By Carl Gershman
Washington and other capitals go into semi-hibernation during the holiday season, with many officials on leave and offices on lighter schedules. That makes it convenient for autocratic regimes to commit offensive actions this time of year, on the assumption that fewer people will be watching. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan during the holiday break in 1979. It was on Christmas Day last year that China sentenced Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, to 11 years in prison.
This holiday season, too, has been replete with provocative actions that autocrats hope might pass unnoticed. The rigged conviction of jailed Russian entrepreneur and dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been scheduled for Dec. 15; it was postponed until Dec. 27 in an effort, some have suggested, to avoid complicating the U.S. Senate's ratification of the New START treaty. That is one reason. But speaking outside the courtroom after the postponement was announced, Marina Khodorkovskaya, the defendant's mother, called the delay "an attempt to avoid public attention. Too many people are interested in this case. This is the usual thing they do."
In neighboring Belarus, the regime of Alexander Lukashenko carried out the most sweeping and brutal crackdown on democratic oppositionists in Europe since martial law was declared in Poland in 1981. Calling this display of thuggery "an extraordinary day for democracy," Venezuela's strongman, Hugo Chavez, meanwhile used the holiday period to assume decree powers for the next 18 months and ram through the National Assembly laws imposing severe controls on the Internet, telecommunications and nongovernmental organizations.
That autocrats see the need to cloak their repressive measures in the holiday lull suggests that their appearance of invulnerability might be deceptive. They care about the international reaction precisely because they fear it might encourage domestic opponents to challenge their authority, which is far from absolute.
The Khodorkovsky verdict has certainly allowed Vladimir Putin to show that he holds the real power in Russia, not President Dmitry Medvedev, who has warned against "legal nihilism." But Putin has also lost the support of many Russian political elites, who despair that his likely return to the presidency will close the door on Russia's becoming a modern state and usher in a Brezhnev-like period of stagnation and continued economic and societal decay.
Lukashenko's crackdown sought to preempt a popular challenge to the results of the Dec. 19 presidential election. Most analyses and observer reports did not give him a victory in the first round. His announcement that there would be no more "democratic games" was actually an admission that he feared exposing himself to a humiliating second-round challenge and the risk of electoral defeat. His brief flirtation with democratic Europe has ended, but tying himself to a declining Russia will only deepen popular discontent.
Chavez's diminishing support was demonstrated last September when he lost the popular vote in parliamentary elections. The new powers he has decreed will allow him to bypass parliament, where the opposition holds 40 percent of seats, but the causes of his declining popularity remain unaddressed. Reasons for his slide include Venezuela's increasing poverty, rising inflation, a catastrophic crime rate and the spreading perception that his rule is corrupt and abusive. With presidential elections set for 2012, support for the opposition is likely to continue growing.
Crafting an effective response to these acts of repression should be high on the agenda of the president and congressional leaders when they return to Washington. The administration has appropriately criticized the Khodorkovsky verdict, but if resentencing him to prison on trumped-up charges crosses what some administration officials have said is a "red line," then a stronger response is called for - such as denying visas to those responsible for Khodorkovsky's prosecution and freezing their foreign accounts.
On Belarus, the administration can fashion a tough response with the European Union. The foreign ministers of four E.U. member states said last week that Europe "will not stand indifferent to gross violations" of human rights and democracy "in its own part of the world."
Finally, the real scandal on Venezuela has been the silence of the Organization of American States (OAS) and its secretary general, Jose Miguel Insulza. The OAS has taken "no side in the battle between tyranny and democracy," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week. The administration should work with her to get the regional body to act forcefully on its own Democratic Charter.
Autocrats using the holiday season to tighten their hold on power should receive a stiff New Year's message that they are indeed being watched and that their abuse will meet with a firm response.
The writer is president of the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, congressionally supported institution.