29th Sep 2023


The abduction of Europe

The slowing of democratic development is becoming increasingly evident around the world. Freedom House reports that fewer countries now guarantee all political and civil rights and freedoms than just a few years ago. This worrying retreat of democracy has been going on for more than five years.

This is largely due to a change in attitudes towards promoting democracy in the US and Europe.

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  • Sannikov: It could be said that Europe created Lukashenko, and Lukashenko created Putin's Russia. (Photo: Marco Fieber)

There is a growing perception that democratic Europe is turning its back on the very principles it is based on; even the emotional connection to recent history, the history of fighting for freedom, for European values, is becoming weaker.

Promising past

The success story of European unification is no longer a political guiding light. However, it's worth reminding that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe wasted no time in turning its back on the former empire to join NATO and the EU.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania joined the EU. Reality exceeded the boldest of forecasts for the democratic world, for progress and human rights in Europe. The dream of a Europe whole and free became reality for much of the European continent.

In the 1990s, it still appeared that the constituent republics of the former Soviet Union, or at least those in geographic Europe, would follow suit. This was the best time to create and develop democratic institutions in the European portion of the Soviet Union. Indeed, many Western NGOs came to Belarus, Ukraine and Russia at that time to help develop civil society. However, for different reasons they failed to achieve any lasting success in these countries.

Early in the new millennium, Europe needed US support, including support for accession of new members to the EU, and was aligned with the US foreign policy, which was based on the core premise of promoting democracy above all. Europe and especially Eastern European states that reclaimed its European identity benefited from this solidarity on principles.

The entire Former Soviet Union (FSU) is now in full retreat, away from democratic values. And Western NGOs and their local partners are under the greatest pressure ever in all the years of their operation in the FSU nations. NGOs have been declared "foreign agents" in Russia. They have been "enemies of the people" in Belarus for years.

There is a clear danger of Russia becoming a totalitarian state. Totalitarian tendencies are on the rise in Ukraine as well, even as it is negotiating to sign an association agreement with the EU. It is not a “civilisation choice” of Ukraine that is being negotiated but an arrangement to accommodate the interests of an authoritarian ruling elite in Ukraine.

Disappointing present

Currently the US is distancing itself not only from promoting democracy in general but also from the process of promoting democracy in Europe. Going back to the "security paradigm" that de-emphasizes concerns for human rights and democracy lead to the US having a working relationship, sometimes very close and friendly, with the majority of non-free countries around the world. This is why the "Arab Spring" came as a great surprise to the US, creating problems for the US, the EU, and the world. No matter what provoked the nature was revolt against tyrants that were partners of the West.

Europe is now repeating this mistake. It has started sliding back into the Realpolitik mode of 20th century, dating from an era of two opposing systems, two different ideologies. This is a policy based on fallacy. It is a path that is harmful for the EU and a path that will lead to outright betrayal of democratic movements in nations living under authoritarian regimes or dictatorships.

One of the arguments behind this policy is the false premise that Russia is resisting Western influence and doing everything to oppose it and that the EU must therefore discern any signs of opposition to Russia in other FSU nations, and help support this opposition.

The key error here is thinking that by supporting these regimes against Russia the EU is weakening their ties with totalitarianism.

In reality the fact is that the FSU nations have created an alternative development model and are now building upon it, with Russia as the heavyweight in the region, and with help of Western Realpolitik. Whatever differences some of the FSU nations may occasionally have with Russia, turning a blind eye to the nature of their regimes and supporting them just because they are from time to time at odds with Russia is lethal for values and for the future of those countries.

Under this policy, the basic values Europe stands for and is based upon tend to take second seat to Realpolitik considerations. Geopolitical rivalry once again comes to the fore, which results not only in reneging on one's principles, but also in strengthening and legitimising the totalitarian regimes.

The totalitarian government model is currently much more appealing than Western-style democracy to the ruling groups of FSU countries. They have chosen this development path and are never going to adopt Western democratic ways by their own choice. Why should they?

At the moment issues like human rights and democracy can be excluded from meaningful bilateral trade relations. They can always reach a deal with Europe that is monetarily profitable to both sides. Liberalisation and democratisation will cost them power. At the same time there is little cost to them for failing to comply with international obligations and to change under current EU policy and huge risks to their dictatorships if they do change.

Post-Soviet totalitarianism has taken things much further than the Soviet Union ever did. The former superpower at least had some respect for national borders. It opposed the West in the Third World, rather than on the enemy's home ground. In Western Europe, the USSR used “conventional” methods of espionage, attempts at propaganda and support for local communists.

Things are very different today. Post-Soviet totalitarianism has found Europe's weakness and is increasingly trying to impose its own rules of engagement in Europe. This may not yet be a conscious strategy, but the scale and effectiveness of this “abduction of Europe" are truly impressive.

Dangerous future

It all began with significant investment in the Old World. Post-Soviet nouveaux riches became welcome in Western Europe. At first, they simply came over for a short holiday, to party and enjoy "European" life, while gradually coming to understand that they did not have to adapt to unnecessary convention, as their money was dazzling to the citizens of the EU.

Businessmen and politicians from the FSU started buying up real estate, moving their business to Europe, or at least putting them under companies in European offshore zones. They began buying sports clubs and entertainment venues on the Continent. The experience of those early weekend trips to Europe came in handy, and proved a great eye-opener. Huge amounts of cash began flowing west and huge amount of lawyers were hired to justify it, explain it and arrange for its deposit in western banks.

