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Ten Easy Steps to Becoming a European Dictator

1) Choose a faraway country of which no one knows anything. This is probably the most important point. Belarus would be ideal as it suffers from an image problem: It hasn't got one. Tucked between more successful Poland and more glamorous Russia, Belarus is flat, poor, and lacking in famous tourist attractions. As a result, no one in the West, or anywhere else, ever gets too worked up about what happens there. The blatant electoral violations that occur during the Belarus presidential campaigns would at least have raised eyebrows had they occurred in, say, Zimbabwe. Yet although the Polish press is chock-full of reports, you would think they might get some coverage elsewhere, this would be a mistaken assumption: The last triumph merited just a few seconds on World Service television, as well as a few articles, buried deep within the "international" sections of the British and American press. Even if you do get some adverse world press attention don't worry, nobody has actually heard of you anyway so interest will soon wane.

2) Have the support of a large foreign power. You can never go wrong with the help of the KGB or the CIA. The deal seems to be that you can do what you like, as long as you agree to whatever security arrangements Russia or America wants, including a few useful military bases here and there. In return, they defend you against accusations of undemocratic behaviour. Although both Russia and America are members of OSCE, their representatives would refuse to attend the OSCE's news conference on the vote. Instead of monitoring elections, the chairman of the Central Election Commission could spend Election Day touring ancient castles within an hour of the capital. A typical quote to the two western press would be "we have seen nothing to cast doubt on the legitimacy of these elections."

3) Keep your economy under state control. Most jobs in still depend upon the state. This is hugely advantageous to you. People are afraid to speak out against you, for fear of unemployment. Opposition groups would have trouble renting premises, since there wouldn't many independently owned buildings. State control is also, as it always has been, a virtually unlimited source of corruption, since anyone who carries out any large-scale economic activity sooner or later needs presidential permission. Meanwhile, you talk tantalizingly about privatisation, which will presumably be carried out, one of these days, under the brotherly eye of the local Syndicate.

4) Manipulate your central bank. With a falsified official exchange rate, you, your administration, and anyone else you fell like helping (who until recently had another, perfectly legal means of enriching themselves: The Central bank can change local currency into foreign currency at the "official" rate, which would be advantageous to you, and let the masses change at market rates. You will of course have to give it up, which will help you cosy up to the international financial community, but not before you get very rich.

5) Keep your population as poor as possible … Thanks to an utter lack of reforms, the average salary would be one-tenth the size of the average Polish salary, and the Poles are not particularly rich themselves. Although it would seem, on the face of it, as if this would work against you, it won't. Instead, would make your already cowed population even more so: People are worried, simply, that any change will be for the worse. Hence the 41 percent—sorry, 85.6 percent—support you.

6) … And lie to them about how much worse things are in other countries. Pensioners would be constantly reminded that pensioners in Russia often don't receive their payments on time. At a post-election press conference, make a point of warning your nation about the evils of Estonia—the richest and best-run of the Baltic states—and promise them you would never let your countrymen sink so low.

7) Cut off all independent sources of information. A surprising number of people are prepared to believe what their president tells them about the rest of the world, since they know so little about it. Make sure there are a few opposition newspapers —which you would find handy to point to when someone calls you undemocratic—but keep them small and get them printed overseas, since few of the (state-owned) printing presses would touch them. Those that are printed in the country would be liable to discover that their entire print run had been arbitrarily confiscated. There would also be a few opposition Web sites, but these too can be shut without warning by the state-owned company that provides the country's only Internet server. Conveniently, you could do this on Election Day, even shutting down the opposition’s site. Other than state television, you people can watch Satellite television (and most would do), but world reporters would be very quiet about a campaign, presumably on the basis that their "Eastern European" correspondent would be somewhere far most interesting.

8) Harass your opposition. Aside from the standard riot police and tear gas, low-level threats have long been common: Students find themselves mysteriously expelled from school, opposition members find themselves mysteriously out of jobs. Those wearing the wrong sort of T-shirt could harassed as well. (According to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, youthful members of an opposition group known as Zubr ("bison") were being harassed on the street for wearing T-shirts that said "Down with the idiots"—leading one of them to remark that at least the police seemed aware of who "the idiots" were).

9) Use death squads, but sparingly. Those who protest too loudly do, occasionally, disappear, or have accidents; it’s a sad fact of life. You don’t need to kill people very often for this policy to be extremely effective. Indeed, it works better when used sparingly. On the one hand, the talk of "death squads" leaves a vague sense of threat hanging in the air, scaring away the more timid sort of presidential opponent. On the other hand, the rarity of the practice means no one is particularly forced to sit up and take notice.

10) Chip away at your country's own national identity, while simultaneously promoting a form of loud, inane patriotism. When you are harassing the opposition or confiscating their T-shirts, you should frequently make loud declarations about how everything you do, however absurd, "is in according to the laws of this country" or "in according to the constitution of this country." You should spend a good deal your campaign lambasting the foreign "meddlers," such as the United Nations and the other ambassadors etc, who were attempting to interfere with your monopoly on power. One of your first acts of office would be to ban the flag that had been chosen at independence and to install a flag similar to that of your chosen super power patron. That, at least, would make it clear where your sympathies lie.