Although they are located far away from each other geographically and have different histories, Zimbabwe and Belarus have interesting parallels.
Much like President Robert Mugabe, who said he would not step down as long as his people vote for him, long-serving Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has also echoed the same sentiments.
“Do you think I stay in power just because I revel in it?” Lukashenko asked. “Permit me to be immodest, but I did something for this country … I don’t want all of it to come crashing down in an hour.”
The same was said by Mugabe (91) in an interview with a South African broadcaster in 2013: “My people still need me and when people still need you to lead them it’s not time, sir, it doesn’t matter how old you are, to say goodbye.
“They will say you are deserting us and I am not a deserter, never have been, never have thought of deserting people. We fight to the finish: that’s it. I still have it in me here.”
Well, the people appeared to have dumped Mugabe in 2008 when he lost to the opposition MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the presidential poll, only for him to win a sham run-off months later through a brutal campaign involving the military in which about 200 opposition supporters were reported dead.
What’s more, Mugabe presided over the country’s hyperinflation which peaked between 2008 and 2009 at an estimated 79,6 billion percent in mid-November 2008.
Considered Europe’s remaining dictator, Lukashenko has been in power for 21 years and since he took over in 1994, he has emasculated parliament, political opponents have been driven into exile or disappeared and the media been silenced.
It was against this background that Condoleezza Rice, an American political scientist and diplomat who served as the 66th United States Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009 coined what became to be known as the “outposts of tyranny”, a term used to describe governments of certain countries that are authoritarian dictatorships.
Rice specifically identified Belarus, Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe as the “outposts of tyranny”. Although the concepts are not identical, the term has been compared to former US President George W Bush’s phrase “axis of evil”.
“Axis of evil” referred to countries alleged to be developing weapons of mass destruction as well as sponsoring terrorism, while “outposts of tyranny” refers to a country’s internal political system.
This week Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa visited Belarus as he took his re-engagement process a gear up in trying to turn around the economy battered by decades of political turmoil and vandalism mostly wrought by suicidal economic policies.
While efforts to bring back Zimbabwe onto the international arena are desirable as the world has become a global village, visiting Belarus skirting around big economies such as those of Western countries will only serve to delay the turnaround the country so desperately needs.
Like Zimbabwe, Belarus has been isolated by the international community for its gross human rights abuses, hence the two cannot really rescue each other.
With a leader considered Europe’s last dictator with a record of gross human rights violations like Mugabe, Belarus cannot be a country which can help shape Zimbabwe’s re-engagement process with the international community.
In the pantheon of great dictators, Lukashenko is a curiosity. The man known as “Batka” (Father of the Nation), leads the country’s absurd television news night after night, whether he is inspecting a tractor, ticking off the cabinet, arriving in Kazakhstan (a Central Asian country and former Soviet republic), or all three.
Like Zimbabwe, Belarus has had flawed electoral processes. For instance, in 2010 the winner was declared before the polls had even closed.
Elections in Zimbabwe have always been a bloody affair with violence and rigging allegations taking centre-stage. Since the emergence of the opposition MDC in 1999, Mugabe has always been accused of unleashed a reign of terror on his opponents using state security agents, especially the army, as Zanu PF’s paramilitary wing to drum up support through intimidation and violence.
In fact, since 1980 Zanu PF has always used violence and intimidation whenever under threat to retain power.
As the country’s human rights record deteriorated, especially after 2000, the European Union (EU) and other Western countries imposed restrictions on Mugabe and his cronies to force them to stop repression, violence and hostile policies.
The country’s economy is crumbling with companies closing down or retrenching, leaving thousands of employees jobless.
Unlike the Chinese who gave Mnangagwa a reality check last week, Belarus can only provide a temporary refuge on how to evade sanctions and keep afloat as an isolated nation.
Last week the Chinese gave Mnangagwa sobering points to ponder, raising several critical issues Mugabe and his government are uncomfortable tackling.
While moving to ring-fence their investments and future prospects by inviting and engaging their preferred successor to Mugabe, the Chinese raised concerns over Mugabe’s age, Zimbabwe’s poor investment climate, the country’s hostility towards Western countries and government’s failure to tackle corruption and bureaucratic red tape in setting up business, among other issues.
This was very unlikely to be replicated in Belarus as impunity, issues to do with property rights and growing hostility towards the West have been part of life for a long time.
While the EU has loosened its restrictions on Mugabe and his inner circle, the United States has remained steadfast in enforcing its restrictions. Although US President Barrack Obama has played a crucial role in trying to leave a legacy of re-engagement with countries such as Cuba and Iran which were hostile to America, he has however not engaged seriously on Zimbabwe.
Political analysts say isolated Belarus is not a good role model for Zimbabwe to follow.
Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said many Zimbabweans would not have heard of Belarus before, and will struggle to locate it on the map. So when the government turns to it to rescue the economy, it can only be a sign of desperation.
“Zimbabweans should not expect salvation to come from Belarus which is also struggling under the authoritarian rule of Lukashenko who has an appalling human rights record,” Mavhinga said.
“The government must realise that the key to economic salvation lies within Zimbabwe; it only takes political will and decisive leadership to restore the rule of law, end corruption, respect property rights and create a conducive environment for investors.
“But that is only possible following a clear indication of Mugabe’s successor to underwrite investment deals, otherwise who would give a 91-year-old a loan or line of credit?”
Pedzisai Ruhanya, Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director, says the Zanu PF government is fishing in the wrong waters.
“Belarus is politically bankrupt and economically crippled; so Zimbabwe cannot look to it for redemption,” said Ruhanya. “It is not an open society and does not practice modern democracy, so Zimbabwe cannot rely on such an authoritarian establishment in its re-engagement process.”
That has not stopped Mnangagwa signing what have been once again described in daydreaming terms by the state media as mega-deals in the areas of mining, dam and road construction and mining equipment.
But tellingly, previous such mega-deals, signed with the Chinese and Russians, remain pie in the sky as they are still to be consumated or implemented.