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Belarus: Analysis From Washington -- Ineffective Authoritarianism

Washington, 20 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime has sought to justify its authoritarian approach by saying that harsh measures are required to combat social ills like crime and the drug trade. But police officials in Minsk have conceded that the state's enormous police apparatus has failed to stop the traffic in illegal drugs both into and through Belarus.

Colonel Anatoliy Gury of the Belarusian Interior Ministry said in an interview with dpa on 19 June that Belarus has become a major transshipment point between Central Asia and Western Europe despite the efforts of his agency to put a stop to this trade. He also noted that more illegal drugs are coming into Belarus and that more Belarusians are using them.

Gury stressed that the police have not been inactive; They confiscated 63 times more drugs and arrested 29 times more pushers and users in 2000 than in 1999. But despite these activities, the price of drugs on the streets of Belarus has continued to fall, a pattern suggesting that more drugs are now available. In 1996, for example, a gram of heroin sold for $100 but now the price has fallen to only $12, Gury said.

And because of that, Gury says he believes the real number of drug users in Belarus is closer to 40,000 than the government's official estimate of only 8,000.

Many governments around the world are fighting what is often a losing battle against illegal drug use. In many cases, these governments have found that putting more police on the drug beat, arresting and jailing more distributors and users, and seeking to change public attitudes have not had the impact their proponents had earlier predicted.

Not surprisingly, given the direct and indirect health and social consequences of widespread drug abuse, many people in these countries have been willing to listen to those in the police and security services who argue that only more police power can do the job. But the situation in Belarus is a clear indication that authoritarianism by itself may not solve the problem. Indeed, such measures may in this case actually make the problem worse.

According to many observers, the Belarusian KGB is even more powerful than was its namesake in that republic during Soviet times. And Lukashenka has deployed the police and security forces against his opponents with such vigor that many have seen his regime as a throwback to the worst features of the past or have even drawn similarities between it and authoritarian regimes elsewhere.

But this report of growing drug trafficking in Belarus suggests that Lukashenka's authoritarian approach has not been effective against a genuine social ill. Indeed, the police appear to be far less able to fight crime than to harass dissidents and political opponents of Lukashenka.

Many of the post-communist countries suffer from this pattern. Indeed, for many, it is a longstanding one. At the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire had the reputation of being a repressive police state and its secret police arm, the Okhrana, was, in fact, ruthless. But despite that, Russia then was spending less than one-fiftieth per capita on ordinary police than was Italy the same year. And consequently, the police were largely ineffective in many areas.

During Soviet times, the ordinary police were stronger but they were never given the support that the secret police had and consequently often lost out in the battle with ordinary criminals. In both pre-1917 Russia and the post-1917 Soviet Union, the ordinary police did not have the resources their Western colleagues had for the fight against crime.

In the decade since 1991, as the situation in Belarus shows, that pattern has continued and even gotten worse in some countries. Ordinary police in all too many of these countries remain poorly paid and frequently brutal but ineffective in dealing with their larger tasks.

Lukashenka has justified his authoritarian approach by arguing that his government can and will fight organized crime. And he has won some popular support because of these pledges. But the report by Colonel Gury of the Belarusian police shows that his authoritarianism may be harsh but it is not effective.

And the very ineffectiveness of the government's efforts against a genuine social evil like the drug trade may cause at least some Belarusians to question the justifications Lukashenka has offered in defense of his authoritarian approach.