The warm smile of dictatorship

The very worst authoritarian regimes — the ones that divert airlines in order to arrest journalists, poison and imprison their critics, beat opposition activists and produce hostage videos of forced confessions — also know how to smile. Belarus has decided to shutter its embassy in Ottawa, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a fairly tough line this week against the abuses of strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

The embassy’s closure marks the end of the youthful Chargé D’Affaires Evgeny Russak’s tenure in Canada. In photograph after photograph, Mr. Russak offers a disarming smile and is as smartly dressed as any European diplomat or young urban professional. He has served in Ottawa since August 2019, before that he worked as Assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Belarus, and earlier still as Vice Consul in Istanbul. Mr. Russak’s public service career started just over a decade ago, when he served in the press section of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today, his career in Canada ends in the aftermath of the international reaction of horror at the treatment of a member of the press, Roman Protasevich, who was abducted by the regime that Mr. Russak represents, and forced into making a video confession. The 26 year old Mr. Protasevich is probably only a few years younger than Mr. Russak, yet these two young men and compatriots have taken such strikingly different paths in life.

Evgeny Russak smiles in his office in downtown Ottawa, months before the shuttering of the Embassy of Belarus. Photo: Facebook.

Clearly, Mr. Russak did what he could to soften the image of the violent dictatorship that he was tasked with representing. Photos on the embassy’s Facebook page show smiling youth in t-shirts wearing masks, happily reopening the consular section in 2020, after the initial lockdown. Another photo depicts a young man in shorts and a t-shirt cheerily casting his ballot in stolen Belarusian elections — a vote that forced the victor into exile and led President Lukashenko to retain power by any means. There’s also a nice photo of Mr. Russak arm-in-arm with former Canadian Governor General Julie Payette from early 2020, another with Michael Levitt, Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs and International Development Committee, which was billed as a “great opportunity” for “frank talks” on bilateral relations. Yet another photo shows the Belarussian diplomat meeting with James Whitham, Director for Collections, and Glenn Ogden, Acting Director for Exhibitions, Creative Development and Learning, at the Canadian War Museum. They discussed (in the words of the embassy), how “our peoples banded together against the common enemy during the World War II.” Following on a related theme, Mr. Russak had what he called “a most pleasant meeting” with Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, to explore how “Belarusians and Jews share common history: Yiddish was one of the state languages in BSSR over the years…We believe our past is a fertile ground which could yield a very good harvest.”

That’s not untrue, of course. And it’s also accurate to say that representatives of authoritarian regimes are adept at using joint photographs and meetings to normalize and sanitize the public image of dictatorships. It has been the position of this paper that Hungary has done much the same to cleanse the sullied image of the Orbán regime. Hungary’s Consul General in Toronto, Valér Palkovits, cultivates a similar image to Mr. Russak, although he admittedly enjoys far more resources than the Belarussian diplomat. We would hope for more self-reflection among political and cultural leaders in Canada, before they pose alongside representatives of regimes that have much image scrubbing to do.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the right tone vis-à-vis Belarus this week. “The behaviour of the Belarus regime is outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable. This was a clear attack on democracy and on the freedom of the press. We condemn it and call for his immediate release,” said Mr. Trudeau. “We also condemn this kind of dangerous interference in civil aviation. Canada has existing sanctions in place against Belarus and we’ll be examining further options,” he added. Evgeny Russak offered a tight-tipped response and no new photos. He said that the decision to close the mission was “not spontaneous,” noting that it was based on evaluating “the practical impact of the current bilateral contacts.”

Mr. Russak has a long professional life ahead of him, while the days of President Lukashenko’s regime are probably numbered. It may be able to trudge along with assistance from Moscow, despite the new sanctions already imposed by many EU nations.  But there’s the question of one’s own conscience. Mr. Russak might struggle with that one day, and perhaps he already does. Then there’s the question of the extent to which a discredited, fallen regime’s high representatives either find a home in the public service of a new, democratic state, or are shunned for their past servitude. It’s not our place to predict what will occur in Belarus, but there’s value in pointing out that the smile is almost always the first instrument in deception’s toolbox.

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