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Dictators International

Dictators International

Belarus' regime is unleashing unprecedented repression while Russia watches and learns.

Alexander Lukashuk

Two and a half years after losing the presidential election to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’ strongman Alexander Lukashenko is still finding new enemies to punish for the political scare he received in August 2020. 

Late last month, former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Ihar Karnei was sentenced to three years in prison and given a hefty fine for “participation in an extremist organization”—the Belarusian Association of Journalists. He joins 1,458 Belarusian political prisoners behind bars, among them 33 journalists. My colleague Ihar Losik is serving the longest sentence handed to a journalist in the history of Belarus—fifteen years. There has been no outside communication with him since February of last year, soon after his wife was arrested and sentenced to two years for calling him a “political prisoner” in an interview. Their four-year-old daughter lives with her grandparents. 

Children often pay the price. While RFE/RL’s journalist Andrej Kuznechyk, father of two, is serving a six-year prison term in a hard labor colony in Belarus, his RFE/RL colleague and U.S. passport-holder Alsu Kurmasheva, mother of two, has been held behind bars without trial in the Russian city of Kazan since October 2023; earlier this month her detention was again extended until June 5. A friend of mine, a Belarusian journalist in exile, urged his son in Minsk to change the Belarusian language of his smartphone into Russian, to unsubscribe and to stop watching his dad’s quite popular commentaries on YouTube and in independent media–fearing that teachers in school could inform police of “extremist influence.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest call to find and punish all “traitors” lags behind Lukashenko’s campaign by more than two years. After the shocking 2020 loss, Lukashenko’s regime unleashed unrestricted force against its opponents: Thousands were tortured, beaten, and imprisoned. After the brutal physical phase, a digital one followed: The internet was blocked, facial recognition technology and database searches were enhanced, and thousands more were arrested and sentenced for messages, subscriptions, and “likes” in the wrong Facebook chats.

More than two thousand NGOs have been banned, and all independent media shut down. The wrong combination of colors in one’s clothes can result in detention and beatings. A colleague of mine lately mused about the role of textile in dictatorships: After a seven-hour search of her apartment, the KGB confiscated all red, purple, and scarlet clothes, including pajamas. If you put white around red, you get the banned white-red-white flag, the symbol of Belarus’ democratic protests.

This month, forty-six Nobel Prize winners demanded the release of Ales Bialiatski, laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022 who is serving a ten-year sentence. He was only the second person in history to be awarded the prize in prison—to be followed the next year by Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian activist who is also serving a ten-year sentence. Dictators all over seem to get more and more inspiration from the first ruler who held a Nobel laureate behind bars: Hitler not only imprisoned journalist Carl von Ossietzky but banned Germans from accepting any Nobel Prizes.

A Russian intellectual once said that Lukashenko was a smaller evil than Putin: If the former dies or is removed from power, nothing will happen to the latter. But when Putin is gone, the fate of the Belarusian dictator is sealed. The recent reality in the post-Soviet space is more complex.

The war against Ukraine is changing the fabric of Russia and neighboring countries in one particular way: unacceptable, unspeakable, deplorable state politics are becoming the new normal for ruling elites. They keenly eye and learn from one another and don’t hesitate to use their power to help one another’s regimes.

Lukashenko gave refuge to Kyrgyzstan’s ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev; several regimes later a new Kyrgyz leader is cracking down on freedom of the press and human rights and is eager to rebuild ties with Minsk. Putin sent special forces and propagandists to Minsk in 2020; Belarus’ territory became a home for the Russian army and a platform for the all-out attack on Kyiv in February 2022. In return, Lukashenko got a nuclear arsenal back in Belarus. Now the Belarus Red Cross is bringing Ukrainian children from the occupied territories to Belarus for “rest and re-education.” 

