Staunton, March 26 – For more than two decades, many governments and commentators in the West have allowed themselves to feel morally superior by denouncing Alyaksandr Lukashenka as “the last dictator in Europe,” a title that at least some of them will continue to use following his brutal suppression of demonstrations in Belarusian cities this week.
But these very same governments and commentators have generally been unwilling to apply the epithet of dictator to Vladimir Putin, preferring instead to keep their options open by calling him a “hybrid” leader, even though his actions including this weekend against protesters across the Russian Federation are quite comparable to Lukashenka’s.
This represents a kind of double standard that Moscow doesn’t complain about, one driven by the fact that Belarus is a small country while Russia has nuclear weapons. But it is shameful because, as Nadezhda Mandelshtam put it so well a half century ago, only “happy is that country where the despicable is at least despised.”
Lukashenka merits condemnation for his dictatorial ways but so too does Putin for his. And indeed as horrific as the Belarusian dictator’s behavior has been, there can be no question that the Russian dictator has been as bad or worse not only in his treatment of his own people but far more in his aggression against Russia’s neighbors and the West.
The Belarusian dictator showed his true colors yesterday by his suppression of demonstrations in Minsk and other Belarusian cities on the 99th anniversary of that country’s independence. Pictures and stories about his actions are filling the airwaves and the world wide web. (For some examples, see newsland.com/community/politic/content/razgon-aktsii-oppozitsii-v-minske-es-nazval-repressiiami-protiv-svobody/5748846, and graniru.org/Politics/World/Europe/Belarus/m.259739.html).
On cue and with complete justification, the European Union and the United States called on Lukashenka to release those he has arrested (regnum.ru/news/polit/2254587.html and charter97.org/ru/news/2017/3/26/244921/). And human rights groups in Ukraine have called for the reinstitution of EU sanctions on Belarus (khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1490490700).
But as Ukraine’s Euromaidan press points out, these feel-good declarations may not lead the West to act out of either selfish economic or transparent geopolitical calculations (euromaidanpress.com/2017/03/26/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-lukashenkas-crackdown-on-protesters-in-minsk/#arvlbdata).
Meanwhile, in Putin’s Russia, the government not only has banned many protest meetings but has arrested many who have showed up at them. So far the stories about these repressions concern only the Russian Far East, but as the day goes on, more such incidents are likely (newsland.com/community/5652/content/massovymi-zaderzhaniiami-zavershilsia-miting-protiv-korruptsii-vo-vladivostoke/5748880).
What isn’t likely to happen is a clear denunciation of what Putin is doing from most governments or commentators. (There are some happy exceptions like Senator John McCain in the US.) Instead, one is likely to hear that any “excesses” in the handling of Russian demonstrators should be blamed on local officials rather than the Kremlin.
That already appears to be happening on another Putin-inspired action: the execution after capture of Islamists who attacked in Chechnya. Blaming Ramzan Kadyrov for such horrors is a convenient way of not making Putin, the person responsible for such actions, accountable (rbc.ru/politics/25/03/2017/58d638bc9a79476117b4d02f?from=main).
And if the blame can’t be shifted to regional officials, Moscow can dissipate it in a fog of contradictory stories designed to obscure Putin’s guilt be it for the murder of Voronenkov in Kyiv, the continuing Russian aggression in Ukraine, or the subversion by means of economic clout of Western governments and politicians.
Putin’s regime and its Western backers frequently say that it is time to end “double standards” in the treatment of Russia. One can only agree: Putin should be held to the same standards as Lukashenka; and if he is, it will be hard to decide which of them deserves the title of “the last dictator in Europe” more.