In a recent survey, only 1 in 50 people could locate Belarus on a map, perhaps this is why we ignore it.
With that statistic in mind, it is small wonder that so few people are well informed about the situation in Belarus. Here are some of the highlights: President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 18 years; the last elections in December 2010 were accompanied by mass violence, election fraud and the arrest of hundreds of political activists and demonstrators, some of whom are still in jail; speaking out against the regime is a crime, at least two people are currently in jail for unfurling the pre-soviet flag. The regime is propped up by a "secret" police force which terrorizes, tortures and arrests at its whim. They still call themselves the KGB; presumably they wanted the Belarusian people to know who they were dealing with.
Condoleezza Rice once called Belarus "the last true dictatorship in Europe". Lukashenko is a real old school autocrat; earlier this year he responded to a similar accusation by the German foreign minister by saying that it was "better to be a dictator than be gay".
This spat was part of a recent trend of vague anti-Lukashenko rhetoric within Europe. Earlier this year the EU withdrew its ambassadors from Belarus on the grounds of human rights abuses. After much posturing, Lukashenko released two political prisoners: 2010 Presidential favorite Andrei Sannikov and his campaign manager Dmitry Bandarenka. EU ambassadors are in the process of returning.
It is unclear what spurred this act of protest by the EU. Certainly awareness about human rights abuses in Belarus has been rising over the past year with the release of the film Europe's Last Dictator and the work of the UK-based Free Belarus Now campaign set up by Sannikov's sister Irina Bogdonova. This type of work however, is currently left entirely on the shoulders of individuals such as Bogdonova and director Matthew Charles.
The law is on their side, but they have no defense from the Belarusian authorities. Though Free Belarus Now focuses mainly on the release of political prisoners, it currently has a pending law suit waiting in the hands of law firms all over the world which means that no senior member of Lukashenko’s government can visit certain counties without being charged with being complicit in illegal detention and torture. This is backed-up by an EU travel ban; the head of the KGB recently had to travel to Rome in secret to avoid this. At the same time however, watching Europe’s Last Dictator in Belarus will get you arrested while the Free Belarus Now website and their staff emails get hacked by the KGB every few days.
On 24th May Lukashenko made a statement which summarizes diplomatic relations with Belarus: "I hear more and more statements that European diplomats wait for an amnesty, again raising the question of political prisoners ... We expect specific steps from the West and from the European Union. The ball is in their court."
Lukashenko has been blackmailing the EU since his first rigged election, because it works. The EU has placed a number of sanctions on the Belarusian government but the fact that ambassadors started returning as soon as Sannikov and Bandarenka were released showed that there was no subtle underlying politics to this trade-off and it showed that they have given up trying to make other sanctions hurt. In June, President Obama extended by one year the sanctions signed by George Bush in 2006, essentially admitting that nothing had changed but taking no further steps.
Undermining Lukashenko is not a lost cause. Even if publicly denouncing him counts as little more than a symbolic gesture, it would be one in tune with all of the principles Western leaders are desperate to stand by. Russia alone has made its stance perfectly clear by announcing tighter border checks to stop the escape of political refugees and with Putin planning to make the first state visit of his new term to Minsk.
European leaders do not support Lukashenko; they ignore him. It is clear to anyone that he is a deluded tyrant of the type, which is too absurd to make up. But if you read the news coming out of Belarus every day, this neutrality is shameful. The Belarusian people have never escaped Soviet-style dictatorship yet dictatorship in Europe is ignored while those further afield occupy our headlines and our politicians’ speeches.
Western leaders do not want another problem country to deal with, but they are in a position to give the EU sanctions some teeth; as long as they preach a devotion to freedom and democracy, they are surely under an obligation to do so.
Jack Barton studies History at the University of York and is an aspiring journalist. This article was published first by Future Foreign Policy.