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Orest Deychakiwsky

The other pariah: Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka

 

This month marks three years since the August 9, 2020, stolen Belarusian presidential elections that sparked the largest protests ever seen in that country’s history. It also marks 1 ½ years since the self-described “last dictator in Europe,” Alyaksandr Lukashenka, joined forces with Vladimir Putin in invading Ukraine.

While Putin takes the prize as the face of evil today, he is not the only bad actor on the European continent. Mr. Lukashenka, the illegitimate, self-proclaimed president of Belarus, has long been an enemy of human rights, freedom and democracy. And he most assuredly is no friend of Ukraine.

Among the Lukashenka regime’s countless crimes has been complicity in the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. According to Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya, since the beginning of the full-fledged invasion, more than 3,000 children have been transferred from the temporarily occupied Donbas region of Ukraine under the guise of “rest and recovery” to Belarus. On “vacation,” they are subjected to anti-Ukrainian indoctrination and propaganda. The Belarusian democratic opposition has recently provided the International Criminal Court (ICC) with material detailing the forcible transfer of 2,100 Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied cities with Mr. Lukashenka’s approval.

Mr. Lukashenka has become an invaluable ally to Putin in Russia’s immoral war against Ukraine. He has allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send Russian forces and weapons into Ukraine. Accor-ding to a recent report, Belarus wants to secure an agreement with Iran to produce Shahed drones not far from Ukraine’s border. Russian tactical nuclear weapons are now believed to be deployed on Belarusian soil. Mr. Lukashenka will now do just about whatever his boss Putin wants him to do, short of committing Belarusian troops to the war. That could be a step too far even for this unpopular tyrant, given that 80 percent of Belarusians oppose the use of their army in the war.

Because of Mr. Lukashenka’s role in brokering a deal between Putin and Wagner warlord Yevgeniy Prigozhin in June’s mutiny attempt (a bizarre story whose final chapter likely has yet to be written), there are now more than 4,000 mercenaries from the notorious Wagner group in Belarus.

Officials in neighboring Poland and Lithuania are concerned about the presence of some Wagnerites on their borders. Recently, Mr. Lukashenka made the strange claim that Poland was going to annex western Ukraine and that the Wagner soldiers wanted to cross into Poland, but they were being kept in check – by him, of course. This was par for the course – when he is not lying outright, one of the buffoonish dictator’s hallmarks is to make crazy and often contradictory statements. He’s been doing this for decades. More serious are his various provocations on the borders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, including facilitating the passage of illegal migrants.

Many Belarusians, already deeply unhappy with their strongman’s rule, are not thrilled by the presence of the Wagner militia. Mr. Lukashenka may have a tough time controlling them should they decide to cause trouble. Keep in mind that Belarus’ military is not that large or effective. It is made up of some 48,000 troops and has only 11,700 ground troops. Given the twists and turns of this ongoing saga, allowing the Wagnerites to stay on Belarusian territory could yet end up being a decision that Mr. Lukashenka himself regrets as these thugs could have a destabilizing effect within the country.

The petulant and petty Belarusian tyrant has had a long and sordid history of repressive rule. Since his election as president in 1994, Mr. Lukashenka has consolidated his power over all institutions and repeatedly undermined the rule of law – among other things, by changing the constitution to extend his term. All presidential and parliamentary elections in the country have been neither free nor fair. The government severely restricts fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly and association. It has suppressed the democratic opposition and independent media and constrained civil society.

On a personal note, I had a seat to this horror show when I inherited the Belarus portfolio at the Helsinki Commission shortly after Mr. Lukashenka’s 1994 election until my retirement in 2017. None of the other countries that I covered, except for Ukraine, took up as much of my time and attention. Throughout the last 29 years, the Commission has been outspoken in championing democracy and human rights in Belarus, shining the light on the Lukashen-ka regime’s countless abuses. Among its activities, it has held most of the Cong-ressional hearings, public briefings and meetings with Belarusian officials as well as with the democratic opposition and civil society. It has produced many resolutions and statements, and was responsible for three Belarus Democracy Acts, all introduced by Commission Chair Chris Smith (R-N.J.). Suffice it to say that the Luka-shenka regime has not been fond of the Helsinki Commission.

Mr. Lukashenka often tried to play off Russia against the West. At times, this strained relations between him and Putin; there has long been no love lost between the two tyrants. This balancing act was ultimately a failed approach. The West, led by the United States, has refused to embrace a dictator who flagrantly violates human rights and denies fundamental freedoms. Ironically, because of his profound resistance to political and economic reforms, no one has done more than the Belarusian dictator himself to weaken his country’s independence.

Already economically heavily dependent on Russia, Mr. Lukashenka became even more subordinate to Putin – and further eroded Belarus’ independence – when he stole the elections from democratic opposition candidate Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya three years ago. Unprecedented massive peaceful protests of up to 100,000 people that lasted for months followed. They were met with a harsh crackdown that exceeded any earlier ones – including that which followed the 2010 presidential elections. According to the Law and Democracy Center NGO, the number of victims of repression in Belarus between May 2020 and May exceeded 136,000. That is a huge number for a country with a population of 9.4 million.

The brutal suppression continues to this day. The Belarusian human rights organization Viasna has identified nearly 1,500 political prisoners – including activists, journalists and human rights defenders. One of them is Ales Bialiatski, a founding member of Viasna and longtime pro-democracy activist who shared last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Journalists are imprisoned. There are also an additional 1,900 individuals convicted in “politically motivated criminal trials.” These are believed to be low estimates.

Many of these Belarusians are languishing in jails for supporting Ukraine. And thousands of brave Belarusians have fought on Ukraine’s side. Last week, four of them belonging to the volunteer Belarusian Kalinouski Brigade died in battles against the Russians.

As for Ukraine’s relationship with Belarus, it is a huge mistake to conflate the Belarusian regime with the people of Belarus. While the Ukrainian government has taken some steps to engage with the exiled democratic opposition led by Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, it needs to more fully embrace Belarusians who support Ukraine.

Belarusians and Ukrainians share a similar – but by no means identical – history going back to Kyivan Rus’, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Both peoples have a lot more in common with each other linguistically and culturally than either one does with Russia. They both endured several centuries of Russian subjugation and relentless Russification.

Belarusians realize that a Ukrainian victory greatly increases the chances of a free, democratic and truly independent Belarus.

Mr. Lukashenka fears his own people and realizes that without Putin’s support he is likely a goner. With a Ukrainian victory and a free and democratic Belarus – both closely aligned with their neighbors Poland and the Baltic states – a despotic, imperial Russia doesn’t stand a chance. It will sooner or later be relegated to the dustbin of history where it rightly belongs. An extra bonus would be to see both Putin and his lackey Lukashenka brought to justice internationally for their crimes against humanity.

And just as the West needs to do everything it can to support a Ukrainian victory, it needs to fully support Belarusian democratic forces who are among Ukraine’s best allies.

Orest Deychakiwsky may be reached at orestdeychak@gmail.com.