28 September, 2008

Belarus & Realpolitik

So today Belarus is holding parliamentary elections. Belarus is a country with only the most tangential association with democracy, and these elections are likely to be a farce, with the opposition largely prevented from campaigning (sometimes by being killed), and the results largely known in advance. Previous elections in Belarus have been condemned in the West in the most stinging terms. However, this time around there are reports that the EU and USA are likely to be less scathing in their criticisms. It is suggested that they will instead focus on whatever scraps of democratic progress can be seen in Belarus, and that sanctions against Belarus' elite of unreconstructed Communist thugs are due for relaxation.

The reason for this is simple enough. Belarus has for the last number of years been a staunch ally of Russia. Recently, though, this relationship has come under strain. Moscow caused outrage in Minsk (the capital of Belarus) by suggesting that the country might want to pay something approaching market rates for the gas Russia supplies it. More recently, Belarus's leader, President Lukashenko, was slow to back Russia in its conflict with Georgia. The word is that the West is hoping to lure Belarus away from the Russian orbit, and if turning a blind eye to the regime's thuggishness is the price, then so be it.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the half-hearted way in which the West approaches democratisation in the Arab world. I reckon that Western leaders would genuinely like to see democratic regimes emerge in the Middle East. Unfortunately, they are also very keen to ensure that the Middle East continues to have governments who support Western interests. In most Arab countries, free elections would most likely bring less reliable elements into office, so the West mutes its criticisms of Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs. Friendly autocrats are preferable to independent democrats.

The West's feeble support for Arab democratisation and the suggested rapprochement with Lukashenko lend support to Realist theories of how international relations work. Realists see states as working fundamentally to advance their national interests. In both cases, the West has a sentimental attachment to democratisation, but this is jettisoned when it conflicts with core security interests.

A counter argument to this might be that making friends with dictators is ultimately an unwise course of action. In the long run, the West can benefit from exercising "soft power" – through the projection of touchy-feely liberal values and the promotion of human rights and all that. If the world is moving into a period of confrontation between a free and democratic West and a thuggish and dictatorial Russia (and China?), then some would see it as necessary for the West to not compromise on its commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights. Unfortunately, looking at recent history suggests that the West made that compromise some time ago, and it is not really in much of a position to lecture anyone about democracy and human rights.

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