'Europe's last dictator," as the Bush administration has aptly tagged him, is up to it again. This time, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has gone after ethnic Poles living in western Belarus, accusing them of "fomenting revolution." On Wednesday, Lukashenko sent riot police to seize the headquarters of an association that represents the 400,000 Poles and hauled in several leaders for questioning. Poland then pulled out its ambassador in Minsk, charging Lukashenko with trampling on human rights. The state-run news media in Belarus have often accused Poland of using the Polish minority in Belarus to stir up a revolution like the "orange revolution" in Ukraine a year ago, something Lukashenko has vowed to block. When dictators of his kind start identifying minorities as enemies, there is every reason to be alarmed.
Lukashenko, a former state farm manager, was first elected president of Belarus in 1994, at the age of 40, on a wave of popular resentment against the madcap privatization and massive corruption that characterized the first post-Soviet years. Indeed, Belarus has no oligarchs, and has not suffered the massive dislocations of Russia and other former republics. But Lukashenko achieved this essentially by freezing Belarus in time - Soviet time. Hardly anything has been privatized, television programs focus largely on agricultural exhortations, and Lukashenko even brought back the Soviet republican flag, minus only the hammer and sickle. Above all, Lukashenko has established himself as the complete Soviet-style dictator.
When his Parliament rose up against him in 1996, he chucked it out and set up a rubber-stamp Parliament next door, while strengthening the reach of the KGB (as it is still called). Since then, he has ruthlessly clamped down on any opposition, and any foreign organizations he suspects of working against him. Even Russia, with which he longs to reunite, is wary of Lukashenko.
But the pressures on Lukashenko have been steadily growing from the West, first of all Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - now all members of NATO and the European Union - and Ukraine. In the United States, the Belarus Democracy Act passed by Congress last year authorized payments to nongovernmental groups. Like Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, one of Lukashenko's heroes, the Belarus dictator is likely to become ever more dangerous as the pressures grow on him to exit. Nonetheless, out he must go, and the sooner the better.
Based in London, we are an informal group dedicated to supporting democracy and human rights throughout
the former Soviet Union. Our aims are:
Informing the public about issues in this area that receive little coverage in the Western media.
Staging peaceful demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns in support of specific causes.
Supporting and publicising nonviolent pro-democracy groups throughout the region.
Encouraging European and American involvement.
Support the Belarusian cartoonists
Third Way, the Belarusian organisation whose members are being prosecuted for producing satirical cartoons about Lukashenka,
have set up a web page where you can make a donation via PayPal. The group urgently
need money for their legal defence and operating expenses. Please give what you can today! Read more
We are continuing to focus our efforts on the Belarusian prisoner of conscience Mikhail Marinich.
We are campaigning for him to receive proper medical treatment, to be permitted to see his family,
and ultimately to be released from prison pending a review of his case. You can help by distributing
our factsheets and letters.
Members of these groups have joined our blog to share their views and experiences.