The Old Vic will tonight host the premiere of Europe’s Last Dictator, a documentary about the savage dictatorship that thrives in the heart of Europe. For 17 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet state, in the fashion of his hero Joseph Stalin: public assembly is banned, the press is censored, the internet is monitored, telephones are tapped, and people’s livelihoods — and lives — depend on eschewing politics.
A film that casts a spotlight on Lukashenko’s crimes deserves a wide audience. And yet, paradoxically, staying away from this film would be one of the strongest expressions of solidarity with the battered pro-democracy opposition movement in Belarus. The reason is the filmmakers’ decision to invite Julian Assange of WikiLeaks to moderate the post-premiere Q&A session. Why does this matter? Because to dignify Assange with a place on the podium at an event about Belarus is to mock the men and women who endure the brutality of Lukashenko — a tyrant whose vicious grip on Belarus Assange helped tighten.
In December 2010, Israel Shamir, a WikiLeaks associate and an intimate friend of Julian Assange — so close, in fact, that he outed the Swedish women who claim to be victims of rape and sexual assault by Assange — allegedly travelled to Belarus with a cache of unredacted American diplomatic cables concerning the country. He reportedly met Lukashenko’s chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, handed over the documents to the government, and stayed in the country to “observe” the presidential elections.
When Lukashenko pronounced himself the winner on 19 December 2010 with nearly 80 per cent of the vote, Belarusians reacted by staging a mass protest. Lukashenko dispatched the state militia. As their truncheons bloodied the squares and streets of the capital, Minsk, Shamir wrote a story in the American left-wing journal Counterpunch extolling Lukashenko (“The president of Belarus … walks freely among his people”), deriding the dictator’s opponents (“The pro-western ‘Gucci’ crowd”, Shamir called them), and crediting WikiLeaks with exposing America’s “agents” in Belarus (“WikiLeaks has now revealed how… undeclared cash flows from the U.S. coffers to the Belarus ‘opposition’ “).
The following month, Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper, began serializing what it claimed to be extracts from the cables gifted to Lukashenko by WikiLeaks. Among the figures “exposed” as recipients of foreign cash were Andrei Sannikov, a defeated opposition presidential candidate presently serving a five-year prison sentence; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov’s press secretary, who was found dead in suspicious circumstances months before the elections; and Vladimir Neklyayev, the writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who also ran against Lukashenko and is now under house arrest.
Did Assange at this point repudiate Shamir or speak up against Lukashenko? No. Instead he upbraided Ian Hislop for publishing an article in Private Eye that exposed Shamir as a Holocaust denier and white supremacist. There was, he claimed, a “conspiracy” against him by “Jewish” journalists at the Guardian. Addicted to obedience from others and submerged in a swamp of conspiracy theories, Assange’s reflexive reaction to the first hint of disagreement by his erstwhile friends was to hold malign Jews responsible.
His subsequent attempts to distance himself from Shamir were undermined when James Ball, a former WikiLeaks staffer, revealed that not only did Assange authorise Shamir’s access to the cables — how else could he have got hold of the documents from this impenetrably secretive organisation consecrated to transparency? — he also stopped others from criticising Shamir even after news of his Belarusian expedition became public.
Reasonable people can have genuine disagreements about America’s foreign policy, but the fact remains that many dissidents in repressive states across the world seek Washington’s support. In Assange’s dogmatic worldview, this is an unpardonable crime. As he told the Guardian‘s David Leigh about Afghans who cooperated with the United States against the Taliban,”[I]f they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” A man who lacks the intelligence to make a distinction between the Taliban and its victims — and relishes the prospect of Afghan civilians being butchered for the crime of aligning themselves with America — perhaps should not be expected to feel troubled by the excesses of a European dictatorship.
Belarus needs all the attention it can get. But why are the custodians of its cause in the west aligning themselves with a charlatan who has not only helped Lukashenko, but is also now employed by Russia Today, the official mouthpiece of the Kremlin, which is Lukashenko’s principal enabler? When I pleaded with the filmmakers to reconsider their stance, they sounded very much like zealous converts to the Cult of Julian Assange. Every piece of evidence I offered was dismissed as malicious hearsay — or as downright propaganda from “Julian’s enemies” at the Guardian.
The absurdity of seeking greater western interference in Belarus, and then inviting along a man who imperilled the dissidents who received western support, did not occur to them. It is difficult to imagine a more sordid insult to the brave opposition of Belarus than to let Assange whitewash his appalling record by attaching himself, unquestioned, to this screening.
In all of this, the stance of Irina Bogdanova, a participant in the documentary and one of the chief organisers of its premiere, is startling. Because she is the sister of the opposition leader Sannikov, she regards herself best placed to judge Assange’s role in Belarus. But to say that Sannikov is not the sole victim of Lukashenko’s crackdown is not to demean him. When I urged her to reconsider her invitation to Assange, she told me that she had carried out investigations and could not find any opposing voices.
She should have spoken to Tatsiana Shaputska, a journalist in Minsk who has spent more than her fair share of time in the fetid detention camps of Belarus. She considers it a “shame to invite Assange to the film”. She’s not alone. Reporting from Minsk last year, I met young Belarusians living in fear of being paraded as traitors on live television because they feared their names had appeared in the American cables. It is on the fears and anxieties of these activists that Assange built his tawdry fame. In seeking to stir up sympathy for the plight of Sannikov, it is sad that Bogdonova remained, despite repeated pleas, so unsympathetic to the feelings of others.
Even without this baggage, it is difficult to see what precisely qualifies Assange to play the expert — to moderate others’ views — on Belarus. The only Belarusian his work ever truly benefited is Lukashenko. And in 2010, fresh from suppressing the pro-democracy uprising, the dictator paid rich tribute to Assange by disclosing his desire to start a “Belarusian WikiLeaks” — designed to name and shame the traitors who collaborated with the United States.
Assange may attempt to slam the door on further scrutiny of his squalid conduct in Belarus by casting his invitation to the premiere of Europe’s Last Dictator as a certificate of exoneration. But an endorsement from some blinkered Belarusians drawn to the lustre of his trashy celebrity cannot erase the harm Assange has done to the cause of democracy — and to democrats — in Belarus.
Kapil Komireddi is an Indian freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times.