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  • Preempting Democracy:The Case of Belarus
  • Vitali Silitski (bio)

In 2001, ten years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the prospects for democracy in its successor states (outside the Baltic) seemed increasingly bleak. Even countries that had begun their independence from the USSR in relatively promising fashion seemed to be sliding back toward autocracy. But then things suddenly seemed to change. A series of dramatic events—Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, and the Tulip Revolution that ousted Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev following rigged February 2005 parliamentary elections—created a very different set of expectations. Many thought that this new wave of change would spread democratic impulses throughout the region, leading to the ouster of autocrats in other countries.

In reaction to the events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, politics is indeed changing in postcommunist Eurasia—but in many places it is changing for the worse. Several of the region's surviving autocracies have tightened the reins: Kazakhstan recently outlawed its major opposition party; Tajikistan introduced new regulations restricting contact between foreign diplomats and local civil society groups; Azerbaijan's opposition groups and independent press face a new round of attacks in advance of the November 2005 parliamentary elections; in Uzbekistan, a May 2005 rebellion against President Islam Karimov was violently suppressed; and Russian president Vladimir Putin recently announced an upcoming ban on civil society assistance from abroad and implemented an electoral reform that makes it impossible for parties independent of the presidential administration to win representation in parliament.

Although not all of these actions are directly related to the aforementioned [End Page 83] revolutions, they demonstrate how far authoritarian incumbents are willing to go to protect their power. Veteran leaders of former Soviet republics have openly vowed to avert democratic revolutions in their own countries. They directly attribute the downfall of their Georgian, Ukrainian, and Kyrgyz counterparts not only to activities orchestrated by the international democracy-promotion community, but also to the inherent weaknesses of unconsolidated authoritarian regimes. As many surviving autocratic leaders see it, the great mistake of their fallen colleagues was to tolerate social and even political pluralism, believing that it would furnish them with a respectable democratic façade without endangering the stability of their regimes. The lesson drawn by the autocratic survivors is simple: They must step up repression.

In the post-Soviet countries that have recently experienced democratic breakthroughs, incumbents did try to crack down on political rights and civil liberties, but they were unable to foreclose change. For opposition political and social forces, which had developed earlier in the relatively liberal environment of competitive authoritarianism,1 were able to withstand the pressure. In contrast, hard-line authoritarian regimes ensure their continued stability and survival not just by sporadic reactions to already existing political and social challenges, but by preemptive attacks that eliminate threats before they arise.

Preemption aims at political parties and players that are still weak. It removes from the political arena even those opposition leaders who are unlikely to pose a serious challenge in the next election. It attacks the independent press even if it reaches only small segments of the population. It destroys civil society organizations even when these are concentrated in a relatively circumscribed urban subculture. Last but not least, it violates the electoral rules even when the incumbent would be likely to win in a fair balloting.

Although these actions may destroy the regime's democratic image abroad, the public at home may still perceive its leaders to be duly, if not fully democratically, elected. By uprooting political and social alternatives well before they develop into threats, incumbents can win elections long before the start of the campaign. And the validity of their victory is less likely to be contested when the strongest challengers have already been denied entry into the race by disqualification or other more nefarious means. Preemption has an enormous psychological impact on both the political and social opposition; such systematized repression instills in them a sense of hopelessness and imposes the perception that political change is far beyond reach.

Perfecting the Policy of Preemption

One Eurasian country in particular has brought the policy of preemption to perfection—Belarus. President...