Democracy Lab

Europe's Pet Dictator

Parts of the old Soviet bloc have moved on. So why is Belarus still mired in despotism?

"The KGB came to search our apartment," says Natalia Pinchuk, an elegant 48-year-old whose fair hair gives her a distinctly Nordic air. "They were looking for material to use in the case, but they didn't find anything." Last year, secret police grabbed her husband, human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, off a street in Minsk, the capital of the Belarusian police state. They packed him off to jail, where he remains today; he's now serving out a four-and-a-half-year sentence. (She last saw him in May, but further visits have been canceled by the prison authorities -- allegedly on grounds of "bad behavior.") The ostensible charge was tax evasion, but everyone knows what his real crime was: Bialiatski runs an organization that provides aid to political prisoners in the former Soviet republic.

The KGB? Political prisoners? Wait a minute. Isn't this 2012? The Soviet Union broke up 21 years ago. Today, Belarus's three neighbors to the West -- Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia -- are all members of the European Union and NATO. The citizens of these countries regularly elect new leaders through democratic, multiparty elections. They have free media, independent courts, and myriad institutional checks and balances.

In Belarus, population 10 million, President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He recently gave an interview to foreign journalists in which he boasted of his status as "the last and only dictator in Europe." Under his rule, Belarus has preserved Soviet-era organizations like the Young Communist League and the Young Pioneers. And yes, the KGB -- the Committee for State Security -- still proudly operates under its old name. (The organization's website includes a number for a telephone "helpline," presumably for use by upstanding citizens eager who are eager to inform on their neighbors.) Even Vladimir Putin's Russia felt compelled to rename its internal security service. Not so Belarus; there's much about the place that harks back to the days of Brezhnev.

The United Nations may have observed Human Rights Day earlier this week, but Minsk clearly didn't get the memo. Lukashenko, who got his start in politics as the director of a collective farm, cultivates a public persona that is equal parts gangster and a clown. He takes his seven-year-old son Myakaly along to his meetings with visiting dignitaries and suits him up in a miniature officer's uniform (complete with his own little gold pistol) for military parades.

The buffoonery is deceptive. This is a man with a shark-like understanding of power. When Belarusians started campaigning against his regime back in the 1990s, a prominent journalist and two of Lukashenko's leading political opponents simply disappeared. The government launched a half-hearted investigation, but, oddly enough, no trace of the men has ever been found.

Potential critics got the message. The opposition is still alive, but just barely. Two years ago they managed to bring significant crowds onto the streets to protest a rigged presidential election. Lately they've resorted to some innovative tactics, like the so-called clapping protests. Even those who participated in these innocuous activities met with a brutal response from club-wielding police. (And that stunt by Swedish sympathizers, who airlifted teddy bears adorned with pro-democracy messages into the country this past summer, certainly drummed up some welcome publicity. Lukashenko was so angry that he fired two generals for the presumed lapse in the country's air defense system.) But they've faced an uphill battle -- actually something more akin to a perfectly vertical wall -- in their efforts to garner support.

Bialiatski's group, called Viasna ("Spring") Human Rights Center, has been decimated by the government's assault. (At one point, the KGB even arrested his 23-year-old son, Adam; he was later released, and now lives in Poland.) Bialiatski himself could have left before his arrest; it was clear where things were headed. "Everyone told him to leave," says Zhanna Litvina, a leading Belarusian journalist. (Her group, the Belarus Association of Journalists, won a Sakharov Prize in 2004.) "But he said, 'This is my country. I'm not guilty of anything. I'm not running away.'"

Just last month, the authorities confiscated all of Viasna's property and boarded up its office. Activists say that there are just 12 political prisoners left in the country (including Bialiatski). But that attests less to the lack of critical voices than to the benumbing effectiveness of Lukashenko's police state. Seven people who tried running against Lukashenko in the last presidential election in 2010 ended up under arrest; one of them, Mikolau Statkevich, is still in jail.

Lukashenko, it appears, actually likes having a few political prisoners around. They make great bargaining chips whenever he needs to negotiate with the European Union, which is perpetually pestering him about his miserable human rights record. "It's like a sort of trade in people," says Tatsiana Reviaka, a member of Viasna. "He tells them, ‘You give us a loan, we'll free a political prisoner.'" Not surprisingly, the European Union has little to show for its efforts. Brussels has been nudging Lukashenko to allow greater freedom for his people now for the past 18 years.

