Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko recently remarked that it’s “better to be a dictator than gay.” He was apparently responding to openly gay German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who charged that Lukashenko was “Europe’s last dictator.”
Lukashenko has certainly demonstrated a preference for dictatorship during his reign of nearly 18 years. In a state that has yet to shed much of its Soviet economic infrastructure — or even bothered to change the name of its KGB — opposition activists are routinely monitored, arrested, beaten, and sometimes threatened with rape. Election rigging techniques are insultingly obvious, with extensive vote tampering and intimidation. As if that was not enough, Lukashenko wants us to know he’s homophobic too.
Across the western borders of Belarus, opponents of the regime gather and work to free their homeland. The borders — turf boundaries between governments — work to the advantage of these activists as it’s harder for the Belarusian government to harm them outside those borders. Fortunately, EU-affiliated governments don’t appear to be placing huge obstacles in the way of Belarusian refugees coming across their borders.
No line on a map should be an obstacle to human freedom. Maximum liberty means keeping the government out while letting the people through. A free flow of political oppositionists and black marketers can improve life on both sides of the line.
But is it possible to hold egregious offenders of human rights accountable without pressure from outside states? With a vibrant political culture that values liberty and solidarity, it is possible.
The first step is the spread of information. Today this task is accomplished using a variety of methods including those that the establishment tends to frown on, like those of Wikileaks and Anonymous. After this a number of actions can be taken, such as massive boycotts or the refusal of labor organizations to sell or transport any goods that will help the regime. Similarly, smugglers can bring goods to the people that they will not pay taxes on.
Political opponents can be supported by providing them with safe harbors for activism and publishing, with resources, and — importantly — with open communication and discussion on the nature of the struggle and goals. And this is the 2010s after all, so we have to mention hacktivism directed against offenders of human freedom and dignity.
And what if tyrants take advantage of open borders to work for tyranny within our communities? A healthy political culture, with liberty and solidarity as high values, is a better defense than walls and bureaucrats. Culture is strengthened by the greater understanding that comes with greater openness. A community where people are unsympathetic to tyrants and have good relations with each other possesses a power that challenges would-be dictators.
Solidarity across borders is crucial to creating a freer society. While we work here against harassment and violence by police and federal agents, against economic domination by the politically powerful, and against the wars waged with our tax dollars, we should not forget the people on the other side of the line. When people are freer on one side of the line, conditions are better for building freedom on the other.