Hope and Fear for Belarus

In his not uncontroversial White House memoir, The Room Where It Happened, John Bolton describes how the administration he was part of protractedly failed to liberate Venezuela. 

Things began with promise. But care and attention was lacking – in the nascent Venezuelan government-in-waiting, and in those outside forces who nominally sought to ensure a change of government.

Here are some of the facts Bolton laments. The Venezuelan president-in-waiting, Juan Guaidó, was a young, telegenic character who quickly attracted international recognition after his autocratic opponent rigged an election. An international effort, led by the single-issue Lima Group of American states, attempted to afford him diplomatic legitimacy. He addressed rallies in the major cities and there appeared significant popular favour on his side. The young leader travelled abroad for his safety and to gather support.

But all the while, bad omens were massing. The military and the state institutions, despite wavering, largely supported the status quo and its president, Nicolás Maduro. A foreign power, in this case Cuba, sent its people in to restore order and prop up the regime, while another, Russia, supplied personnel and propaganda. Cubans ran state enterprises and marshalled pro-regime paramilitaries, the Colectivos, which disrupted anti-government protests and intimidated opposition figures. In the White House, the president and his officials vacillated, offering overt support but lamenting the claimant’s lack of a global profile. They did not send troops to reinforce nearby countries and they withdrew their embassy staff at the first sight of danger.

After months of popular anger and discontent, the moment for revolution passed. By and large, the military did not defect; the legal manoeuvrings of the insurgent National Assembly did not bear fruit; and Guaidó himself has ceased his world touring and now faces challenge after challenge from inside his own faction.

Rather than ringing in a new government, Venezuela’s 2019 constitutional crisis now appears as little more than a missed opportunity. The country’s democrats are unlikely to get another chance for power.

These unwelcome memories are unhappily close at hand this year, as the people of Belarus take to the streets in uncommon numbers to demonstrate against their own autocrat’s rigged election. 

The focal point for these protests is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed activist who believes she was denied victory by fraud in the country’s recent presidential election. 

She is young and telegenic. She has received the support of much of the western hemisphere, whose nations do not accept the victory claimed by Alexander Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya’s supporters and many thousands of others called for new elections, and spilled into the streets for protests without precedent in Belarus. And Tikhanovskaya herself, fearing for her safety and attempting to drum up international support, fled the country as the state reacted with violence to the democrats’ challenge.

Like in Venezuela, there are some initial signs in Belarus to encourage. And unlike in Venezuela, the opposition in Belarus seems harder to undermine. It is not led by one man, but rather comprises a decentralised network of political amateurs, many of whom already have people they love in jail. It does not rest on the application of a constitutional technicality to overthrow the sitting president; instead, all its people demand are fresh elections. There is talk of defection from the state apparatus, with retired military and police figures, and employees of state media, supporting the demonstrators. Large protests and the prospect of a general strike make a mockery of the government’s attempt to carry on as if all is usual and above board. In his public appearances, Lukashenko is often barracked and appears as detached from reality as a Ceaușescu.

But behind the scenes, and increasingly openly, foreign influence which weighs against democracy is beginning to be felt. Russia stands firm behind Lukashenko, and aircraft associated with its FSB security services have made a number of telling trips to Minsk

The government has mounted an increasingly violent crackdown which has claimed a number of lives, included the torture of imprisoned demonstrators, and featured the arrest of foreign journalists. More than this, those protesting fear the prospect of more direct Russian intervention, which could leave a number of them dead and their country no closer to freedom.

Least encouragement of all comes from abroad. The United States is barely involved, being busy enough with its own oncoming presidential election. And although many European nations, like good neighbours, have refused to recognise the election and have called for another go, their posture is one of complaint. This attitude seems bound to go down in defeat. Perhaps the sanctions European countries will soon levy on Belarus may have the desired effect. But control of the state is more important; and that has already been conceded.

When the European Union wishes to discuss the situation, its leaders telephone Vladimir Putin. Such a posture can only sell the democrats of Belarus down river. 

When Bolton considered the chances missed and opportunities squandered in the failed pursuit of a free Venezuela, he gave the White House and the president low marks. Tactical errors by the opposition, cowardice among those who did not defect, and the “cold, cynical pressure” of Russia and Cuba applied to conserve the dictatorship – all of these told. But scattershot American involvement, the thing the White House could most control, failed to tip the balance. The president talked too long to Vladimir Putin while Cuba took control of the situation on the ground.

The protests in Belarus are unlikely to cease and the hearts of many around the world are with them. But without serious, concerted external pressure, the willingness of dictatorships to defend each other cannot be underestimated.

It is a sad possibility that the protests in Belarus may be as badly mishandled as the bid to free Venezuela. A new leader may be declared, international groups of supportive nations may be orchestrated, some pressure may haphazardly be placed on the old regime. But it remains distressingly likely that Lukashenko – like Maduro – may yet hang on.

This piece was originally published in The Critic.

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