But, aside from these minor concessions from the dictator, the situation remains virtually unchanged. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that there are still plenty of E.U. countries (notably the Netherlands and Latvia) that are eager to buy cheap oil products from Belarusian refineries. In the first six months of this year alone Lukashenko earned $8 billion from the trade. Those hard currency earnings constitute a crucial lifeline for the dictator. If the European Union really wanted to hit Belarus where it hurts, this would be the perfect place to crack down. So it's no wonder that the high-minded lectures from Brussels aren't having much effect.

The reason has a great deal to do with the peculiar geopolitical position of Belarus, sandwiched between the European Union and Putin's Russia -- a country that, needless to say, tends to share Lukashenko's views on human rights. But their ideological similarities don't necessarily mean that Moscow and Minsk see eye to eye on everything.

Lukashenko is too slippery a customer for that. His dependence on Moscow, which supplies virtually all of Belarus's energy needs, is great. (Moscow has been known to shut off the flow of natural gas when Lukashenko gets too feisty.) But he has proven a master at playing East and West against each other. The Belarusian dictator knows perfectly well that the Europeans don't want to see him slip farther into Moscow's orbit, while Putin is reluctant to relinquish any of his influence over Minsk. It's a delicate balancing act, but the fact that Belarus has successfully resisted handing over more of its sovereignty to Moscow for so long attests to the success of the strategy.

This also explains why the Lukashenko system has managed to stay in place for so long. He has exploited the curse of geography to keep himself in power. There is nothing about Belarusians that ought to make them inherently different from other Europeans. But their place in Europe has dealt them a bad hand.

I've been to Belarus. It's a beautiful country, green and lush (in the summer). The people are well-educated, friendly, and cosmopolitan. Yet history has not been kind to this particular bit of real estate. There's a reason historian Timothy Snyder titled his book about Belarus and the areas that surround it Bloodlands. In the 1930s and 1940s, its people have seen -- in quick succession -- Stalin's terror, Nazi invasion and occupation, the Germans' scorched-earth retreat, and the return of Soviet power. The Holocaust and the Gulag have both left their lasting imprint. Minsk, the capital, basically ceased to exist during the war. Eighty percent of it was destroyed.

This sad backstory, combined with Lukashenko's undeniable skill at intrigue, helps to explain why Belarus has ended up where it is. The majority of Belarusians clearly aren't happy with their present situation, but most now respond by hunkering down. Independent polling suggests that around 30 percent still support Lukashenko, while 15 percent side with the opposition; the rest have sunk into a profoundly apolitical apathy. Many Belarusians are voting with their feet, thronging into the European Union for any jobs they can find. (One big difference from Soviet days is that people can now travel more or less freely -- as long as they can get visas.) "We're a country of partisans," says Reviaka wryly. "We're very good at hiding in the bushes."

Perhaps. But there's no question that many Belarusians would welcome a way out of their current stagnation. The European Union already has a Nobel Prize of its own. How about giving Bialiatski a Nobel Prize? Now that would send a breath of fresh air through this musty corner of Europe.    

Photo by NIKOLAI PETROV/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Barbarians at the Gate

Are Russia and China trying to take over the Internet? Probably. But so far they aren't having much luck.

For the next few days, the eyes of people who care about the fate of the Internet will be sharply focused on a meeting in Dubai. That's where representatives of the 193 members of the United Nations have come together to talk about a new treaty on global telecommunications. The previous one dates back to 1988, when fax machines were still cool and cell phones (for those lucky few who had them) were the size of a brick.

Normally this isn't the sort of thing that would prompt headlines. But the run-up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced "wicket") has stirred up some scary talk. If you believe the Wall Street Journal, the Internet is about to be "rewired by bureaucrats" -- a process it likens to "handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla." A commentator at Fox News could barely restrain himself from summoning the black helicopters: "The future of freedom in the 21st century may be about to be deleted, at the click of a mouse." Meanwhile, an op-ed at HuffPost huffed that the very fate of the "open Internet" is at stake.

Remarkable. Finally America's left and right seem to have found a common enemy: the U.N.'s nefarious ninja army of Internet oppressors.

It's gratifying to see that people are so eager to react to perceived threats to the freedom of cyberspace -- something that too many of us probably take for granted. And there's no question that there are major dangers to the openness of the Internet out there. But it's not the United Nations that we should be really worried about. "The real threats to the Internet come from nation states," says Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. "And that includes some of the Western governments as well as the more authoritarian governments."

