If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants a glimpse of his nation’s future, should he continue savagely suppressing his people’s democratic aspirations, he need only look north to Belarus, another venal dictatorship whose security forces brutalized thousands of citizens protesting a fraudulent election in December.
With blood in the streets, hundreds in jail, scores more in hospitals with cracked heads from police batons, and women recovering from punitive rapes, longtime dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko crooned, “There is not going to be a revolution in Belarus. Folks, you tangled with the wrong guy.”
Sound familiar? Using different verbiage, Assad said more or less the same thing once his own uprising began three months later.
Well, look at Belarus today, and you’ll see a nation nearing total financial collapse. Sanctions, curtailed trade agreements and increasing economic isolation forced Lukashenko to devalue his nation’s currency by 36 percent, wiping out personal savings for millions of citizens while also sharply raising the prices of even staple goods. Hyperinflation has set in; so far this year, prices have risen 20 percent.
Now Lukashenko has changed his tune. Under tremendous pressure from home and abroad, last Friday he tried to explain: “We do not have a crisis. We have panic and frenzy.” A few hours later, the U.N. Human Rights Council, normally a truculent friend of dictators, passed a resolution that “condemned the human rights violations occurring before, during and in the aftermath of the presidential elections” in December.
Just like Assad, Lukashenko brought all of this down upon himself. Before December’s elections, he allowed opposition candidates to run for president, a feint toward democracy. At the same time, trying to buy votes, he gave state workers handsome raises ― far higher, it turned out, than the government could afford.
Then on election day, he simply stole the votes, awarding himself nearly 80 percent of them. That’s what set off the angry riots and demonstrations in December. This was at almost exactly the same time as Tunisia erupted in anti-government riots following the self-immolation of a vegetable vendor, setting off demonstrations across the Arab world.
Lukashenko quashed his demonstrations quickly and violently. He put most of the significant opposition candidates in prison and at one point threatened to seize the 3-year-old son of one imprisoned opponent and turn him over to state services. All of that got some attention, but with the budding “Arab Spring,” Lukashenko’s venomous behavior escaped major media coverage.
Like Assad, Lukashenko is a megalomaniacal thug, though one with a different heritage ― the Soviet Union. His is a Communist state; the government employs 80 percent of the workforce. And for decades now, his only true friend was Russia. But now even Moscow is turning on him.
Meantime, his state is slowly sliding under water. “This is an SOS signal from the Belarusian government, which is losing control of the situation,” Stanislav Bogdankevich, former head of the Belarus National Bank, warned earlier this month.
Last month, Standard & Poor’s placed Belarus on the same level of credit unworthiness as Greece, which erupted in riots last week over austerity measures.
Lukashenko has gone begging to the International Monetary Fund and Russia. The IMF told him he would have to restructure his economy to get any money. In exchange for aid, Russia wants state businesses worth billions sold ― to Moscow. Lukashenko angrily warned he would turn to the West for aid ― a hollow threat if ever there was one. Both the European Union and the United States imposed severe sanctions this year, including broad travel bans on the president, his family and aides.
Europeans are watching all of this with growing concern, worried about a possible human-rights disaster that could also instigate massive emigration. Once again, Assad should have paid attention, as thousands of his own brutalized citizens pour into Turkey. For his part, Lukashenko is now arresting and beating people for taking organized strolls. In Minsk a few days ago, some of these people had the temerity to clap their hands while they walked.
As his nation dissolves around him, Lukashenko has withdrawn into his home, the “Palace of the Republic.” It’s a massive, six-story Soviet-era monolith that fills an entire city block. There, the president, who used to like it when his people called him “daddy,” recently lamented, in a Washington Post interview: “The stupidity is that Belarus and Lukashenko do not have the resources to be a dictator.”
In Syria, soon enough, Assad will have to admit the same thing.
By Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a troubled Land.” ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)