By Roger D. Harris
September 8, 2020
Back in the 1970s, the left and even many liberals were clear that Nixon’s dropping napalm on Vietnamese villages was an abomination. By the 1990s, some thought Bill Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia was, perhaps, humanitarian. Fast forward to the present, there is sentiment that the US has a global “responsibility to protect” the less enlightened lands in the name of “democracy.” Some on the liberal-left fail to recognize the fallacy of what Jean Bricmont exposes as “humanitarian imperialism – using human rights to sell war.”
In response to a peace organization advocating no foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Belarus, a US commentator protested: “[T]here has been no US intervention in the country. There’s nothing wrong, intrinsically, with external support of democracy. Your support for someone who seems like a bloody dictator is dismaying.” So, several inevitable questions arise. What is a dictator? Has there been foreign intervention in Belarus? Who has the right to intervene? And does advocating non-intervention implicitly support a presumptive dictator?
The Belarusian presidential election as a catalyst for regime change
Opposition elements in Belarus had long planned to use the September 9 presidential election as a catalyst for regime change. Their main base is with upwardly mobile white-collar professionals. However, they would have not been able to rally the tens of thousands of demonstrators had there not been broad and genuine discontent with President Alexander Lukashenko.
Elements of the opposition leadership in Belarus are partly financed by the European Union and the US and reflect those political interests. They have adopted the red and white flag, flown during the Nazi occupation. Their Resuscitation Reform Package, modeled after a nearly identical program for Ukraine, calls for the complete neoliberal privatization of the economy and an alignment with the NATO west.
Exit polls, conducted by the opposition, were cited to claim gross electoral fraud with Lukashenko garnering only 3% of the vote. Other observers accepted that Lukashenko won a majority but not by the official count of 80%. Golos, a pro-opposition election monitoring organization using data collected by US-backed youth organizations, reported Lukashenko winning with 61.7%.
BBC News laments that the election in Belarus had “no independent observers invited.” Yet there was an election observation delegation from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which reported the August 9 election “was open and competitive and ensured that Belarus citizens could freely express their will.” But the CIS report did not have the kind conclusion or “independence” sought by the BBC, itself a quasi-governmental corporation of the British state and funded by a mandatory state levy.
The voices of political tendencies and parties in Belarus and elsewhere in Europe that consider themselves socialist or communist, but are critical of their home governments, are excluded by western media. Even leftish outlets such as Democracy Now! follow the flag repeating the US/NATO regime change narrative, without providing alternative views. DN! laments the “massive crackdown on any kind of independent reporting” in Belarus, while serving as an information gatekeeper in the homeland of the empire.
Objectively, no one authoritatively knows the real outcome of the vote.
Convenient definitions of a dictator
Being unelected or fraudulently elected is not the only definition of a dictator. The functional definition for the US government is a leader disloyal to the empire.
Washington considers the democratically elected President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro a dictator. While Juan Guaidó, who proclaimed himself president of Venezuela on a Caracas street corner and was immediately recognized by the US government, is considered a legitimate head of state.
The monarch of Saudi Arabia is considered legitimate by Washington, even though the ruling House of Saud does not even bother to conduct sham elections. This is a country where women do not have basic rights, where slavery is practiced, and where those who run afoul with the law are routinely beheaded. But Saudi Arabia is the largest purchaser of US military equipment in the world, eclipsing the next contender by a factor of 2.6. So, the Saudi monarch is not on the official US list of dictators.
Then there are the leaders chosen and installed by the US after coups, such as Ukraine in 2014. There, the US literally handpicked the post-coup leader for Ukraine from a rogue’s gallery of neo-Nazis.
Intervention in Belarus by the West
The US does not have boots on the ground in Belarus and, so far, has refrained from drone attacks on funerals or wedding parties. Despite this praiseworthy restraint by the world’s sole superpower, it would be wrong to assume that the US is not intervening in Belarus. A US hybrid warfare program has been in effect since at least 2004 when the US passed the Belarus Democracy Act creating anti-government NGOs in Belarus and prohibiting loans.
Belarus is under unilateral US sanctions, illegal under international law, but justified by a presidential declaration, which bogusly claims a “national emergency” because Belarus “constitute[s] an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
The USAID, the above-ground face of the CIA, states in Orwellian language the US regime change plans for Belarus:
“[P]romote the emergence of a…market-oriented Belarus…USAID works…to stimulate the country’s transition to a market-based economy through programs that support…private business.”
Such is the imperial mindset that the US brazenly takes upon itself to “transition” a supposedly sovereign state into a neoliberal dependency.
