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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Welcome! Our new friend Belarus

Last Sunday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa left the shores of the isle on an official visit, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, who had finally accepted an invitation extended two years ago by the Rajapaksa Administration, arrived in the country. Sri Lankans, who have a fascination for conspiracy theories would call it a snub and was a belittling of the UN Envoy.

But, official visits by the Heads of the State are planned months, if not years beforehand, and it is naïve to suggest that President Rajapaksa took flight to Belarus, one of those rare pariah States in continental Europe, to snub the UN High Commissioner. (In fact the President, who returned from Minsk on Wednesday, is expected to meet the UN Human Rights Chief today). But President Rajapaksa’s Belarusian host does not always have the luxury of having the good company of foreign leaders.

Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, is the last despot in Europe and is one of the autocrats, among several others, who turned those former Soviet Republics into their fiefdoms.

Lukashenko is clinging to power since 1994, and in 1996, he unilaterally amended the Constitution to enhance presidential powers. In 2004, just as his second term was coming to an end, he amended the Constitution to remove the mandatory two term limit of the presidency.

In 2010, he won the election, which was described as a farce by the Western poll monitors and the political opposition. He jailed, arrested or tortured six out of 10 rival presidential candidates. His closest opponent, Andrei Sannikov, was jailed for five years in prison (and was later released in 2013 on a presidential pardon). Belarus is banned from the Council of Europe for its egregious human rights record.

Poor human rights record

Lukashaenko is a veritable pariah in the eyes of the civilized world. The European Union earlier announced a travel ban on Lukashaenko and his officials over their poor human rights record. The ban was subsequently lifted, only to be reinstated after another rigged presidential election held in 2006 and again in 2011. One of the vocal critics of Lukashaenko and his rigged elections was none other than Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, who raised concerns over ‘the use of force against demonstrators who were not participating in hostilities, violence against and abduction of opposition candidates and their supporters, detention of opposition activists and human rights defenders, and searches and harassment of independent non-governmental organizations.’

Lukashaenko has few friends. Putin’s Russia is the most valued, despite fractious relations between the two countries.

Kazakhstan, ruled by another ageing autocrat and one of our new found friends, recently visited by President Mahinda Rajapaksa is another. And Turkmenistan, where former Soviet autocrat, Saparmurat Niyazov, declared himself the President for life and ruled till his death is another basket case.

The incumbent regime in Colombo is faced with a similar predicament. The Rajapaksa regime also has few friends, and even fewer in civilized advanced democracies. Our closest neighbour and the world’s largest democracy, India, with whom we have testy relations, is the closet we have for a friend in the democratic world. East Asian democracies such as South Korea, of which the Prime Minister is now making a rare visit to the island, and Japan, have sympathies towards our predicament, but their strategic culture is such that their ultimate loyalty lies with the West.

Dismantling pillars of democracy

President Rajapaksa’s recent visit to Minsk adds to our list of friends, yet another least salubrious nation. Our other friends such as Gaddafi in Libya perished in the Arab Spring and Ahamedinejad in Iran was succeeded by a much more outward looking Hassan Rouhani, a liberal mullah, who happens to hold a doctorate from the Glasgow University.

Pakistan and China are our tested allies, but they are not exactly democracies. The Liberal west views the Rajapaksa regime with jaundiced eyes as the incumbent regime gradually dismantles the pillars of one of oldest democracies in Asia.

In terms of international relations, allies of a nation constitute a lion share of its comprehensive powers and the countries that are wooed by another, maybe proof, partly of its soft power. Our new found friends, ranging from Sudan (of which the President is wanted by the International Criminal Court) to Belarus, do not add up our clout; instead, they suck up whatever little is left of our legitimacy as a respected member of the international community.

Unlike China, which is a strategic partner with deep pockets, those new found friends from Uganda to Kazakhstan to Belarus, offer little economic incentives for deepening bilateral relationships. (Uganda may at least have modernizing autocrat in Yoweri Museveni. But, much of the recent international friends of the regime are characterized by crass despotism.)

The incumbent regime’s increasing thaw with the authoritarian regimes is an act of desperation. But, it is also a pointer to our growing international isolation. The interlocutors of the regime would prefer to call it ‘the look east policy,’ borrowing from Mahathir Mohammed. But, Mahathir did not cuddle with outcasts in Belarus and Sudan. There is hardly any reason for Mahinda Rajapaksa to do that either



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