Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko is often called "Europe's last dictator." He has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for most of the past two decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, hiding under the protective wing of Moscow and living off its gifts of subsidized fuel. Over the past few years, as Anne Applebaum recently noted in the Washington Post, in response to Lukashenko's feint of unhappiness with his status as a Russian protectorate, Europe and the U.S. have attempted to lure him toward political reform with the promise of economic inducements and improved ties with the West. This exercise in "diplomacy" required Western diplomats to suspend disbelief and conveniently forget Lukashenko's long history of brutality in maintaining political power and his heartfelt antipathy toward the West. Of course, this naive exercise has spectacularly failed to achieve results.
This has become painfully clear as Lukashenko's goon squads, having viciously beaten and arrested hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators who protested his efforts at electoral theft, are now busy racing around Minsk looking for opposition leaders to arrest and possibly "disappear." One of those reportedly targeted by the goons is a man named Jaroslav Romanchuk, the presidential candidate of the opposition United Civil Party. Romanchuk is being targeted, even though he has reportedly publicly criticized other opposition leaders for themselves causing violence by provoking riot police during what began as peaceful protests on December 19.
I met Romanchuk about a decade ago in Thailand, of all places. He was sent to me by colleagues at the International Republican Institute, where I was working at the time, to help with a problem I was having with my Burmese dissidents. They were good guys—committed to democracy and willing to risk their lives for it. They were also big admirers of Communist economic theories, and did not seem to understand the infrangible link between the economics of Marxism and its political tyranny. My attempts to get them to read the Economist and Adam Smith were going nowhere, so I got the idea that it might help them to hear from someone who had actually lived under a Communist system and had run away from it screaming.
Enter Romanchuk. He was as close to a pure Ayn Rand-spouting Objectivist as I have ever met, not to mention an incredibly brilliant economist who gave my well-intentioned Burmese dissidents brain cramps when he clearly explained how oppressive an economy based on redistribution and "social justice" actually was in real life. You could have heard a pin drop when he told them about the unsuccessful attempts on his life as a result of his work with an opposition political party under Lukashenko's dictatorship. He also exhibited an unbelievably foul sense of humor and could, naturally, drink us all under the table, which he proceeded to do every night. Because he had street credibility, the Burmese dissidents could relate to him immediately. They never stopped asking for me to bring him back for a second round, but unfortunately I was unable to do so.
I confess that I had not really thought about Romanchuk much over the years, until events began unfolding this week in Belarus, at which point I wondered if he was still active in the opposition. According to a blog post reproduced by Jonah Goldberg over at NRO's Corner, Romanchuk is now on the run and his friends fear for his life. The White House has so far issued a tough statement and the Europeans have been critical as well, but Mother Russia is standing by her boy.
President Medvedev called the brutal crackdown, including the brazen kidnapping of seven opposition presidential candidates, an "internal affair of Belarus." And Lukashenko's decision to turn back to Russia now seems set in stone. The question now is whether the U.S. and Europe will do more than issue statements and wring their hands.