May 08, 2005

Belarus: Europe's Last Dictatorship

Both Condi and Bush have called Belarus the last dictatorship in Europe. Here's a quick overview on that country.

But first, let's realize that this is not exactly true. Russia, clearly at least partway in Europe (if only Kaliningrad) was downgraded by Freedom house to be rated "not free." It was downgraded to a 6 (out of 7) in political rights and a 5 (out of 7) in civil liberties. The US always gets 1,1. In 1995 Russia got 3,4 and was partly free; by 2003 it was 5,5 partly free and in 2004 fell to 6,5 not free.

Is Russia a dictatorship? That's hard to say. But certainly the elections are highly questionable and the freedom of the press is heavily squelched. Here's hoping Khodorovsky (guilty of being a capitalist, a democratizer and a Jew) doesn't get convicted on those bogus charges. Fortunately the Russian elections will be next held in 2008, providing a wonderful impetus for US candidates to make an issue of Russia in the US primaries, hopefully forcing them all to commit to some sort of democratization plan.

Onward to the subject at hand. Belarus was rated even worse than Russia according to Freedom House, garnering a 7,6 not free rating. This was a downgrade from the previous year's score of 6,6 not free. The new score places Belarus at the same score as three of the remaining four Communist states in the world: Vietnam, Laos and China. Not exactly chummy company. What did belarus do to deserve this score?

It was rated 4,4 partly free in 1994, fell to 5,5 partly free in 1995 and then fell again to 6,6 not free in 1996 - where it stayed until this year, when it fell to 7,6 not free. Belarus antagonizes the press, harasses political activists, denies registration to opposition candidates and the president disobeyed a court ruling and stayed in office. Their 2000 election was widely considered unfree and unfair; ballot-stuffing, registration-tampering and so forth justified the election-boycott of seven opposition parties.

The 2001 election was rigged, and since then the government has harassed or shut down independent NGOs, media and activists in an attempt to punish critics. Media outlets are rigorously controlled for loyalty and political content.

So yes, Belarus is an unfree place and probably rightly deserving of the category dictatorship. Criminal Dictator Lukashenko, the country's president, is not a fan of capitalism either. Four-fifths of the industry is in state hands, even though it's outdated and largely unprofitable. Agriculture is still overrun with Stalinist collective farms. Just the same, a slightly improved trade policy inched Belarus from "repressed" to the worst score in the "mostly unfree" category.

Belarus is plagued by bitchin' interest - average annual rate of 42.55% for 94-03. It's encumbered by numerous hindrances to financial services and capital inflow, draconian legal and private property policies, and a government attitude toward private enterprise that's simply abusive and immoral. It's also a damned poor country, with a GDP per capita well below most of the rest of the continent. No wonder they're poor when the government tries so hard to scare off business.

With Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in transitional periods away from post-Soviet dictators, it's important than Belarus feel pressure to reform. The Cold War is over; there's no longer even the pretense of an excuse to accept tyrants in the world - least of all in Europe itself. I'm sure Huntington would dispute that Belarus is in the West, and would instead place it with the Orthodox civiliation, but there's no point quibbling; the country is unfree and and the powers-that-be in Brussels, London and Berlin need to be talking about how unacceptable it is.

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