Why Europe’s ‘last dictator’ is allowing Belarus protests


Where the Soviet system was rigid, today’s autocrats are flexible and pragmatic, writes Freedom House analyst Arch Puddington:

Where the older generation of communists were bureaucratic and slothful, today’s dictators are dynamic, resourceful, and hard-working. They are especially diligent at targeting and neutralizing potential centers of opposition. And they are grimly determined to avoid the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev in allowing liberal ideas to infect and destroy the system.

In the past month, protests have swept across Belarus, a post-Soviet republic in Eastern Europe, note analysts Charles Crabtree, Christopher J. Fariss and Paul Schuler. The protests have been smaller than earlier demonstrations against the regime. But they’re a substantial problem for the long-standing authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko — because many of the protesters come from groups and in live cities that typically support him, they write for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

In the past, Lukashenko has clamped down on protests pretty quickly. But when these protests began, Lukashenko initially tolerated them to a surprising degree. Why?

We believe that his tolerance comes largely because he wants to keep improved relations with the West, and so is acquiescing to international pressure for free speech, free assembly and other basic democratic freedoms. If that’s true, Western pressure for greater democracy may indeed be effective in this case. That’s important to note when U.S. commitment to promoting democracy may be waning.

“There may be renewed debate in the United States about whether to keep funding democracy promotion,” they add. “But Western efforts in Belarus are making at least one dictator think twice before engaging in repression.”


Charles D. Crabtree is a graduate student in the department of political science and a graduate student associate in the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan. Christopher J. Fariss is an assistant professor in the department of political science and faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. Paul Schuler is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.

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