Why the actions of authoritarian leaders are an urgent political issue for the UK

In a global information society, the erosion of democracy takes place everywhere, at the same time.

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Alexander Lukashenko is about to win the presidential election in Belarus by a landslide. The election isn’t until 9 August, but I can predict this with certainty – despite the ban on independent and online opinion polls – because his two main rivals are in jail.

Sergey Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber, was arrested on 29 May and was later charged with "disturbing public order" and "obstructing elections".

Viktar Babaryka was detained while on his way to the electoral commission on 18 June, together with key supporters. He is charged with tax evasion, money laundering, fraud and bribery, according to the Belarusian human rights group Viasna.

A third popular candidate, Valery Tsepkalo, was barred from standing after the authorities claimed only 75,000 of the signatures on his nomination paper were valid. He has now fled the country.

According to Viasna, at least 1,140 opposition activists have been detained since the election was called, including the 280 people rounded up on 14 July, at a demonstration against the disqualification of opposition candidates.

Despite censorship, surveillance and police harassment, Belarusian voters have been forming kilometre-long queues to endorse opposition candidates. Turnout looks set to be high on 9 August. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of the jailed Sergey Tikhanovsky, has become the united opposition candidate.

But the government has banned all independent observers from polling stations, while only the state-run TV station will be allowed to report from the official election results centre. According to one activist, when the opposition staged a peaceful rally last weekend, the secret police blocked all online streaming of the event.

And in any case, in the event that Tikhanovskaya wins, it seems unlikely that President Lukashenko will leave office. He will, in all likelihood, press ahead with the unpublished "integration roadmaps" he agreed last year with Russia, which may include a single currency, a single market and unified tax regimes. During an intense negotiation in 2019, Vladimir Putin is said to have declared the end of the former deal whereby Belarus got cheap Russian oil and gas "in exchange for kisses". Now, Russia wants effective sovereignty. This is why some deeply un-radical members of the Belarus business establishment have decided to split with Lukashenko and attempt to stage serious rival candidacies.

Why should voters in Western democracies care about what's happening in Belarus, aside from the injustice and violation of human rights involved?

First, because even if we are not experiencing the same levels of repression, we are now living in a continuum with it.

In Hungary, journalists at the country’s last remaining independent news outlet have just quit en masse following its effective takeover by an ally of Viktor Orban. In Bolivia, a disputed election has turned into a campaign of “national pacification”, involving human rights abuses and repression by an unelected leader. And as events in Portland, Oregon demonstrate, constitutional democracy is under threat even in the US.

In Portland, Donald Trump is using federal law enforcement clad in combat gear to override state authority. Federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in unmarked vehicles, have detained protesters. The acting head of the DHS, Chad Wolf, tweeted (and later deleted) photographs of the arrests, claiming that the agents had "defended our institutions of justice against violent anarchists".

All over the world, authoritarian politicians are using the Covid-19 pandemic, which has frayed multilateral institutions and turned many civil societies inwards, as an excuse to erode political freedom. And they are learning from each other.

See also: Felix Light on how coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism's failings in the former Soviet Union

Trump's strategy is to wage a low-level civil war against the mythologised "antifa" and "violent anarchist" threat, in order to suppress the Democratic vote in the upcoming election and to de-legitimise the likely victory of Joe Biden. The deployment of federal law enforcement beyond its traditional jurisdiction in Portland – and the threat to do so in Chicago and New York – is just one mindbender.

He has also frequently attacked postal voting, suggesting it will be used to rig the election against him. Asked on 19 July whether he would accept the results of the election in November, he replied: "No, I'm not going to just say yes; I'm not going to say no." Numerous constitutional experts believe that if Trump loses, he will try to invalidate the results state by state, by contesting them in the courts.

There are many parallels being drawn between what Trump is doing and the conditions that gave rise to fascism. Not all of them are valid, but one similarity which stands out is that, both in Germany and Italy fascism was prepared by authoritarians who worked overtime to erode people's belief in democracy. Amid an economic crisis, and with the state unable to guarantee people's physical security, the prestige of democratic institutions evaporated.

Mussolini wrote in 1921 that "democracy is dying in every country in the world... new aristocracies are rising: now that it has been shown that the masses cannot be the protagonists of history, but only its instruments" (Opera Omnia, Vol 18).

Today, from Minsk to Washington, La Paz to Budapest, the same message is being conveyed subliminally through the behaviour of a circus of freaks.

In an information society, the federal crackdown on the Portland protest, Orban's shutdown of the independent media, and Lukashenko's intervention in the coming election in Belarus are not just local events. They play a performative function globally, to demonstrate the hollow commitment of the billionaire class to democracy. That same disregard can be read in Elon Musk's recent tweet about Bolivia: "We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it!"

When Boris Johnson unlawfully prorogues parliament, is accused of suppressing the Intelligence and Security Committee's report into Russian interference, and appoints his friends to non-executive directorships of government offices, you have to understand these actions as a low-level form of the same performance.

The lesson of the 1930s is that democracy is precious. You defend it by using it: by voting, by membership of political parties, by defending the free speech of media outlets under attack. And by caring about it, even in a country you are unlikely to visit.

The UK now has the capability to impose Magnitsky sanctions on individuals and organisations accused of human rights violations. This is exactly what democracy campaigners in Belarus are calling for: they have prepared a list of eight public officials, headed by three members of the Lukashenko family, whom they believe should be added to the UK's list under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020.

The argument against sanctioning men like Lukashenko has traditionally been that it might "push him even further" into the arms of Moscow. But the election on 9 August looks set to make that objection irrelevant. The theft of power underway in Belarus makes it pretty clear which way Lukashenko is leaning – and the arrest on 29 July of 33 alleged Russian mercenaries in Minsk shows the level of pressure he is coming under. The best thing the West can do is start acting as if it cares about the rights and freedoms of the democracy activists currently under arrest.

Because all dictators fall; even those appointed for life are not immortal. One day – in Minsk, in Moscow, and in Beijing – people will ask the West, its civil societies and labour movements: "What did you do, when they threw us into jail?"

However meagre, the answer has to be something.

See also: Felix Light on uproar in Belarus over poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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