2020 has been a very difficult year for many good reasons beyond the COVID pandemic. As I pointed to last week, we here in Canada are particularly interested in watching the election coming to our south in the United States and what it means for us. Being a western democratic nation, the United States has been the balancing power that we have leaned on to protect and advance those democratic values around the world. They have been that ally we have worked with to advance liberal democratic values, for better or worse.
Prior to 2016 it would have been hard to image what it would have looked like to have the United States step back from that role of being the bulwark of democracy around the world. Despite isolationist traditions that have always existed in the US, for the past 70 years they have put that aside, electing leaders who understood the importance of being involved on the world stage. But the election of Donald Trump changed so much of that and has forced us to live with that reality that we couldn’t have imagined before.
Yet even though we have become numb to the fallout of Trump’s antics, sometimes events happen that just snap us back to reality for a moment and remind us the importance of the American election this fall. In this case, that event was another election that happened yesterday, in the last dictatorship in Europe: Belarus. It all came to a head yesterday when the people went to the polls and this is what it led to:
Being the last dictatorship in Europe, I don’t think that the world would have generally expected a free and fair election of any sort. By their nature, those don’t happen in dictatorships. Police in Belarus arrested candidates for the presidency before the race, while also arbitrarily arresting journalists, bloggers, and political activists ahead of the vote. In fact the main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya rose to the position after “two other prominent aspirants were denied places on the ballot.” According to the Associated Press, “one of them was jailed and the other, former ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, fled the country fearing imminent arrest.” Also Tsikhanouskaya saw her husband, an opposition blogger himself, arrested during all of this.
So to hear that this election was likely not fair, was surely not free and ran afoul of proper democratic processes was not a shock. Normally that wouldn’t be a story here, but this time is different for a big reason. Unlike in past similar elections, the people of Belarus don’t seem to be taking this laying down. They have headed to the streets, leading to these kinds of things happening:
It looks like we are witnessing a monumental moment in Belarus that could fall either way. It looks a lot like the kind of sights we’ve seen in the past when dictatorships have fallen, but again being 2020 this is very different because of a few things. First off is the response from the current Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko not just after the vote but before. A close ally of Russia for so long, Lukashenko accused the Russians of plotting a terror attack shortly before the presidential vote, arresting 33 Russian nationals as a result. It’s the same kind of alleged activity that we’ve seen from the current Russian government in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, which has led to international condemnation. Also it was striking to see Lukashenko of all people make that accusation, given how close he has been to Russian President Putin. Since then Lukashenko has also accused that “riots in Belarus are organized from the outside”, specifically calling the Czech Republic “one of the lines of puppeteers” of the protests we’ve seen. So despite Russia’s history of these tactics, it’s also more than reasonable to doubt Lukashenko’s accusations now. But put that mess aside for a moment, and let’s look at the reaction of the World to what’s happened so far and there is something that you’ll notice:
The current President of the European Union, the previous one too, the President of Finland and the President of Latvia among others have spoken up so far in support of the people of Belarus. As the day goes along, I would expect other countries and groups to join that list. And in the tiny company of nations congratulating Lukashenko? Russia and their president, which is not a shock either.
But do you notice who is silent here? Is there a name there that you would expect to have something to say about the potential fall of a Russian-aligned dictatorship in eastern Europe, where people are in the streets demanding their democratic rights? That’s right, the United States. As of my writing this at 10:30 am EST, here hasn’t been a single statement yet from President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, from the White House or the US Department of State. Nothing, nada, complete radio silence. And during that time it’s not like Trump has been silent. Last night he was tweeting attacks at Anthony Scaramucci and CNN and the New York Times over their reporting about him wanting to be put on Mount Rushmore, simultaneously calling it “Fake News” and saying it “sounds like a good idea to me”. And this morning he tweeted attacks at Democratic leaders across the board, Republican Senator Ben Sasse and Portland, so we know he’s saying things in general.
Yet when it comes to the last dictatorship in Europe potentially falling, this American President has nothing to say, not a word. Never in the past would you have seen an American President stay so quiet while a past Soviet satellite country cried out for democracy. Never in the past would you have seen an American President stand by silently as Russian tried to use political interference in campaigns and otherwise to grow their own territorial ambitions. Never would we have seen an American President abandon the people of such nations who aspire to live in free, democratic societies like this. And yet here we are, and Donald Trump has left it to the EU, Finland, and Latvia to carry the heavy load so far.
And that folks is why the Fall American election is so important. This is what you get when the leader of western democratic ideals decides to abandon their allies and retreat within their own borders. You get a vacuum, which Russia is more than happy to fill at this point. It’s no small wonder that US intelligence officials have said that Russia wants him to win again and are doing what they can to try to help that happen.
Whatever happens in Belarus will have big ripple effects on the democratic world. Will they manage to become a true democratic nation? Will they go further from or closer to ally Russia? Will become more like Baltic states like Latvia and Estonia, or will Belarus become the next Crimea? Will Russia’s sphere of influence grow and will their interventionist tactics prove successful in Belarus as they have in other countries? These are not inconsequential matters that will have no effect on us here on this side of the Atlantic. By staying silent and acquiescent to Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump is abdicating the United States decades long position as the Leaders of the Free World.
What we are seeing happen in Belarus right now matters not just to eastern Europe but to the democratic world as a whole. That the US is silent and there is no expectation that it will change is a stark reminder of just how important elections are. Democracy dies in the dark when people don’t speak out to protect it. As I’ve said here before many times “the best way to protect democracy is to make it work”. That involves speaking out to defend it, here at home and abroad. The plight of the people of Belarus is our own and by staying stone silent, Donald Trump is showing he isn’t up to the hard job of being a defender of democratic values.