the population living below the national poverty line. (The GDP per capita of Poland, Belarus 's more freewheeling western neighbor, is by comparison at least triple that). Politically, Mr. Lukashenko presides over an autocratic regime that stands accused of killing opponents. Even Russia, Belarus ' strongest ally, appears to be distancing itself from the erratic leader.

In the lead-up to this weekend, Mr. Lukashenko has taken extraordinary steps to ensure the defeat of opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik. The president's plan reportedly calls for tampering with voter registration lists, stuffing ballot boxes, forcing compulsory early voting at state-owned enterprises, and more. To distract voters from these civil-liberty violations, the government has scheduled festivals, beauty contests, and sporting events around the country. But not everyone has taken the bait, and the forces that could produce Mr. Lukashenko's political demise -- if not in this election, then soon -- at last appear to be coalescing.

Mr. Goncharik, the head of Belarus 's independent trade union federation, has been closing a gap in the polls ever since opposition forces threw their support behind him this summer. Although the groups backing Mr. Goncharik represent a broad political spectrum, they all agree on one thing: it's time for Lukashenko to go. Their decision to rally around a single candidate represents an important step in their development. Just last year, they could not even agree on whether to participate in parliamentary elections that everyone knew would be -- and were -- unfair.

Although Belarusian civil society is still weak, large numbers of citizens are educating voters about their constitutional rights and alternatives to the current regime. From Brest in the southwest to Vitebsk in the northeast, small groups are encouraging high voter turnout, especially among the country's younger generations. Belarusians under the age of 40 -- Mr. Lukashenko's least loyal demographic -- are the best hope for a democratic future. Another, if strange, hope might be Russia.

When Mr. Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he declared that "there is no exit from our economic crisis without Russia." Since then, the two countries have agreed to form a "union state" and have signed treaties on the creation of a single currency, a shared securities market, and a common defense policy. They also have plans for a joint supreme council, a cabinet of ministers, a parliament, and a court.

But since Vladimir Putin's rise to power, Russia's enthusiasm for the union has been waning. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has stated that "unification . . . is not an aim in itself" and has stressed that realization of the union would require "several {more} years." And in his independence-day greeting to Mr. Lukashenko in July, President Putin made clear that "a necessary precondition of {successful unification with Russia} is commitment to . . . freedom and democracy."

By far, though, the best evidence that Russia's once unwavering support for Mr. Lukashenko is wavering is his failure to secure a Putin endorsement in the upcoming election. Instead, Russian broadcast media, no doubt with the Kremlin's tacit approval, have aired allegations of government-sponsored death squads and given impartial coverage of Mr. Lukashenko's opponents. Even if the reports are limited in scope and sometimes blocked from Belarusian airwaves, Russian TV has given Belarusian viewers more balanced and informative election coverage than they could ever get from the Lukashenko-controlled state media.

If Mr. Goncharik defeats the president in Sunday's election, he can put an end to Europe's last dictatorship and, as in Croatia, Slovakia, and Yugoslavia, put Belarus back on the path of democratic reform from which it veered in 1994. Although such an outcome is unlikely, hope for the future is in the air. For if the Kremlin's political support of Mr. Lukashenko continues to wane and Belarus ' opposition political parties, civic groups, and independent media continue to gain strength, the Belarusian leader should find that his days in power are numbered.

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