Ten Easy Steps to Becoming a European Dictator

On Sunday, the people of Belarus went to the polls. According to the official results, announced on Monday, the president, Alexander Lukashenka, received 75.6 percent of the vote (just a touch under his previous total of 80 percent) while his main rival, Vladimir Goncharik, received 15.45 percent. According to the opposition parties who supported Goncharik, the vote was heavily falsified: In fact, Lukashenka received 46 percent of the vote, and Goncharik 40 percent, which would at least necessitate a second round.

Their claims do seem to be supported by an opinion poll taken last month, published by Radio Free Europe, which showed Lukashenka with well under 50 percent support, as well as by the avalanche of electoral violations—ballot stealing, vote switching, falsified voter records—being reported to the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe, which had 15,000 election monitors in the country. Not that it matters: Lukashenka has been running the country since 1994, will now run it for another seven years, and has made clear his intention to change the constitution, if necessary, in order to keep running it after that. As Europe’s longest-standing dictator (in the wake of the fall of Milosevic), he hardly needs to bother much about the minutiae of elections—which is astonishing, if you think about it. There he is, in the center of the continent, running a semi-fascist regime—and attracting virtually no attention whatsoever. What are the secrets of his success? Here, for the record, is a list:

Ten Easy Steps to Becoming—and Staying—a Dictator

1) Choose a faraway country of which no one knows anything. This is probably the most important point. Belarus, a country that never had an independent existence before 1991, suffers from an image problem: It hasn’t got one. Tucked between more successful Poland and more glamorous Russia, Belarus is flat, poor, and lacking in famous tourist attractions. As a result, no one in the West, or anywhere else, ever gets too worked up about what happens there. The blatant electoral violations that occurred during the Belarus presidential campaign would at least have raised eyebrows had they occurred in, say, Zimbabwe. Yet although this morning’s Polish press was chock-full of Lukashenka, leading me to believe he might get some coverage elsewhere, this turned out to be a mistaken assumption: His latest triumph merited just a few seconds on World Service television, as well as a few articles, buried deep within the “international” sections of the British and American press.

2) Have the support of a large foreign power. Lukashenka probably came to power with the help of the Russian KGB. The Russian government, while perhaps a touch ambivalent about the Frankenstein it has created, continues to support him. The deal seems to be that he can do what he likes, as long as he agrees to whatever security arrangements Russia wants, including two useful military bases. In return, Russia defends him against accusations of undemocratic behavior. Although Russia is a member of the OSCE, the Russian representatives refused to attend the OSCE’s news conference on the vote. Instead of monitoring elections, the chairman of the Russian Central Election Commission spent Sunday touring an ancient castle an hour outside of Minsk. He told the two Washington Post reporters who found him there that “we have seen nothing to cast doubt on the legitimacy of these elections.”

3) Keep your economy under state control. Just as in the good old, pre-1991 days, most jobs in Belarus still depend upon the state. This is hugely advantageous to Lukashenka. People are afraid to speak out against him, for fear of unemployment. Opposition groups sometimes have trouble renting premises, since there aren’t many independently owned buildings. State control is also, as it always has been, a virtually unlimited source of corruption, since anyone who carries out any large-scale economic activity sooner or later needs presidential permission. Meanwhile, Lukashenka talks tantalizingly about privatization, which will presumably be carried out, one of these days, under the brotherly eye of the Russian business oligarchy.

4) Manipulate your central bank. With a falsified official exchange rate, the president, his administration, and anyone else they felt like helping until recently had another, perfectly legal means of enriching themselves: They changed local currency into foreign currency at the “official” rate, which was advantageous to them, and let the masses change at market rates. They’ve now given it up, which has helped them cozy up to the international financial community, but not before a lot of people got rich.

5) Keep your population as poor as possible … Thanks to the utter lack of reforms, at the moment the average Belorussian salary is one-tenth the size of the average Polish salary, and the Poles are not particularly rich themselves. Although it would seem, on the face of it, as if this would work against Lukashenka, it hasn’t. Instead, it has helped make an already cowed population even more so: People are worried, simply, that any change will be for the worse. Hence the 46 percent—sorry, 75.6 percent—support for Lukashenka.

6) … And lie to them about how much worse things are in other countries. Pensioners in Belarus are constantly reminded that pensioners in Russia often don’t receive their payments on time. At his post-election press conference, Lukashenka made a point of warning his nation about the evils of Estonia—the richest and best-run of the Baltic states—and promising them he would never let his countrymen sink so low.

7) Cut off all independent sources of information. A surprising number of Belorussians are prepared to believe what their president tells them about the rest of the world, since they know so little about it. There are a few opposition newspapers in Belarus—which Lukshenka finds handy to point to when someone calls him undemocratic—but they are tiny and mostly printed in Lithuania, since few of the (state-owned) printing presses will touch them. Those that are printed in the country are liable to discover that their entire print run has been arbitrarily confiscated. There are also a few opposition Web sites, but these too can be shut without warning by Beltelecom, the state-owned company that provides the country’s only Internet server. Conveniently, Beltelecom did precisely this on election day, even shutting down Goncharik’s own site. (One newspaper, however, did manage to set up an emergency Web site.) Other than state television, Belorussians can watch Russian television (and most do), but Russian reporters have been very quiet about this campaign, presumably on the Kremlin’s orders.

8) Harass your opposition. Aside from the standard riot police and tear gas, low-level threats have long been common: Students find themselves mysteriously expelled from school, opposition members find themselves mysteriously out of jobs. Recently, those wearing the wrong sort of T-shirt have been harassed as well. According to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, youthful members of an opposition group known as Zubr (“bison”) were being harassed on the street for wearing T-shirts that said “Down with the idiots”—leading one of them to remark that at least the police seemed aware of who “the idiots” were.

9) Use death squads, but sparingly. Those who protest too loudly do, occasionally, disappear, as I wrote in June. At that time, two state prosecutors were reportedly seeking political asylum in the United States, having accused the government of the murder of two opposition leaders, as well as a Russian TV journalist. Lukashenka doesn’t need to kill people very often for this policy to be extremely effective. Indeed, it works better when used sparingly. On the one hand, the talk of “death squads” leaves a vague sense of threat hanging in the air, scaring away the more timid sort of presidential opponent. On the other hand, the rarity of the practice means no one is particularly forced to sit up and take notice.

10) Chip away at your country’s own national identity, while simultaneously promoting a form of loud, inane patriotism. Lukashenka, when he is harassing the opposition or confiscating their T-shirts, will frequently make loud declarations about how everything he does, however absurd, “is in according to the laws of this country” or “in according to the constitution of this country.” He spent a good deal of the campaign lambasting the Western “meddlers,” such as the OSCE and the American ambassador, who were attempting to interfere with his monopoly on power. At the same time, he is slowly closing all the schools that teach students in the Belorussian language, continuing a process of Russification that began in the Soviet Union. One of his first acts of office was to ban the red-and-white flag that Belarus had chosen at independence and to re-instate the flag of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. That, at least, made it clear where his sympathies lie.