By Olli Kivinen
The European Union was slapped in the face with a wet rag, when Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, again hoodwinked the organisation. He made a few phony concessions and inspired the EU - Finland included - to resort to their policy of toadying, and to give the dictatorially ruled borderland the status of an eastern partner of the EU.
The EU countries went into their normal mode of action: preaching about human rights, but keeping their mouths shut when a difficult situation arose. This also applies to the Finnish foreign policy leadership.
Lukashenko held a sham election, allowed a few opposition figures to participate, and as has been his habit, stole the election result. Then the presidential candidates of the opposition were beaten - some had to be hospitalised - and were thrown into jail along with hundreds of their supporters.
The Belarus policy of the European Union is in a shambles. The matter is made more complicated by the fact that Belarus, like Russia and Ukraine, has a joint border with the EU.
In recent times, Hungary's media legislation has shown that political modes of action based on models of the past easily move from east to west - not, as the EU would like to believe, from west to east.
The EU has a big problem on its hands. Should the Union accept despotic rule in countries on its eastern borders? The situation is grim not only in Belarus and in the stans of the southern part of the former Soviet Union. Russia is predominated by a one-party system guided by the Kremlin, and Ukarine's Orange Revolution has lost steam.
In the final sense, power in the various countries is wielded through violence perpetrated by the successors of the former Soviet secret police, the KGB. In Belarus, the organisation has been allowed to keep the old KGB abbreviation - a metaphorical reality.
The foreign ministers of Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland tried to polish the image of the EU when they said in the International Herald Tribune at Christmastime that positive contacts with Belarus are a waste of time and money.
There is widespread acceptance in other countries that Lukashenko is being kept in power through a mixture of violence and genuine support.
The economic situation in Belarus has been better in recent years than in many other countries in similar situations, and Lukashenko has reinforced his position by offering his people a reasonable amount of benefits and buying power.
Everything is relative. Belarus remains a very poor country, and its economic growth has faltered as the result of the recession.
It is impossible to determine the support that despots enjoy without free elections, and there has been no talk of that in Belarus. Elections cannot be held without an independent opposition, media, and the judiciary. Activity of the opposition in Belarus has been made dangerous - even deadly - through violence and all of the other traditional tricks.
In fact, a new word should be invented to describe an election that is not really an election, because there is no real freedom of choice. Now there is the risk that speaking about "elections" might be deceptive.
EU member states have rather short memories. It has been hardly a decade since the previous phase of toadying by the EU came to an end.
Slobodan Milosevic, who led Yugoslavia, and later Serbia, repeatedly hoodwinked the EU, and the surrender that followed all of the empty threats turned the EU into an accomplice in the deaths, torture, and other agonies of hundreds of thousands of people.
Adding to the EU's humiliation was that the bickering Union was not able to stop the bloodshed in its own back yard, a stone's throw away from its core areas. The situation did not ease until the United States entered the fray.
The member states of the EU - both large and small - have not learned anything. If it is to have credibility, the Union needs to straighten out its ranks. In the present economic difficulties this is understood primarily as closer economic cooperation, but the same also applies to politics. The question is difficult, both in economics and politics, because decisions affect the most sensitive feelers of the nation-states.
Stronger cooperation requires a system in which the narrow national interests of individual member states must not be allowed to paralyse the organisation. It is not possible to force members into joint economic or political action, but they must also not be prevented from doing so.
The economic crisis has seriously stripped the European Union of much of its clothing, so now the EU needs to get back to its roots. The EU is a community of values, and the values that it represents have support all over the world. The events in Belarus indicate that the EU needs to fight more decisively than before on behalf of the social model that it represents - both in its own territory and elsewhere in the world.
Right now it would seem that countries dominated by despotism are doing better than democracies, but there are many misleading aspects to this. What is most worrisome is that democracy has been increasingly downplayed in democratically governed countries at a time when the economic crisis has made room for various populist movements.
People who have not experienced despotism have the luxury to complain about little things and to forget what is most important.
Life in democratic countries, which is typified by putting a priority on human dignity, gets citizens of countless other countries to try to reach democratically governed countries - often risking their own lives - in order to raise their children there. The idea of a better world is spreading in spite of attempts at censorship, and the EU countries need to remain a beacon for it even in troubled times.
In order to respond to the despotic capitalism of China and countries that copy it, we need to support people in Belarus and everywhere else who want to improve their own societies, and not to grovel before despotism.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.1.2011