- President Donald Trump’s repeated refusal to affirm his commitment to a peaceful transfer of power is far outside the norms of US politics.
- It is not unusual in Eastern Europe — especially Belarus, where the president is clinging on after a rigged election.
- The US is still a very different place to Belarus, but the similarities are growing more noticeable and troubling.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Sen. Mitt Romney suggested this week the US could begin to resemble Belarus if President Donald Trump refused to accept defeat at the polls, I rolled my eyes.
Thousands of obvious differences separate the two countries: a vibrant (versus stifled) society; free (versus muzzled) media; and competitive (versus rigged) elections.
Then I recalled watching the turmoil unfold in the former Soviet republic after last month’s fraudulent presidential contest.
—NBC News (@NBCNews) September 23, 2020
Long-simmering discontent had boiled over against a leader increasingly detached from reality, who ignored the growth of support for an opposition that may have even won an outright victory.
A sweeping and astonishingly violent crackdown, during which I was detained for two days, was accompanied by the bullying and belittling of his opponents.
Fearing for their personal and professional security, most of the leader’s political cronies stayed quiet.
A month and a half later, Belarus faces a crippling political standoff borne of President Alexander Lukashenko’s stubborn refusal to embrace basic democratic norms and admit his own failures.
He has alienated wide swaths of society, pandering instead to his conservative base — mostly cops, military men and working-class and rural voters — through clumsy propaganda.
His primary message: I’m the only one who can save the country from darkness and destruction.
Despite the myriad and very meaningful differences between the US and Belarus, they both stand to suffer from the fallout of an unpopular leader sticking around after their expiration date.
The similarities are more stark than they might seem. Particularly chilling for me was witnessing the deep-seated resentment Lukashenko’s regime fostered among its supporters against their perceived enemies, which at one point he called “rats.”
Dispatched to clear the streets of protesters following the August 9 vote, his feared riot police treated thousands of ordinary citizens like scum as they packed them into paddy wagons and overcrowded prisons.
Some were killed during protests, others turned up dead in dubious circumstances, while dozens more remain missing.
Recently, I reminisced about those early post-election clashes with one of my former cellmates, who was forced to flee Belarus after his release from prison. “They came out to kill,” he told me.
While police brutality — including during protests — remains a pressing problem in the United States, it’s not exactly accurate to compare Lukashenko’s indoctrinated, bloodthirsty goons to American cops.
But the common element here isn’t violence; it’s government-bred resentment of “the other.”
And as I witnessed firsthand in Belarus, as well as in other autocracies before that, it’s powerful enough to make people do vicious things. Such resentment isn’t restricted to those on the “losing” side.
I’ve watched a similar dynamic play out during other popular revolts across Eastern Europe, whether during the protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012 or the 2014 rebellion in eastern Ukraine orchestrated by Moscow.
Inflamed by intense passions — sometimes fueled by vicious lies about their opponents — both sides become further entrenched in their own reality, occasionally with deadly results.
At the very least, for a leader obsessed with putting on a great show, Trump should hope he doesn’t discredit himself as widely as Lukashenko has.
On the same day Romney made his remark, the mustachioed leader was inaugurated virtually in secret, fearing the kind of widespread protests that have rocked his country for weeks.
When footage emerged of Trump being booed while paying his respects to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Thursday, a day after he declined to commit to conceding if he lost in November, it evoked images of his Belarusian counterpart facing a similar reception while visiting factory workers shortly after his rigged election.
—CSPAN (@cspan) September 24, 2020
—SkyNews (@SkyNews) August 17, 2020
Let’s be clear: The US is most certainly not, and hopefully never will never be, Lukashenko’s Belarus.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that headstrong or foolhardy leaders become unpredictable when they’re backed into a corner.
Should Trump choose a similar path, it would be up to Republicans and, perhaps more importantly, the American public to make sure he doesn’t follow through.
Dan Peleschuk is a Ukraine-based journalist who has covered the former Soviet Union for more than a decade.