President Obama gave an eloquent appeal at the recent Democratic Party convention calling upon citizens to protect “your democracy.” To see what is at stake, we need only look at events over the last few days in Belarus and Russia.
Belarus seldom headlines the news. It is a medium-sized country sandwiched between Russia and Europe. Culturally and demographically, it looks like Russia — and it was long a constituent part of the Soviet Union. But when you see news footage of Belarusians in the streets of the capital, speaking to TV journalists, they look and sound like people in Berlin, Paris or Stockholm. They are Europeans.
This population has long accepted autocratic rule, first from Moscow, and for the last 26 years, from Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the leader of a newly independent country — promising to give voice to the long silent people of Belarus. Instead, he soon became known as “Europe’s last dictator,” putting in place a Soviet-style autocracy with himself in charge. The populace seemed resigned, even accepting. What Lukashenko offered was stability, modest economic improvements and basic competence.
When the COVID pandemic hit, Lukashenko’s regime was already stale and increasingly corrupt. The dictator pronounced on several occasions that the virus did not exist — and, just in case it did, one could protect oneself from infection by drinking vodka and driving a tractor (the principal industry in Belarus is a massive tractor factory). Lukashenko’s pronouncements notwithstanding, the virus hit Belarus hard. Suddenly, the dictator wasn’t competent; he was a buffoon without a clue. At this critical juncture, Lukashenko announced new elections that would give him yet another term. Just to make sure of the outcome, he disqualified all the potential opposing candidates except the wife of one — who he dismissed as “just a woman.”
To Lukashenko’s evident surprise and alarm, the “woman” drew huge crowds and demonstrated political and oratorical skills. When the votes were counted, Lukashenko announced that he had won with over 80 percent of the vote. Lukashenko had rigged previous elections with hardly a murmur of protest, but this time people were fed up. They came into the streets of the capital in unprecedented numbers. Lukashenko responded straight out of the dictator’s playbook; he deployed the security forces who threw large numbers of demonstrators in jail and beat them up. But instead of being cowed into submission, protesters reacted with anger and defiance. As of this writing, the future is entirely unclear. The (often festive) crowds are still in the streets while the dictator struts behind police lines in a bullet-proof vest brandishing an assault rifle.
Meanwhile, next door in Russia, a smaller but equally compelling drama is playing out. Vladimir Putin is cut from the same cloth as Lukashenko — smoother and more cunning, but the similarities run deep. Over his years in power, Putin has established a mafia state with himself as godfather and his buddies from the old KGB as his operatives and enablers. In terms of the way it is run, there is no essential difference between Putin’s Russia and Al Capone’s crime syndicate.
This has all been on full display in recent days. To be a visible and vocal critic of Putin is to invite an early death. The list of victims is long and growing, including the most prominent opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in 2015 in the very shadow of the Kremlin. Most of the victims were poisoned, beginning with a Russian businessman and his secretary in 1995. A former Russian intelligence agent living in London was poisoned with radioactive polonium in 2006, and in 2018, another former KGB agent and his daughter, living in Britain, were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent, Novichok, developed by the Soviet army. It took extraordinary medical and forensic work by British specialists to identify the toxin used, the mode of delivery and the Russian operatives who did it. The Kremlin declared that it was all a Western conspiracy to discredit Russia.
Putin’s most prominent critic since Nemtsov has been Alexander Navalny, who has mounted a nationwide campaign to expose corruption and venality rife in Putin’s inner circle. Navalny and his wife have both been attacked by regime thugs in the recent past. When Navalny suddenly fell violently ill on a flight over Siberia, his assistants immediately suspected poison. Navalny would have certainly died in a Russian provincial hospital except for the decisive intervention of the German and French governments, demanding that he be evacuated for immediate medical treatment. The local Russian doctors procrastinated — under orders from Moscow — in the apparent hope he would either die quickly or evidence of the poison would disappear from his body. After more than two days, Navalny was evacuated on a German medical aircraft. Doctors in Berlin were so alarmed by what they saw on his arrival that they called in bioweapons specialists from the army.
On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel was publicly and uncharacteristically blunt: “Now it is evident; Navalny is a victim of a crime. He was supposed to be silenced.” She went on to demand “answers” from the Kremlin. German doctors announced that they had “absolute proof” that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok. It seems that the doctors have saved Navalny’s life but, as of this writing, he remains in a coma and his long-term prognosis is uncertain. What is certain is that Navalny was the target of a state assassination attempt ordered by the Kremlin, i.e., President Putin.
This is what the absence of democracy looks like. As for President Trump, he has, of course, said nothing. His master in the Kremlin would not take kindly to any criticism.