Give Ben Ali the Lukashenko treatment

In view of the crackdown in Tunisia, the EU ought to apply the same policy of "smart sanctions" that had some sway on Alexander Lukashenko's regime in Belarus back in 2006, urges political analyst Jose Ignacio Torreblanca.

Jose Ignacio Torreblanca

In December, the last dictator still standing in Europe, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, decided to gift himself an 80 percent landslide victory at the polls for Christmas. He then proceeded to close down the international observers' offices, sicked the police on protesters, gagged the last remaining independent media and jailed over 600 people, including opposition leader Andrei Sannikov, who was arrested with his wife at the hospital where he was being treated after a beating by the police.

The good news is the EU has laid down the line. Back in 2006, after a similarly rigged election, Lukashenko was hit with a volley of "smart sanctions" (i.e. which don't harm the population itself): he was barred from entering other countries, his financial assets abroad were frozen, and some support was given to the opposition. The sanctions eventually bore fruit: in 2008, Lukashenko began making concessions and set all the political prisoners free. In return, the EU lifted the sanctions, offered the country economic aid and took steps to defreeze his assets.

So now, if the regime continues down that autocratic road again, the sanctions will be put right back in place. The present consensus in Brussels is that the Belarus president is taking the EU for a ride, so it will have to strong-arm him back into line again.

Down in Tunis, the situation is much worse, but the EU is sitting it out, as it did in 2009 when Ben Ali "won" the elections with 89.62 percent of the vote. Those who have been to Tunisia and talked to members of the opposition tirelessly insist that the country's idyllic tourist-spot image masks an Orwellian state that monitors its citizens' every move and even their e-mail correspondence. The Tunisian riots, whose death toll will be hard to obtain, have revealed the true face of the regional regimes. Passed off as measures to ensure political stability, the ferocious crackdown serves to safeguard an entrenched system of endemic corruption - and not, as they claim, to build up modern societies that will check the spread Islamism.

After 23 years in power, the kleptocrat Ben Ali came up with the brilliant idea of setting up a committee to investigate corruption. In a word, his cynicism knows no bounds. The WikiLeaks showed case by case how regional elites (whether monarchs, presidents, or as in Ben Ali's, his own family) luxuriate in a veritable orgy of corruption, while young people are deprived of any professional or personal prospects.

What is going down in Tunisia puts Spain, France and Italy, the spearheads of an EU policy in the Mediterranean that has now run entirely out of steam, in a less than flattering light. Poland, Sweden and the Baltic states, on the other hand, are successfully using policy tools completely different from those backed by Madrid, Paris and Rome in the Mediterranean. Our policy in the region increasingly resembles that of the US in Central America during the Cold War, with no less dire consequences. Just as Washington's policy of containment threw the Central American population into the arms of the revolutionary left, our strategy to contain Islamism is more than likely to play right into the hands of the Islamists, who can shrewdly claim legitimacy by playing the social justice and anti-corruption card. By remaining passive, Europe is not only discrediting itself, it is isolating and condemning to extinction all those in the region (there probably aren't many left) who still believe in the rule of law, fair and democratic elections and respect for human rights. If our secret desire is keep a string of banana republics, trusty guardians of our regional interests, firmly entrenched on the south shores of the Mediterranean, then we seem to be on the right track.


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