While the world watches the turmoil in the Middle East and argues whether it portends anything good or not, another drama is being played out almost unnoticed on the eastern border of Europe.
On the Middle East the Obama administration dithers, sending contradictory messages from one day to the next. But so far the administration has had nothing at all to say about the tiny country of Belarus, at precisely the time a strong, unambiguous message of support for those demanding an end to the last communist dictatorship in Europe would hearten its people and create a legacy of friendship for generations.
Belarus, was once a constituent republic of the Soviet Union which declared sovereignty in 1990 and independence in 1991. A Kansas-sized country of 9.5 million people sandwiched in between Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, Belarus was considered a desirable posting for officials of the USSR because of its relatively well-developed infrastructure, low crime rate, and comparatively moderate climate.
Belarusians are generally well-educated, hard-working and western-oriented. While the readiness for political liberty remains problematic among the peoples of the Islamic Middle East, every indication shows Belarusians would willingly go the way of Poland, the Czech Republic, and other the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe.
Instead, the country remains an anachronism. An official at the Minsk office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe once said, “Belarus is the Soviet Union. It’s the rest of the country that disappeared.”
The hammer and sickle and red stars still adorn public buildings, a huge bronze statue of Lenin still stands in front of parliament, and the secret police is still called the KGB.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko maintains warm relationships with fellow-dictators. Recently the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s private jet had landed in Minsk Friday, February 25, possibly to drop off a member of Quaddafi’s family seeking sanctuary. Qadaffi very well might find himself welcome if he is forced out of Libya.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994. His regime continued the Soviet policy of state ownership of the means of production, brutally suppressed opposition and manipulated media and according to the Belarusian opposition and outside observers, falsified election results to keep power. In 2004 a referendum was passed abolishing presidential term limits, allowing Lukashenko to retain power indefinitely.
However, Lukashenko has found it necessary to maintain the appearance of free elections. Opposition parties are allowed to field candidates, and print and distribute campaign literature, though access to the major media remains tightly controlled. And apparently nobody believes the official results of the December 19 election which gave Lukashenko a first-round win without requiring a runoff.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe calls for free and fair elections. Pressure from European countries mounts. The Polish parliament passed a resolution condemning the post-election crackdown on demonstrators and mass arrests of opposition leaders and journalists. Some members of parliament called for Lukashenko to face trial. In Warsaw demonstrators demand the release of imprisoned journalists.
And Lukashenko may have lost the support of his Russian patron. Arch-nationalist and vice-president of the Russian State Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovski has called for Lukashenko to stand down, according to Charter 97.
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