Sohrab Ahmari Headshot

Americans Stand Up to Europe's Last Dictator. Will Europe?

Posted: Updated:

The death of North Korea's psychopathic dictator, Kim Jong-Il, once again refocused international attention on the hermit kingdom. In Europe, the news was not exactly greeted with high hopes for democratic development in the (inaptly named) Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This cautiousness is understandable. As Francoise Nicolas, director for Asian Studies at the French Institute for International Relations told Voice of America, Europeans "have very little influence on [and] very little economic interaction with North Korea, so they will not have very much to do or much to show."

Closer to Europe in both geographic and cultural terms, however, there is another country, where a cruel dictator continues to oppress a population of almost 10 million -- but does so without garnering nearly the same degree of scrutiny as, say, the backward Saudi regime, the Iranian theocracy, or the eccentric Kim dynasty.

That country is Belarus, ruled by Europe's last dictator: Alexander Lukashenko.

To be sure, Lukashenko -- a man seemingly recruited straight from central casting to play the role of an Eastern European strongman -- is not nearly as vicious as his counterparts in Riyadh, Tehran, or Pyongyang. Nevertheless, his is an outlaw regime whose rights record falls far outside European norms. Since assuming office in 1994, Lukashenko has steadily consolidated power by rigging elections and muzzling dissent. Opposition leaders are frequently beaten, harassed, and jailed. Individual rights -- including the right to free speech and assembly -- are severely curtailed.

Last December, following yet another rigged election resulting in a Lukashenko victory, the regime launched a brutal and sustained crackdown. One oppositionist (and former diplomat), Andrei Sannikov, was held down by members of the Belarusian internal security forces -- still called the KGB -- while officers stomped on his legs and chest. He has since been arbitrarily detained, often lacking access to his lawyer and deprived of basic substantive and due process rights. But the post-election crackdown extended far beyond oppositionist leaders. As James Kirchick reported in World Affairs last month, a paranoid Lukashenko has gone so far as to ban even small, seemingly trivial gestures of popular dissent, such as public clapping.

But the Belarusian people have not remained entirely voiceless.

The 1.5 million-strong Belarusian-American community and their congressional allies have become increasingly strident in challenging Lukashenko's despotism. On Nov. 19, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) held a press conference on Capitol Hill hailing the pending passage in both houses of Congress of the Belarus Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2011, extending and expanding travel bans and asset freezes on the country's human rights abusers. "The Belarusian people deserve far better than the Lukashenko," the congressman stated during the House floor debate on the bill. "This act of assistance to them in their struggle for human rights and democracy is an act of respect and friendship for the people of Belarus."

Smith's message was echoed by the Belarusian-American Association, which held a solidarity vigil outside the Belarusian embassy in Washington the same day. "We are advocating for the immediate release of political prisoners," Alice Kipel, an organizer with the association, told me. "We definitely want regime change in Belarus. There is a future for Belarus after Lukashenko."

Viachaslau Bortnik, a student at American University hailing from Gomel, Belarus's second largest city, was also in attendance at the vigil. "The situation in Belarus is very depressing," Bortnik, who had been inside the country just a few weeks before, told me. "I had a feeling that people were very nervous. They don't trust Lukashenko anymore. He had some support in the countryside but with the worsening economy, even the provinces don't support him now."

Before coming to the U.S. for graduate study, Bortnik campaigned for one of the opposition candidates, Ales Michalevic, who, during the crackdown was jailed for several months and, he later claimed, tortured while in detention. To secure his freedom, Michalevic was forced to sign a statement pledging to cooperate with the regime. But soon after his release, Michalevic held a press conference declaring that he would not, in fact, cooperate. Threatened with re-arrest, Michalevic sought and was granted asylum in the Czech Republic, where he is currently based.

Stories like these are all too common in Belarus. And while congressional leaders in the U.S. deserve praise for remaining vigilant about the plight of the Belarusian people at the hands of their oppressors, the onus is really on Europe to act on its values. (The U.S. can still do more by encouraging its European allies to put additional pressure on the regime.)

By supporting the Belarusian people, the EU can help ensure that the continent becomes a "dictator-free zone." Today, as Brussels works to repair Europe's frayed economic bonds, it cannot lose sight of an even more important goal: preserving and expanding shared European values.

"The EU must follow the lead of the U.S.," Bortnik said. "The Europeans are still soft. But practice shows that dialogue doesn't work with a dictator -- economic sanctions work."