Feb 19, 2021 Editorial
Kaieteur News – In our editorial of July 3, last year – titled ‘Democracy or the abyss’ – written in the middle of the then David Granger administration’s attempt to steal the elections, a parallel was drawn between Granger and his then four month-long attempted coup; then US President Donald Trump and his signaling that he would not accept an electoral loss; and Belarus President and strongman, Alexander and Lukashenko, who like Trump and Granger, was wildly unpopular in the lead up to a hotly contested national election and intent on undermining democratic institutions to preserve power. As this page noted then:
“In recent weeks, lead competitors for the presidential elections slated for next month have either been arrested on trumped up charges or conveniently been told that their registration documents for participation in the polls fell short of legal requirements. A recent online poll, while not precisely scientific, showed Lukashenko’s popularity at a ludicrous three percent, a rating critics say is based largely upon the leader’s initial dismissive reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic, with him describing infection as a mere ‘psychosis’ and recommending a strong shot of vodka to cure it. The country’s leader has given every indication that he will not be giving up in upcoming elections, even in the face of his flagging popularity, and pushback against his dismissive attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a plummeting economy.”
Eight months on, both Granger and Trump, while still technically wielding influence over their respective political machineries, have both disappeared in shame and disgrace from public life, their power waned into frustrated impotence, their legacies – or whatever remained of them – forever tainted. Lukashenko however is still very much in control of Belarus, having prevailed in an August election that was, not unpredictably, labelled as rigged by opposition and international observers.
That was not enough however – since then, he has been increasingly despotic in his actions, buttressed by a massive state security apparatus, a cracking down even further on dissidents and general dissent, and of course a judiciary that has always been willing to place a patina of legal sanction on his oppression. Shortly after the elections, for example, Lukashenko engineered the attempted deportation and then arrest of Opposition leader, Maria Kalesnikava, facing her with charges of using the Internet to undermine the country’s national security.
While Granger and Trump used lawyers to seek to undermine the fundamental institutions of democracy in their respective countries, Lukashenko is going one step further – he is using the institutions of the country, already corrupted, to undermine lawyers who are brave enough to represent the interests and basic rights of his political opponents. Kalesnikava, defiant, posted (or had some post) to her Facebook page yesterday, outlining the dire situation:
“My lawyer, Ilya Salei, is under house arrest. My lawyer, Maxim Znak, is in the same jail as me.
My lawyer, Aleksandr Pylchenko, was disbarred. They want to revoke my lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak’s licence.
Is this a coincidence? I think not. The regime removes everyone who has the will to protect me. It attacks and does not allow me to defend myself… Those who issue orders delegate the dirty work to their subordinates. Someone out there is working on devising a justification for revoking respected lawyers’ licences. Someone prepares and signs the documents. How do these people, who take the job from Lyudmila Kazak, a mother of three children, justify themselves? The regime hopes that the country will soon run out of lawyers.”
A related and notable feature of the shadow over Minsk is that it presents itself as relatively mild shade. In contrast to the accepted mythos of brutal dictatorship, Lukashenko’s methodology is deliberately ‘mild.’ Protestors are given a few days in jail as opposed to decade long sentences. People are not being summarily executed but are beaten with non-life threatening injuries. His biggest targets, artists and journalists (Kalesnikava is a musician), are given less jail time for “undermining national security” than young people here in Guyana are given for possessing small amounts of marijuana, like the two women journalists who were sentenced yesterday to two years in prison for simply live-streaming a protest. This is perhaps why Belarus’ president has escaped the sort of international censure he has escaped so far, selling himself as Dictator Lite, particularly at a time when democratic nations have been flirting dangerously with despotism.
Months after our original editorial last year, in the United States and in Guyana, democracy would eventually prevail despite a rallying of the forces to stop it. Unfortunately, in Belarus, what has so far prevailed is the abyss, one that is deepening and widening by slow but sure degrees, swallowing up dozens and dozens of brave people and grinding them under the teeth of Lukashenko’s repressive state machinery. It is time that the international community up the ante beyond the tepid statement from a single UN rights expert calling for Kalesnikava’s release.
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