By Aurel Braun, David Matas and Michael Mostyn
The attention of the world recently has been focused on popular protests against dictatorships in the Middle East, especially in Egypt. But just weeks before, people in another part of the world, the small, land-locked eastern European nation of Belarus, were likewise demanding respect for their rights and dignity. The continuing repression suffered by citizens of this post-Soviet state is emblematic of the challenges faced by democracy activists all over the world.
Belarus is held hostage by a brazen dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, who has stayed in power through rigged elections since 1994. The most recent electoral travesty was in December 2010. Opposition candidates and parties were allowed to run and campaign. However, the votes were not counted. A pre-ordained Soviet-style landslide was announced as soon as the polls closed.
Security officials attacked a vast post-election protest demonstration in a public square, arresting and injuring hundreds. Seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates were arrested.
In the past, much of the democratic world wrote Belarus off as a lost cause. Now is time for reconsideration.
Canada can contribute meaningfully to the democratization effort in Belarus because we are detached; we cannot be accused of having a hidden agenda. We have enough resources to support democracy, and the Canadian government has shown an interest in doing so.
The political system of Belarus is not reformable - it must be brought down and replaced. Lukashenko is the classic caricature of an authoritarian dictator, openly nostalgic for the days of Soviet oppression. He maintains an iron grip over all state institutions, and shamelessly continues to operate the KGB without even so much as a name change.
The Russian government is pro-Lukashenko and will do nothing to spur democratic reform in Belarus. There have been many public spats between Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko over the years; Russian TV has even aired explosive interviews exposing Lukashenko's death squads on Russian TV. But Russia remains fearful about a Western-aligned Belarus partnering with the Americans and the European Union. So despite Putin's personal dislike of Lukashenko, their de facto partnership persists.
A state donor conference in Warsaw on Feb. 2 was an important step forward for democratization efforts. Canadian Senator Reynall Andreychuk led the Canadian delegation.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon announced on Feb. 3 a commitment of $400,000 to help those who are working toward a free and democratic Belarus. A quarter of that sum will be used to support the work of Belsat, a television station operating from Poland that provides independent news programming about Belarus for Belarussian citizens.
A follow-up conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, held Feb. 3 and 4, was an opportunity to bring international civil society on board. Delegates at that conference heard that Belarus now seems ripe for change. Though Lukashenko is unreformable, his support is shallow and fragile. The recent election campaign, sham thought it was, sensitized, informed, and awoke the Belarus people. The subsequent repression generated a widespread level of solidarity with the victims.
The international community must challenge the subversion of elections and continued suppression of human dignity and rights in Belarus. Canada can help lead the way.
Aurel Braun chairs the board of directors of Rights & Democracy. David Matas is a board member of Rights & Democracy. Michael Mostyn is president of the Canadian Committee for a Democratic Belarus. All three were participants in the Belarus International Implementers Meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania.