The Nation That Democracy Forgot

Perhaps because the expression “death squads” is one which I usually associate with Latin America, it caught my eye yesterday when I saw it in the weekend edition of the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, as part of a headline: “Belarus: Revelations of Former Prosecutors: Did the Death Squads Exist?” Coincidentally, this was the same edition of Rzeczpospolita that featured, on its front page, an enormous photograph of a smiling George W. Bush, surrounded by smiling Warsaw University students, beneath another headline: “No More Yaltas.”

“No More Yaltas” is, of course, a line from the speech that President Bush made at Warsaw University library last Friday. The theme of that speech, for those who missed it, was that we must continue to spread democracy east, to “erase the false lines that have divided Europe for too long. … Every European nation that struggles toward democracy and free markets and a strong civic culture must be welcomed into Europe’s home.” Bush went on to thank Poland for “acting as a bridge to the new democracies of Europe” as well as for being a “champion of the interests and security of your neighbors, such as the Baltic states, Ukraine, Slovakia.” He even hinted that Russia might someday want to join NATO too: “NATO, even as it grows, is no enemy of Russia. Poland is no enemy of Russia. America is no enemy of Russia.” That was all fine by the Poles. The audience at the university library—I counted a cardinal, three former prime ministers, and a gaggle of former defense and foreign ministers, as well as most of the Polish government—could hardly have been more enthusiastic; outside, there were more protesters in favor of Bush (pro-NATO Lithuanians and pro-NAFTA Poles) than against. But although it was nice to see everyone looking so cheerful in Warsaw, where the usual conversation is about how terrible everything is, the speech did, at another level, make me worry. While it’s easy enough to talk about progress and freedom here in Poland, there are still a few European countries that haven’t adopted “democracy and free markets and a strong civic culture,” and nobody ever seems to want to talk about them.

Most notably, nobody mentioned Belarus at all during Bush’s trip to Europe last week. Although it is Poland’s neighbor, Belarus did not feature on the list of countries toward which Polish democracy is spreading. Although its government is profoundly anti-American, it was not the subject of any special appeals. I suspect this is because Belarus neither fits into the generally positive story of progress and democratization nor is it powerful enough to qualify as a potential enemy. Instead, it has become the East’s most important example of post-communist failure.

Belarus, it must be said, began with an identity problem: Before 1991, it had always been a province, either of a Polish or a Russian empire, and never an independent state. I traveled quite a bit in the rural, western part of the country right around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and found that the question “What are you?” produced different answers, depending on the religion of the person answering. Catholics said, “I am Polish.” The Orthodox said, “I am Russian.” A few would shake their heads, look perplexed, and answer, “Tutejszy”—a word that translates, roughly, as “a person from right here.”

Lack of identity created a vacuum into which stepped Alexander Lukashenka. Since his election to the presidency of Belarus in 1994, he has gradually transformed himself into a dictator and made his country into something that is beginning to resemble a fascist state. He has amended the constitution to broaden his power, dissolved the parliament, imposed restrictions on freedoms of speech and of the press. As Radio Free Europe has reported, those independent Belorussian newspapers that still exist are mostly printed in Lithuania—the state-owned printing press refused to renew their contracts in 1995—and are sometimes confiscated at the border. The Belorussian security service, the only one in the region that still calls itself the KGB, harasses students, journalists, and political opponents alike. Lukashenka has also successfully prevented any large-scale privatization or any form of comprehensive economic reform, as a result of which wages in Minsk are one-tenth those of wages in Warsaw, and living standards continue to drop. Needless to say, he doesn’t want to join NATO, the EU, or even the community of civilized nations. 

True, it is sometimes tempting to dismiss Lukashenka as a clown: At one point, he expelled most of the foreign ambassadors in Minsk from their residences. When they protested, he cut off their water. It is also easy to dismiss him as a Russian stooge. He is slowly closing all the schools that teach students in the Belorussian language (Minsk now has only one such school) and has allowed his country’s foreign and defense policies, as well as its customs regime, to be more or less dictated by Russia. 

But some of his behavior isn’t funny at all nor does it seem to be entirely inspired by Moscow. Thanks to Belarus’ democratic opposition, much of which is in exile in Poland, rumors of death squads and of government opponents who have “disappeared” in mysterious circumstances have been floating across the border for the past few years. This week, the two aforementioned prosecutors—both reported to be seeking political asylum in the United States—have made public their claims that the government did indeed operate a death squad, which they say was responsible for the murders of two opposition leaders, as well as a well-known Russian TV journalist, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Lukashenka, typically, has dismissed the two prosecutors as “drunkards.”

That, it seems to me, leaves Bush’s “Europe, whole and free” with a large blank spot in its center. Sitting in Warsaw, it’s easy enough to talk about the triumph of American policy, about the success of Western values in Europe. You don’t have to look very far, however—not just to Belarus, but to Chechnya, to Macedonia, to Moldova, to Georgia, even to Bosnia—to see the conflicts of the future. It’s all very well to have a vision of democracy spreading east; I hope we have the policies and are prepared to commit the resources to back it up.