Rampant authoritarianism in the EU is a real threat to the bloc
Even as Alexander Lukashenko finds ever more brutal ways to suppress his own people and aggravate his European neighbors, the Belarusian leader may seem like a throwback to another era.
Overseeing a sclerotic state and an economy modeled on the Soviet system he came from, the former macho collective farm leader is easily ridiculed as the kind of mindless but ruthless party man who featured in Armando Ianucci La’s satire. death of Stalin.
Western media portray Lukashenko as a figure of the twentieth century; for more than two decades he has been regularly described as “Europe’s last dictator”, as if his political lineage could be directly attributed to the murderous despots of the 1920s and 1930s.
Throwing out the Minsk regime in this way, as an anachronistic holdover from another era, risks trivializing the brutality that Lukashenko’s one-party state uses against those who disagree with him – like Roman Protasevich, the opposition activist who was arrested after Belarus forced his Ryanair. flight to land on its ground.
But it can be argued that this also enables Europe to better grasp the threat posed by Lukashenko and to respond to this threat. To anyone who has observed the icy and often inconclusive process by which the European Union decides its foreign policy positions, it was remarkable how quickly it acted against Minsk after the outrageous arrests of Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega. .
In addition to calling for their release, EU leaders have urged EU airlines not to use Belarusian airspace and have banned Belarusian airlines from flying in its skies or from land at its airports.
The leaders called on ministers to act quickly to adopt new “targeted economic sanctions” and to accelerate another set of measures already under discussion. The sanctions will target oligarchs and companies suspected of offering finance to the Lukashenko system, thus increasing – according to the thought – the pressure on the regime by weakening its national support structures.
The EU’s swift and decisive political mobilization against the dictatorship on its doorstep contrasts sharply with its chronic inability to find a coherent response to threats to democracy within the club.
It is not that the two problems are directly comparable – Lukashenko runs a one-party state that detains and tortures its opponents, and the spark that prompted the EU to act against it was not the crushing of the internal dissent per se, but the prospect of European airspace. to be militarized.
Yet the rampant authoritarianism inside the bloc is arguably a greater threat to the EU itself and to its founding values - if it is harder to tackle.
The failure of the union to act so far to defend democracy in Hungary and Poland is not simply an inability to understand what is going on. The bloc’s treaties did not anticipate such a dire situation within the club, and Budapest and Warsaw were adept at blocking collective action against them.
The most dangerous assumption for the EU to make is that modern democracies are renewing themselves
Other member states are divided between those who would punish and exclude authoritarians and those who believe they should be persuaded to contain their worst instincts.
For others, there are business reasons not to alienate stray neighbors. Just yesterday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was received in Downing Street by Boris Johnson.
It complicates things that in Hungary and Poland the EU is grappling with a new form of authoritarianism that resists easy categorization. The leaders of these countries are at the forefront of a nationalist counterrevolution born out of existing democratic structures.
They work these structures while gradually tightening their control over the public space that democracy needs to flourish – restricting non-governmental organizations, threatening activists, demonizing minorities, removing bureaucratic controls, limiting academic freedom and strengthening political control over the justice system.
Like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro and unlike a die-hard dictator like Lukashenko, the new European authoritarians do not ban opposition parties, cancel elections or attempt to dismantle parliamentary structures.
Instead, they seek to hand power over to a democratically elected majority. And as this happens gradually, the larger pattern is harder to discern. But the long-term erosion of democracy is real.
There is no predetermined outcome to the authoritarian drift in Poland and Hungary. Trump has been constrained in a significant way by a combination of resilient institutions and his own ineptitude. Other nationalist demagogues will be kicked out of power, preventing true mafia states from taking hold before it is too late.
But the longer the new authoritarians stay in office – assuming more control and diverting more public resources to their own propaganda – the more difficult it becomes for a democratic transfer of power to occur.
The most dangerous assumption for the EU to make is that modern democracies are renewing themselves. They have always asked citizens for things: participation, argumentation, struggle. And when the space in which these things occur shrinks beyond a certain point, as Europeans well know, the whole political order is in jeopardy.