Business interests from all FSU countries currently have a presence in all European countries. London, which many of the Russian super-rich call home, is a prominent example. On the face of it, this would all be perfectly normal, even progressive development, if wasn’t for the fact that business interests across the FSU have no respect for laws and rules of the game accepted in the West.

These business interests bring their grey schemes of making money to Europe, making a "quick Euro" or a few hundred million quick Euros without proper control and while following corrupt practices. They also actively lobby EU member states, especially their policies in respect of FSU nations.

Business interests need lobbying, and this was precisely what post-Soviet businessmen and EU politicians started engaging in, acting through European politicians and members of parliaments and other legislators. The Latvians lobby for relaxing constraints on Belarusian petro chemicals, many of which are exported through Latvian ports. Former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder joined Gazprom in the midst of its energy wars with the West.

The next level of infiltration of Europe was through the media and think tanks. After several failed attempts to set up or support NGOs in the West that would promote pro totalitarian propaganda, Russia and several other nations simply started buying analysis, journalists and media personalities, who could use their full knowledge of Western sensibilities and mind-sets to promote the interests of totalitarian regimes and dictatorships. The television channel Russia Today is a prime example of this. Native English speakers and pundits are hired as presenters to present pro Russia news in perfect English.

Expensive PR agencies are more than happy to see totalitarian regimes of the FSU among their clients, going to great lengths to make sure human rights violations in these countries are overlooked in Europe. Lord Timothy Bell and his PR agency eagerly came to serve Lukashenka government to lobby its interests in the UK and in Europe.

The push-back from the FSU is strong. The opposition to a EU Magnitsky law is a prime example of this with the EU being afraid to pass an act for fear of derailing its relations with Russia.

Dictators around the world are watching closely. They happily note that the Court of Justice of the European Union has accepted the claims of the blacklisted representatives of the dictatorial regime in Belarus who pose as journalists or election committee officials as well as some oligarchs who serve the dictator to be removed from the list.

Not only accepted but even ruled to pay the lawyers of the criminals that goes against European values. We also see the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe filing a multibillion-dollar lawsuit over the losses suffered from EU Sanctions. Frightfully expensive European lawyers will now try to prove in court that destroying one's own country and one's own people is a tyrant's inalienable right. That'll be quite a precedent.

European democracy is increasingly becoming a product for purely domestic consumption. It is in full effect in the EU, where politicians, journalists, government officials and ordinary citizens alike are more than happy to benefit from it, and it grinds to a halt at the EU’s boundaries.

Democratic principles prevail inside the EU: independent courts protect human rights from encroachment by other individuals as well as governments. Outside the EU, one can conveniently forget about principles and deal with dictators.

The policy that Vaclav Havel described as "the sinister experience of dictator appeasement," is now called a "policy of engagement." This is precisely what the EU is offering Lukashenko, the man whose regime is responsible for disappearances and murders of opposition leaders, journalists, mass human rights violations, as well as destruction of national culture, history and language.

It all started in Belarus

The abduction of Europe started with Lukashenko. The foundation of Europe's last dictatorship was laid in Belarus precisely in the 1990s when Europe lived through its best period of great expectations, enlargement and common values. Lukashenko achieved a successful coup d'etat (disguised as a referendum) and assumed total power in 1996.

The EU responded by suspending relations with the regime, hoping that the next election would be fair. Popular opposition leaders who enjoyed broad support were murdered in 1999: Gennady Karpenko, Yury Zakharenko, Victor Gonchar.

Every one of them could have won an election against the dictator. The EU did not respond to that. The Council of Europe conducted an investigation years after the murders. In the meantime, the dictator was building, consistently and methodically, modern Europe's toughest totalitarian system in Belarus.

All FSU regimes, notably that in Russia, carefully studied the approaches and methods tested by the dictator in Belarus. They did not simply study them, they also adopted the "best dictatorship practices" for their own use.

It is abundantly clear how Lukashenko's practices are currently implemented in Russia. Among other things, Russia is watching how quickly Belarus can patch up its relations with the EU after yet another, more vicious spat.

It could be said that Europe created Lukashenko, and Lukashenko created Putin's Russia.

The experience of the Belarusian dictatorship shows that after any flare-ups with the West, after putting down peaceful demonstration, putting more political prisoners into jail, someone will come forward in Europe to defend the bankrupt Belarusian regime, and appeasers would be found domestically, who would join efforts to make the EU to revert to the Realpolitik mode.

A united Europe, with active involvement by the US, would have been a guarantor of restoration, reinforcement and development of democratic values, principles, and standards in the post-Soviet region. This is necessary for maintaining the Transatlantic partnership, for FSU nations, and for Europe itself. However, this is not happening.

And now Europe is in the throes of a very real crisis of values, which will hit it, much harder than any financial, mortgage lending, or foreign exchange crisis. The essence of the crisis is precisely that the EU does not see its mission to strengthen and develop democratic values. It believes it can maintain its own institutions and values untainted and engage and trade with its undemocratic European neighbours at no cost to itself. This is a mistake.

No "Realpolitik," no amount of "engagement" and overtures towards dictators are going to create predictable, safe neighbours for Europe. Dialogue and engagement with these regimes legitimises them and lets them into the EU where it is the EU’s systems and values that corrode. Remember, there are fewer free countries in the world than five years ago.

Only a direct, honest, uncompromising assessment of the dictatorship's actions, only an honest, strong, and brave stance in response to human rights violations by oppressive and dictatorial regimes, and bold support of democratic movements should help Europe defend its values and avoid new conflicts and a real “clash of civilisations”.

The writer is a Belarusian opposition politician and a former presidential candidate and political prisoner.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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