Alexei Navalny’s death in prison followed half a dozen similar deaths in Belarusian prisons. Illegal migrant attacks on the Finnish border followed similar large-scale operations run by Lukashenko’s regime against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia in 2020–23. It’s not difficult to see what other Belarusian practices are spreading to Russia: the elimination of lawyers as an independent part of the justice system, arrests for wearing yellow and blue colors, public repentance, and a pressure campaign against exiles. Last year, Belarusian embassies stopped issuing passports for Belarusian citizens living abroad. It is no longer possible for these citizens to get a power of attorney, to sell or buy property, or to make a will. Hundreds of thousands of people are subject to this decree. In Russia’s case, it might be millions.

This authoritarian consolidation—a veritable Dictators International—has one particularly salient feature of late: open contempt for liberal values and the West as a whole. Maybe it’s not that new; Hitler despised the West, and the Soviet Union and its surrogates were not shy in pushing their agenda. As in those times, the West’s responses today are not always consistent. 

Despite border restrictions and political, financial, and economic sanctions, Belarus’ trade with EU countries rose in 2023 to $7.4 billion, with Poland, Germany, and Lithuania topping the list. According to UN trade reports, Turkey is a leading trading partner of Belarus among non-EU countries ($1.7 billion in exports). Even America delivered goods to Belarus worth $17.3 million and imported $50.4 million worth of goods— small but symbolic figures. America has not had an ambassador in Belarus since 2008; in 2021 the U.S. embassy moved its personnel from Minsk to Vilnius and took down the flag. The position of special envoy for Belarus has been vacant since 2022. 

Belarus’ president-elect—as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is sometimes called—is busy trying to engageforeign leaders in helping the Belarusian opposition and the cause of democracy in her home country. In late March she opened a quasi-embassy, the Office of the Democratic Forces of Belarus in Prague, with full support of the Czech government. Lithuanians, Poles, and Latvians have been stalwart in their solidarity with the Belarusian democracy movement. EU leaders express their support; in February German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock co-authored an article with Tsikhanouskaya in Die Welt on Belarus’ challenges. However, discrepancies among the various EU countries’ actions across political, economic, financial, and humanitarian fronts continue to be an unresolved challenge.

The need for more resources and new ideas is obvious. Lukashenko’s regime is more creative and robust in its repression than ever. This spring more than one hundred trials were held of people who received food parcels paid for from abroad. It’s long been almost impossible to deliver money or humanitarian assistance to families of prisoners and unemployed activists. However, a creative way was found: An initiative, “,” paid for groceries in supermarkets in Belarus using credit cards from abroad and had them delivered to families in need. 

Earlier this year, the KGB gained access to the group’s database of online shopping and started arresting recipients of this help. To date, 287 cases across the country are known. Women (mostly wives and mothers of prisoners and pensioners) are charged with receiving “foreign support to engage in extremist activity by way of compensation for an imprisoned family member.” They are sentenced to paying back the sum of the help plus a fine double its value. As charged extremists, these people cannot work in state organizations, factories, schools, and more. Many face losing their property and homes.

At the end of March, authorities in Minsk opened a criminal investigation against the “radical diaspora”—cultural and political NGOs like the newly opened Office of the Democratic Forces of Belarus. The KGB started searching activists’ homes in Belarus. Their family members are threatened and fear losing their jobs and property. 

Of course, assassinating “traitors” abroad is nothing new for Moscow, starting with the killing of Leon Trotsky in 1940. And it won't end with the murder of a Russian defector in Spain earlier this year. It’s a good bet that pressure on those who have fled dictatorships will rise in the modern digital world. There is no longer the same measure of safety in today’s safe havens. 

There is much we can do to support those living in and fleeing from authoritarian countries. But more so, helping those who fight for the chance to fight for freedom will advance the cause of democracy everywhere.

Alexander Lukashuk is the former director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarus service (1998-2023), and the author of Adventures of ARA in Belarus (2005), Oswald in Minsk (2017), and the forthcoming The Place Where There Is No Darkness (May 2024).

Image: Alexander Lukashenko in a meeting with Vladimir Putin in July 2014. (Wikimedia Commons:, CC-BY-4.0)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeRussiaPolitical PhilosophyU.S. Foreign Policy