In 2020 Alexander Lukashenko “won” yet another term in what is widely considered an unfree election. Domestic protests quickly followed and were repressed in a harsh fashion by the regime. Concurrent to the protests, the elections were unilaterally denounced in the west, with the European Union sanctioning the regime and other constituent states doing the same in addition to EU sanctions. The United States called for election observers to verify if the electoral victory was truly democratic. Some of Belarus’ neighbors, such as Poland, gave direct support to the opposition.
Looking from the outside in, it would be completely reasonable to assume that the Belarussian government would capitulate due to political pressure at home and economic pressure from abroad. However, in the months following the demonstrations the Belarussian government now seems little troubled by the developments, while Lukashenko continues to hold on to power and will do so for the near future. Right now, you may be wondering how a small European country was able to continue to erode democracy while simultaneously being sanctioned by the international community. The answer, interestingly enough, may appear counterintuitive; the support given by the international community to Belarussian democracy may in fact have a deleterious effect on it. It is important to recognize few, if any countries, enjoy having their domestic politics disturbed by outside influences.
While it is obvious that any regime itself would dislike foreign interference, it can also inflame the opinion of its citizens as well. Lukashenko used this fact to accuse NATO of fomenting the demonstrations to turn Belarus into a “bridgehead against Russia.” It is clear what Lukashenko is doing; delegitimizing the protests by associating them with a hostile foreign power, bent on instrumentalizing Belarus in a geopolitical struggle. The Russian security apparatus also claimed that the United States was attempting to overthrow the Belarusian government, but it is unclear whether this was true as the US denied the allegations. Thus the attempt to support democracy by foreign interventions can oftentimes undermine the support of demonstrations by opening up accusations of simply being sponsored by hostile regimes in order to weaken the state. Interestingly, this same logic of accusing domestic opposition of being entangled with adversaries abroad even carries weight in the United States, as shown during the Trump presidency.
The autocracy in Belarus may also have been strengthened due to Western support of the protestors. As the regime seemed to be faltering, its longtime ally, Russia, offered to send assistance in the form of police forces (which later did occur in Kazakhstan). This likely strengthened Lukashenko at home, as he could now depend on Russian support, as well as given the autocratic Russian government more influence over Belarus. Both factors seem to indicate that it will be quite difficult for any democratic reforms in Belarus, likely made more difficult due to the failure of the last round of protests and their continuing repressive measures.
But this is an extreme case in a state that never had a robust democracy. In Hungary, a country argued by many to be undergoing the process of democratic erosion, a similar dynamic is currently playing out between the Orban government and various NGOs, specifically those funded by George Soros. By 2018 the OSF had been run out of Budapest and it is likely that this pattern will continue. From the Orban government’s perspective, NGOs such as this act to diminish the sovereignty of the Hungarian nation. What is key to understanding why many Hungarians go along with this behavior is the fact that Hungary has faced foreign domination up to the recent past. Thus, actions that may diminish the capacity of the Hungarian state to control itself are met with hostility from both the people and the government meaning that when actors perceived to be foreign attempt to influence Hungarian politics it can often backfire and lead to opposition leaders being tied with said group in a similar, albeit less radical way as was described in Belarus.
Contributing to the controversy is the fact that Soros’ own policies often put the nation on the backfoot, putting refugees before state control of borders. Whether this policy is right or wrong matters little in this context as it is quite unpopular with the Hungarian people. This can give autocrats like Orban a reason for restricting NGO access to the country which also has the potential to remove watch dogs. Obviously, leaders such as Orban could use the absence of observers to further consolidate their own political power, albeit in a non-obvious way as the removal of NGOs can seem justified even in a democratic society 1. These two cases are not meant to imply that all intervention will fail, as it is a possibility that NGOs and democracy supporting governments can indeed influence the process of democratic erosion. However, there may be a danger in supporting nascent movements for democratization as well, as would be authoritarians can malign said movements as foreign trouble making.
- Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 2015