The turbulent history of the Warsaw Pact countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain has seen a series of authoritarian regimes of various kinds. From the despotic regimes that have taken hold in Central Asian republics such as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, to oligarchies such as Yanukovich-era Ukraine, to nationalist regimes such as in Serbia during the 1990s.
But even against this heterogeneous background, one regime that has long been relatively unheard of still stands out today: the dictatorship created by Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
In 2021, it should be the focus of the West's attention for two main reasons. First, it demonstrates particularly clearly the limitations of EU eastern policy towards regimes that combine a repressive domestic policy with a balanced foreign policy, especially given the Russia factor. Secondly, its presence is a litmus test of the EU's effectiveness in defending its underlying democratic values.
There are several important features of the Lukashenko dictatorship that have long received insufficient attention from the West.
Unlike the outwardly similar regime of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, Lukashenko first and foremost subjugated all financial flows of the country, eventually creating his own 'pocket' oligarchs.
Total financial control over the country has excluded the possibility of creating alternative centers of political power, as in Ukraine, and the direct dependence of any private capital on the state security agencies controlling it has frozen for many years the formation of a middle class, and thus civil society, which is a necessary precondition for the democratization of the country.
Meanwhile, wiretapping and absolute state control in all spheres of public life have been borrowed from the USSR. Belarus has for many years been literally swarmed by representatives of various state security services with huge, partially classified budgets and unlimited powers.
The control of radio and television is just as total. While opposition TV and radio channels still exist in modern Russia, they disappeared in Belarus many years ago. Today state TV acts according to typical methods of totalitarian regimes of the past, spreading false information, threatening representatives of civil society, broadcasting alleged "repentances" of protesters after beatings and torture, inciting discord inside the country, and openly calling for violence and physical attacks.
The main objective is to completely dehumanise the protesters in the spirit of Hitler's Nazi propaganda machine. Making this connection, Belarusians have nicknamed the state TV channels "Goebbels-TV".
As for the most consistent and influential fighters against the regime, those of them who did not have time to flee abroad officially disappeared, but in reality were secretly murdered or – as happened with the well-known journalist Pavel Sheremet – became victims of public assassination attempts, in full accordance with the modus operandi of the most aggressive dictators.
All of the aforementioned are only some of the key features of the Belarusian regime, but even they highlight the main point: in the 26 years of his rule, Lukashenko has not just transformed the country into an autocracy, Belarus has turned into a veritable quintessence of dictatorship, absorbing the ugliest features of many historical and modern regimes and successfully masking them with the shine of diplomatic receptions and empty declarations about partnership and compromise.
It is this, and not the mythical immaturity of Belarusian society, its unreadiness to follow the democratic path - which Foreign Minister Makei and Lukashenko himself have claimed to western politicians - that explains why public and political life in Belarus has sunk into lethargic sleep for many years.
At the same time, Belarusan society has never fallen asleep completely, although the absolute control over it has led to a gradual decrease in the degree of protest. In fact, people in Belarus began to live in a peculiar parallel world to the state structures, crossing into it only by chance or by necessity, and for a long time it seemed that such a situation suited everybody. It suited Lukashenko in the first place, of course, but Western society also reacted to the gradual descent into a personalised dictatorship rather indifferently, reacting only to the strongest "irritants", such as political prisoners, for example.
Foreign policy calculations prevailed: Lukashenko successfully positioned his regime as potentially reformable in the long term and as a guarantor of security in the region, playing on the contradictions between Russia, Ukraine, and the West. At the same time, the theoretical limitations of the Eastern policy of the EU and its member states - aimed exclusively at defusing tensions and seeking compromise - and the absence of a unified, steadfast Western stance on egregious violations of civil rights and freedoms allowed Lukashenko to build, brick by brick, the most brutal, anti-human repressive machine in Europe over the past 40 years.
This is an important historical lesson and message for a united Europe today and in the future: compromises with dictatorships only increase their appetite and reinforce the belief that the West is weak and unable to defend its values.
However, the importance of the crisis in Belarus is not only in this history lesson, it has a much more important practical dimension at the moment, based on the fact that in 2020 the political situation in Belarus has changed drastically. The same civil society which Lukashenko has been so eagerly purging and which seems to have learned to live in a parallel world has suddenly made itself heard in full voice.
Hundreds of thousands of people, outraged by the vote-rigging, took to the streets of the cities for an astonishingly peaceful, self-disciplined, and at the same time powerful protest. As a result, the fear-crazed regime unleashed on them the same repressive machinery of unbridled violence that it had so actively built behind the scenes of international forums and conferences and launched a total mop-up of civil society.
Ten endless months of killings, arrests, beatings, shooting with rubber bullets and throwing stun grenades, rape with rubber truncheons, torture, ill-treatment and political sentencing of tens of thousands of citizens, as documented in the reports of OSCE Representative Wolfgang Benedek and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, pose to the EU and its member states a thorny question that goes beyond the usual zone of comfortable political routine:
Does the EU, as a community of states based primarily on shared values of respect for human rights and freedoms, have the political will to defend those values in its European neighbours?
The answer to this question is extremely important for the Belarusians, but, as it seems, it is no less important for the European Union itself.
A gradual takeover of Belarus
An answer needs to be found quickly, and any weakness shown in this regard will inevitably weaken the international position of the EU both in Europe and in the world and increase the pressure on it from Russia. Moreover, it will also lead to further intensification of repressions within the totalitarian state Lukashenko is building right in front of us. It will lead to the destruction of the very Belarusian civil society, which – and it is important to understand this – is the key barrier to the possible assimilation of Belarus by Russia. This development, in turn, would inevitably lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and a serious conflict, which could involve Ukraine and several EU countries.
The Kremlin is well aware of the attitude of the Belarusians, and it was and is the main reason preventing the start of integration to its full extent. Now Russia is simply waiting for Lukashenko to do all the dirty work of mopping up the protesters. After that, against the background of the completely pro-Russian top brass of the security services and the army, nothing and no one will stand in the way of a gradual takeover of Belarus.
And of course, this will not be prevented by Lukashenko, who is still deeply mistakenly perceived by some European politicians as a guarantor of the independence of Belarus by inertia.
Pavel Latushko is a member of the Presidium of the Coordinating Council and a key figure in the Belarusian opposition.