Alexander is a whistleblower. He sacrificed his military career when he reported on former President Donald Trump’s threats to withhold support from Ukraine if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not help him dig up dirt on Bidens.
Andrei is a dissident. He withdrew from the Belarussian government in 1996 in protest of President Alexander Lukashenko’s growing authoritarianism. In 2010, he dared to run against Lukashenko as president of Belarus.
From our experience, we have learned that when it comes to defending democracy, whistleblowers may pay with their careers, but dissidents often pay with their lives.
In Alexander’s case, independent media were searching for the truth, and Congress urged him to do so witnesses
. While he suffered professional consequences
, the government has never imprisoned or threatened his life.
In Andrei’s case, Lukashenko had him detained and tortured
. He got hit
, refused medical attention and pressure to commit suicide. Andrei was just released
after more than a year in prison, as coordinated sanctions from the EU and the US appear to have become too great for Lukashenko’s regime to bear. Although Lukashenko did not comment on Andrei’s case in a 2012 interview declaring himself a dictator, denied
allegations of holding political prisoners.)
Although whistleblowers and dissidents play a vital role as truth-seekers in society, our stories exemplify the sober reality that we cannot bring about change without further support. Simply put, whistleblowers and dissidents can act as catalysts for change, but it is the wider public that can change the course of history.
In the United States, that knowledge and belief ebbs and flows. In moments of widespread grassroots mobilization and public outcry – including Black Lives Matter protests
, March for our lives protests
, Women’s March protests
, as well as historical turnout during Midterm elections 2018
and the 2020 presidential election
– The public has created the impetus for systemic reforms of American democracy.
An important fact to keep in mind in this discussion is that these democratic demonstrations in the United States have been largely peaceful
. Protesters and grassroots organizations in the United States are not usually severely repressed and movements are allowed to develop organically. Like Alexander, people can generally speak out against injustice without fear of a government defeat.
This has been a critical element in the ongoing struggle against anti-democratic forces, as well as a key feature of the American system, which has been flexible and resilient to responding to the will of the people in tumultuous periods.
But the risk of political lethargy following the departure of former President Donald Trump is not something to be written off. Trump has significant influence over the Republican Party – and Trumpism will undoubtedly do be on the ballot paper
during the midterm elections in 2022.
American complacency has both short-term and long-term consequences. While some supporters of “The Big Lie” could win an elected office in the short term, there is significant danger in the long-term trends – namely the gradual replacement of more traditional politicians with Trumpian populists and conspiracy theorists.
Three years from now, Trump could be the Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election, rejecting another close election loss. But this time, he could get support from enough state Republican officials who complied with his demand to overturn unfavorable election results.
We can not just address these issues when they have already become a reality, as was the case during the wave of civil activism during Trump’s presidency. We must be proactive in stopping authoritarianism now.
In Belarus, on the other hand, the most brutal form of authoritarianism is already a fact. Protests are met with violence. Under the oppressive Lukashenko regime, the last traces of democratic institutions in civil society are being extinguished
, and the opposition is active suppressed
Like Andrei, hundreds of thousands
of Belarusians have protested for an end to the Lukashenko regime’s authoritarian excesses and a turn towards democracy. Yet their bravery and sacrifice
has not been enough. Protesters have been under maximum pressure for years and need greater external support to succeed.
Western governments have the tools and resources to put increased pressure on Lukashenko and his officials. These governments can raise the cost of Lukashenko’s repression tight restrictions
on the regime’s ability to abuse Interpol, coercive additional sanctions
Global Magnitsky sanctions for human rights violations or targeted at oligarchs whose networks of corruption support the Kremlin, and by proxy the Belarusian dictatorship. While this may not in itself be enough to force Lukashenko to negotiate with the opposition, it would demonstrate solidarity with pro-democracy forces while signaling that Lukashenko’s regime will face consequences if it acts with impunity.
Some, such as European Council
, says that the changes in Belarus must come from within. But the push for change in Belarus is coming from within. In order to actually create democratic reforms, Belarusians will demand collective action from other Western nations committed to the values and principles of fundamental human rights and freedoms.
The United States could take the lead in this as it already meets one indispensable role
on the international stage as a defender, sponsor and promoter of democracy. It could play a crucial role in strengthening Belarusian civil society by providing material and ideological support to the country’s pro-democracy elements.
Given the current situation in Belarus, a cautious approach may be to provide financial, rhetorical and organizational support to the leaders of the pro-democracy movement beyond the country’s borders. Critical figures such as Andrei and organizations continue to strengthen and strengthen Belarusian civil society, even in exile. They facilitate a platform for the Belarusian opposition that offers hope for the future and offers a democratic alternative to the illegitimate Lukashenko regime.
It is dangerous and irresponsible to believe that the United States can abolish its duties as leader of the free world without consequences in those regions of the world where democracy is still struggling to establish a foothold. Belarusians, along with countless other peoples, look to the United States to be an example and to represent an ideal worth striving for. American values and interests require the defense of democracy both at home and abroad.
While the United States and Belarus are worlds apart, the Belarusian experience offers a daunting window into a world without fundamental freedoms. Believe us when we say that American democracy is worth defending so that it does not come to look any closer to Belarus.