Stalin. Hitler. Kim Jong-Il. These are all names that easily come to mind when one thinks of a dictatorship. People usually do not associate good things with these names. When someone says “Hitler,” for example, everyone in the room thinks of the Holocaust. With infamous figures like these lingering in the world’s mind, it is almost impossible for people to deny that dictators are associated with violence. These and other autocrats came to power through sudden and violent changes within their governments. Interestingly, these abrupt power shifts have changed dramatically over time. Dictators are still coming to power, but instead of using violent coups, they now are using stealthier methods to gain power.
According to what Ozan O. Varol wrote in 2015, democracy is disappearing today, as it always has in the past. The disappearance is occurring more frequently behind the scenes. Today, what has become most popular among authoritarians is filing lawsuits against journalists for libel instead of arresting them in the streets; instead of violently overthrowing the incumbent leader, silent election rigging is now the preferred method. The overall goal for the modern-day authoritarian is to gain or remain in power while appearing as democratic as possible. We are seeing this play out before our eyes right now in Belarus.
The Case of Belarus
Belarus is a former Soviet bloc country, located north of Ukraine and west of Poland. In 1994, Belarus developed a new constitution that would create a “unitary, democratic, social state based on the rule of law.” In other words, this constitution would create a sovereign and democratic state. This constitution also stated that maintaining individual freedoms and rights are the “supreme goal and value of society and the State.” Finally, the citizens of Belarus were able to amend or add to this constitution via a referendum, which is a concise way of saying that the people can vote directly on whether or not to pass constitutional amendments. On paper, everything appears to be rather democratic. In fact, there were no true warning signs of the upcoming dictatorship until two years later.
In 1996, President Aleksandr Lukashenko held a referendum which proposed a change to the 1994 constitution. This change granted more power to the office of the Presidency and reduced the powers held by the legislature and the judiciary. The referendum passed, with over 70.5% of the population voting in favor of it. Many citizens and government officials questioned this referendum’s legitimacy, and there were talks of impeachment; yet twenty-four years later, Lukashenko remains in power. Unsurprisingly, Lukashenko claims that he won the landslide 2020 Presidential election fair and square. As Varol argues, democratic erosion begins subtly.
Why this Time is Different
This election is different from the others over the past twenty-four years. Belarussian opponents of “Europe’s last dictator,” have become frustrated by the lack of political change they have seen for decades and have begun to protest in the streets of Minsk and other cities throughout the country. State police responded to these protests with violent suppression, and Lukashenko’s opponent in the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled for her life to Lithuania. Most recently, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has made a demand of Lukashenko that if he does not resign from the Presidency by October 25, 2020, the entire nation will go on strike. Tikhanovskaya states that these will be peaceful protests, but many fear the government crackdowns on these protests will turn violent.
What We Are Learning from Belarus
After reading about the recent events in Belarus, one cannot help but ask, “How did everything in reach this point?” The answer is not as complicated as one may think. The erosion of democracy is a slippery slope; there is rarely one single factor that contributes to the entire overhaul of a democracy. In the case of Belarus, Lukashenko’s deeds of 1996 went unpunished. He had a referendum which expanded his power. Although the Belarussian parliament wanted an impeachment, Lukashenko still remains in power. It has taken twenty-four years of oppression to build up into an outraged public.
There are several lessons to be learned from Belarus. First, in order for an autocracy to be stopped, it must be stopped at its initial outset. If it is not ended in the beginning, there will be no end, and decades will pass with no change. As the status quo goes unchallenged over time, those who oppose it will erupt eventually and demand change. While the demands for change in Belarus are peaceful for now, the world wonders how long they will stay peaceful until more violent government crackdowns occur.
The second, and possibly the most insightful lesson to be learned from Belarus is that, although autocracies today are stealthier than what they used to be, it is only a matter of time before they turn into the violent coups everyone knows from the past. Regardless of how they come about, an autocracy is still an autocracy. Democracy cannot be preserved until the world comes to recognize that democratic erosion exists, no matter what it looks like.