Who Will Defend Democracy?

Several months after mass protests erupted in Belarus, a similar situation is beginning to unfold in Russia. Citizens are going out to the streets to demand change. In response, the government is engaging in a lawless crackdown on the opposition. Both internal and external influences will shape how events develop in Europe’s last dictatorships. On February 4th, possible scenarios for the opposition and how to provide assistance from abroad was the subject of discussion in a joint session held by the European Union Parliament, the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, and the Foundation for Democratic Development.

“You’re fighting and we’re trying to understand how to help, to find out what sort of measures we should take in order to defend your rights.” This was how former Prime Minister of Lithuania, Andrius Kubilius, began the discussion in the EU Parliament. The first panel was dedicated to the ongoing events in Russia. According to Sergei Medvedev, a professor from the Free University, the situations in Belarus and Russia have converged.

“I believe that this is the beginning of a national political movement against the current government,” remarked Zhanna Nemtsova. The number of security forces deployed to the streets of Russian cities suggests that the government is worried and perhaps realizes that the current situation is the beginning of the end. Although, social changes may not necessarily mean quick political transformations.

The time for political change is growing nearer – State Duma elections are less than a year away.

According to data provided by Denis Volkov, deputy director at the independent pollster Levada Center, between 30 and 50 percent of Russians are dissatisfied with the government. One of the most effective ways of bringing about change is by participating in elections.

Much depends on the activities of opposition politicians, as well as their ability to create channels through which to communicate with their audiences. Opposition figures such as Ilya Yashin and Nikolai Bondarenko have managed to do just that and are now making a name for themselves on the national level. “I think that the conversation about democracy in Russia isn’t about values but about all of those people who are ready to take action and demand government accountability,” summarized one expert. “It’s important for attitudes to translate into electoral activity,” commented Andrei Fateev, a deputy from the Tomsk city duma.

“Many of those surveyed say that they don’t support Alexei Navalny, that they go out in protest for political reforms, for freedom, for dignity,” said Sergei Medvedev. All present at the EU Parliament session agreed that the Russian government’s response to the recent protests was unparalleled in its use of force, which reminded many of Alexander Lukashenko’s response to street protests last summer. A record number of around 12,000 people were detained at the protests and the rights of citizens were blatantly disregarded. In the city of Vladivostok, a man was shot in the leg with a non-lethal weapon. Aleksander Kirsanov, a political activist, noted that in the city of Khabarovsk police even targeted journalists who held press credentials.

The second panel of the session was dedicated to the events in Belarus and was opened by Aleksander Dobrovolsky, a political advisor to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. “Our advantage over Russia lies in our electoral victory. We know that we’re the majority,” said Franck Vyachorka, another advisor to Tikhanovskaya. According to Vyachorka, the main objective for Belarus right now is to hold new elections without further adding to the list of victims of political oppression. It’s important that the fight for freedom in Belarus remains on the agenda and doesn’t lose the attention of the international community. “In the coming five months, we plan to launch a new wave of protest aimed at knocking down the government’s vertical power structure.”

Olga Kovalkova, an activist from Belarus, argued that Lukashenko’s regime exists thanks to financing from Putin’s regime, and this is a mutual decision of two authoritarian governments that don’t stop to consider the desires of their own citizens. Democratic forces in both Russia and Belarus need to work in coordination with one another, using each other as a way to strengthen their position in the international community. Kovalkova called on partners from the European Union to be no less decisive than Belarussians in their fight for democracy.

“In just a matter of two weeks, Putin has become his own kind of Lukashenko,” said Anatoli Lebedko, a Belorussian politician. “Before 2020 we were pitied, but now we inspire others and we’re respected.” By Lebedko’s accounts, Belarus has entered into a stalemate where neither side has enough strength to become the definitive victor. A number of factors are at play, such as worsening economic conditions, Russian and other foreign influences.

The Kremlin will probably deny that Putin and Lukashenko are stuck in the same sinking ship right up to the end.

On the international front, there is the expectation that the Biden administration will adopt a more compressive strategy in addressing the situation in Belarus. Many are hopeful about this, such as Anatoli Kotov, one of the leaders from National Anti-Crisis Management, a shadow-government-like organization in Belarus. However, Kotov adds that the base of protest support should be a civil society. The main reason underpinning the protests in Belarus, Kotov notes, is the government’s isolation from reality and its unwillingness to listen to its citizens. The protest agenda isn’t so important as is the fact that various political forces in both Belarus and Russia have come together to demand fair treatment from the government.

Kotov made a call to the deputies from the EU Parliament: “If you want to support us, then be bold. We want to win together and with as few casualties as possible. For every day that Lukashenko remains in power, Belarus loses enormous sums of money.”

At the opening of the third panel, Kubilius declared that the events in Russia and Belarus are important for Europe and the rest of the world: democracy should be a key strategic issue, no less important than climate change and the pandemic.

Russia and Belarus are Europe’s last remaining dictatorships, said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian activist from the Boris Nemtsov Foundation. In the fight against corruption, it should be remembered that corruption is exported abroad, meaning that members of the regime move their money and hide it in other countries. “We hope that our partners in the West will introduce targeted sanctions against government officials who are found to be violating human rights, but not against entire countries, as the Kremlin would like people to believe.”

The position of the EU Parliament is clear. Michael Gahler, a member of the Parliament, affirmed that, in the wake of Alexei Navalny’s arrest, new sanctions will be introduced, ones broad in their scope, and ones which will target those who have so far evaded already existing sanctions lists.

In all likelihood, new sanctions will affect the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. While in Germany opinions are divided on the issue, it’s probable that the joint pipeline project will be shuttered. But new sanctions aren’t just about Navalny’s arrest. Sergei Lagodinsky, a politician, noted that sanctions are also concerned with the use of banned substances and Russian legislation which conflicts with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. The EU Parliament is doing all it can in order to find some way to work with its Russian partners. Demanding sanctions is one thing, but organizing and implementing them is another. From a legal point of view, the process is very complex, and so building up a political will is necessary. As Kubilius noted, at the moment the EU is still searching for the right political solutions to the situation.

Jerzy Buzek, Poland’s Prime Minister in 1997-2001, called on members of the EU Parliament to believe in democracy and to not turn their backs on Russia and Belarus, to help civil society, show solidarity, and to search for solutions that will work. Buzek affirmed that the absolute majority of EU Parliament members support protesters in both countries.

“Thank you for your fight, which is a fight for a Europe without dictatorship,” expressed Rasa Juknevičienė, the former head of Lithuania’s Defense Ministry. Like Buzek, Juknevičienė implored everyone to believe that democracy in Russia is possible.

The European Union’s support is undeniably important. At the end of the session, Sergei Medvedev noted that the policy of dialogue with and appeasement to the regimes in Russia and Belarus is no longer effective. Now is the time to view the two countries as dictatorships and develop policy accordingly. While the role played by foreign influences is growing, the brunt of the work lies with the citizens of the countries themselves. Liberation from dictatorships must ultimately come from within.