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) -- the group that is meeting in Dubai this week -- is a bureaucratic organization that was founded in the nineteenth century to ensure that different national telegraph networks could talk to each other. It consists of representatives from each member government. That should give you an idea of how flexible it is.

The ITU is also weak. Each country has one vote, meaning that most proposals will get watered down to a least common denominator. And the ITU has little power to enforce its rules. Despite all the conspiracy theories, the U.N. has never really shown itself to be good at imposing its will on the world. Why would we think that it could have its way with the notoriously protean Internet?

Now, it's true that Russia has floated the idea of giving greater powers to the ITU, an effort designed to give national governments much more of a say over cyberspace than they have now. The proposal was a non-starter, and it was withdrawn before WCIT even got started. And it's also true that China has quietly lobbied for some very dubious practices that it has tried to smuggle into global technical standards. But that initiative doesn't seem to have gotten very far, either.

Yes, these moves are ominous. There's no question that the same governments that aim to maintain tight control over the Internet within their own borders would like to see the same philosophy on the international level. "It took a while for governments to figure out how potentially destabilizing Internet access is," says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "Now that they think they've understood it, they're considering acting in a way to protect themselves." And some of them clearly see the United Nations as the place to pursue this aim.

It's not only the police states that want to meddle with global Internet governance. Some democracies -- India, Brazil, and other places of the developing world -- do, too. Their motives often have less to do with politics than money. Some of them want to erect protectionist barriers that would compel the big Western Internet companies like Facebook and Google to pay for access to their national markets. (The countries in question want to use the resulting fees to build their own internet infrastructure.)

What all these efforts have in common is that they aim to undermine America's control of the institutions that currently define how the Internet works -- or at least that's how many other countries see it. The Internet was invented in the United States, of course, and Americans still play an outsized role in shaping its operations. The domain name system of the Internet is controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private, non-profit corporation that is subject to U.S. Commerce Department oversight.

This has made ICANN the focus of considerable ire in foreign capitals. Russia, China, and Brazil have talked about shifting control over domain names to the U.N. or to individual national governments. Earlier this year, a commentator at the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, railed against U.S. dominance: "The United States controls and owns all cyberspaces in the world, and other countries can only lease Internet addresses and domain names from the United States, leading to the U.S. hegemonic monopoly over the world's Internet."

There are undoubtedly many people in Washington who wish that this were true. But it's doubtful that anyone exercises anything like a "hegemonic monopoly" over the global Internet today, which, despite its origins in the U.S. Department of Defense, has evolved over the years into a vast, decentralized entity -- less an organization than an organism -- that depends on voluntary standards. Today most of the web's operations are defined by an ever-shifting cloud of companies, industry groups, and users. "‘Internet governance' is probably the wrong term to use," says Kevin Werbach, a professor at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. "There isn't a need for a body to govern the Internet."

Its defenders call the reigning order "the multi-stakeholder model." It certainly has its problems. But it has the virtue of transparency -- unlike the ITU (although, to its credit, the WCIT has responded to its critics by allowing a live webcast of the proceedings). It's also a model that has been largely vindicated by experience; after all, it's worked pretty well so far.

It's striking, in fact, that the Europeans, who don't necessarily side with Washington on many issues nowadays and who tend to be quite fond of multilateral forums, have supported the United States in its efforts to maintain the Internet status quo.

None of this, of course, means that there aren't threats to Internet freedom out there today -- and yes, even in America itself. Syracuse's Mueller notes that no other government in the world has surveillance resources to compare with Washington's. Powerful U.S. content providers are constantly lobbying to shape the web according to their interests. SOPA and PIPA have been defeated for the moment, but no one should doubt that their sponsors in the business world will seize the next possible opening to punish online copyright infringement in the most draconian of ways.

We all have an interest in keeping the system of Internet administration as open as possible -- and, if anything, making it even more decentralized. Reforming ICANN, which has attracted its own share of controversy lately, might be a start. But handing over greater control of the Internet to governments would definitely be a move in the wrong direction.

Speaking of which, it would be interesting to hear what Russian and Chinese Internet users, as opposed to their governments, have to say on these matters. Funnily enough, no one in Moscow or Beijing seems to be asking them. Even in democratic India, for that matter, technologists and activists have scolded officials for shutting them out of deliberations before the Dubai conference -- and rightly so. "The Internet is not a government-run telephone network," says Werbach. "Why is that only governments that should make these decisions?" It's a good question. And the answer is that they shouldn't.

Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages