An athlete seeking sanctuary in a foreign embassy after a state–sponsored attempt to spirit her home from the Olympics; a dissident found hanging from a tree in a foreign country that he’d been helping his compatriots escape to; a passenger jet diverted so one of its passengers could be arrested. The fate of critics of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus might have been drawn from the depths of the Cold War. Like North Korea, Belarus has become a land that time forgot, still fighting battles we assumed had been lost decades ago.
There is, however, a big difference between now and the Cold War. The voice of the West is much fainter when condemning authoritarian regimes. Yes, Boris Johnson did meet the exiled Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in Downing Street last week and told her that the West was with her. A handful of senior Belarusian officials have had foreign assets frozen and the EU has imposed sanctions on potash exports from the country. But where is the great battle of ideas, the promotion of western democratic values throughout the world? Compared to the days when John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan made provocative speeches in front of the Berlin Wall, there is no longer a coherent voice being broadcast from the free world to condemn autocrats and to give hope to their people. Democracies appear to have lost confidence in democracy.
The world is a much freer place now than it was half a century ago. When it began, the Global State of Democracy Indices — compiled by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance since 1975 — counted 35 democracies and 90 non-democracies in the world; all other countries were registered as ‘hybrid’ regimes.