The website of the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a CIA cutout, lists some three dozen current projects in Belarus for what are euphemistically called strengthening “independent” online media, civil society, culture, and public discourse. NED’s years of hard work were on display in the media sophistication of the opposition in Belarus.
The runner-up in the Belarus presidential election with 10% of the official vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania, where she met with US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. Although self-described as apolitical with no prior political experience, she proclaimed herself ready to lead Belarus. Indeed the 37-year-old has all the qualifications for a puppet president, being photogenic and speaking English. On September 4, she addressed the UN Security Council calling for punishing sanctions on her own people.
The European Union is playing an even more overt role in promoting regime change in Belarus and is planning to extend sanctions. The openly anti-Semitic government of Poland, with which Belarus shares a border, has an irredentist interest in “recovering” portions of the country which were once part of a Polish empire.
The Russian legacy
Belarus was a Soviet republic, which did not become a sovereign country until 1990 after the breakup of the USSR. Belarus has strong historical and cultural affinities with its Russian neighbor to the east. Some 70% of Belarusians speak Russian at home. In 2000, Belarus and Russia established the Union State, a supranational confederation for economic integration and common defense.
The US and the European Union yearn to use the color revolution in Belarus to complete the military occupation of Russia’s western border. Belarus is the last piece in that puzzle now that Latvia and Estonia are in the NATO camp and Ukraine is on its way.
Russia’s involvement has largely been in reaction to this hostile military encirclement. Escalation of tensions only motivates Russia to be more defensive. The best antidote to Russian intrusion is détente rather than a new cold war. Besides, the government that the US peace movement can best influence is its own.
The current impasse in Belarus
The color revolution in Belarus is now stalled and the opposing forces appear to be stalemated. Without getting into a debate over Lukashenko, the salient question is how the working people of Belarus can best determine their destiny.
The opposition claims Lukashenko’s 26-year rule of Belarus has degenerated with questionable elections, mismanagement, and corruption. But the cure could be worse than the disease, as in the case of Libya, especially if it is left up to the tender mercies of the US empire to dictate the new “democratic” leader and the form of government to follow.
Belarus has enjoyed a low level of unemployment, public housing, almost no homelessness, and accessible and affordable healthcare and education. These social welfare factors compare favorably to the harsh neoliberal austerity and civil disintegration of its neighbors, now drawn into the NATO bloc. The critical issue is how can the Belarusians defend their gains in a contentious international milieu.
Tony Kevin, the former Australian ambassador to Poland, sums up the current impasse:
“Belarus is at risk, because in the Lukashenko political twilight there is confusion and fear: the people have lost their ideological moorings, and there is no coherent national vision as was recovered in Russia under Vladimir Putin starting in 2000. Belarusians hopefully are coming to see the danger they will be in if they depose Lukashenko without knowing what comes after.”
Regardless of what the security forces might do, Lukashenko could easily be deposed if the workers in the major industrial enterprises went on a wildcat strike. Some discontented workers have walked off their jobs, but a majority look to the cautionary examples of the turncoat Solidarity in Poland, the sellout Yeltsin in Russia, and the neo-Nazis in Ukraine.
In those and other examples, state enterprises were sold off at bargain basement prices to new oligarchs and western financiers. Factory equipment was ransacked, work forces drastically downsized, and labor rights abrogated. Absent the specter of another US-backed coup like in Ukraine with its severe neoliberal austerity, Lukashenko would likely have been history.
The peace alternative – no foreign intervention in Belarus
The principle of non-intervention is enshrined in the UN Charter. There is no unilateral right to intervene into the internal affairs of another sovereign state. The greatest violator of this fundamental international law is the world’s sole superpower. The consequence, according to the late Uruguayan political analyst Eduardo Galeano has been: “Every time the US ‘saves’ a country, it converts it into either an insane asylum or a cemetery.”
A non-interventionist stance should not be confused with an endorsement of Lukashenko. Opposing US/NATO interventionism is no more an endorsement of Lukashenko than opposing the invasion of Iraq was an endorsement of Saddam Hussein. Belarus needs more than the binary choice of Lukashenko and the failed Ukrainian option. To have that space requires no foreign intervention in Belarus.
For those of us in the US, that means keeping our own government from fishing in troubled waters and letting the people of Belarus decide. They have the power and don’t need to be told what democracy looks like by those of us who will choose between Trump or Biden in November.
Roger D. Harris is with the Task Force on the Americas, a human rights group working in solidarity with the social justice movements in Latin America and the Caribbean since 1985. Two of his grandparents were from Belarus.