Approving of autocracy

If you write favourably about Qatar or Russia, are you speaking up for dictatorships – or acknowledg

Yesterday Mehdi Hasan wrote an excellent post about the extraordinary reaction to Qatar being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.

Quite apart from the fact that the emirate will undoubtedly make a great success of the event – I went to the opening of the 2006 Asian Games in Doha and even though they had the misfortune to suffer a downpour, an exceedingly rare event in those climes, the ceremony, choreography, fireworks and lighting of the torch were the most spectacular display I've ever witnessed – Mehdi's was a very mild defence. He did not deny that the "country, like every other Gulf nation, has an autocratic and reactionary regime and is far from liberal or democratic". But speaking up for Qatar was still a step too far for the many who then attacked him in the comments section.

It appears that automatic disapproval is what is expected – demanded, even – whenever one writes about a country that fails to meet our standards when it comes to human rights, democracy and liberal values; no matter how recently we as a society may have come not only to protect in law but also embrace those values in practice. (Think of our attitude towards gay men and women in public life being a good instance of a halo we have bestowed on ourselves though we haven't quite earned it yet – or are we ready for a gay prime minister?)

Certainly, there are states that you would have to be particularly perverse to want to defend – Burma, for example, or North Korea. Yet what about countries that strike us as illiberal and whose practice of democracy is erratic or barely existent – but whose peoples seem content with or approving of such deviations from our ideal?

Take Russia, whose prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has been accused by the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of acting as though "democracy stands in his way". But has the electorate there chosen a semi-autocracy instead? The Stanford academic Michael McFaul put the reasons for Putin's success well in Foreign Affairs magazine two years ago.

In the 1990s, under post-Soviet Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, the state did not govern, the economy shrank and the population suffered. Since 2000, under Putin, order has returned, the economy has flourished and the average Russian is living better than ever before. As political freedom has decreased, economic growth has increased. Putin may have rolled back democratic gains, the story goes, but these were necessary sacrifices on the altar of stability and growth.

McFaul, a specialist in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc, thought this was wrong: the country, he said, would have done better "if democracy had survived". However, he also conceded that: "This narrative has a powerful simplicity, and most Russians seem to buy it. Putin's approval rating hovers near 80 per cent, and nearly a third of Russians would like to see him become president for life."

To take another example: semi- or fully autocratic regimes were the norm throughout south-east Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. In Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has argued this is because what he calls "Asian values" prevail in the region. That this is a distinctly unfashionable analysis is not likely to trouble MM Lee in the least. However, there are some western observers who agree that there may be something in it.

In Joe Studwell's 2007 book Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia, he wrote that the countries he covered (he did not include Indochina or Burma) were experiencing a "developmental honeymoon", and so were not so bothered about their lack of western-style liberal democracy. In this state, he wrote:

Populations are unusually willing to trust authority and their leaders' promises to deliver continuous improvements in standards of living. When south-east Asians were told that free association of labour was antithetical to growth . . . and that constraints on individual freedom and the media are part of Asian culture, they acquiesced.

Like McFaul, Studwell believed they were wrong to do so. But he still thought the relevant populations gave their de facto assent to this bargain – and not without reason. "With the average GDP growth rates from 1986 to 1995 picking up to 8-10 per cent a year in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, versus 6-8 per cent in the period after 1960, they trusted the politicians and waited for the bourgeois nirvana that would release them from the shackles of economic need."

If this is the kind of deal that operated there, would it not be even more attractive to the permanent populations of Gulf states such as Qatar, whose citizens can expect plentiful financial benisons – way beyond the pleasures suggested by a mere "bourgeois nirvana" – to be provided for them throughout their lives by their governments?

The points I am making are simple, but there is a particular reason for making them here, in the New Statesman. Many commenters regard it as axiomatic that left or left-leaning writers should not only speak up for the kinds of liberty and democracy we enjoy here, but also regard them as universal values that are therefore applicable – if necessary, by force – around the world.

But it seems to me just as left or left-leaning to ask what it is that people want and then to respect that choice, at least to the extent of admitting that it is their decision to make and not ours. If it turns out that they don't actually want our brands of liberty and democracy; if they are quite content without them, or even vote to give up some of the freedoms we would cherish, some seem to think it is the role of the left not just to tell them they are wrong, but to try to force them to change their minds by economic sanctions, trade wars and bellicose rhetoric.

This attitude, to me, smacks rather of what France in the 19th century referred to as its "mission civilisatrice". We in Britain were a little more honest about it. We called it "imperialism". It is a mystery to me why anyone should think there is anything left-wing about that.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.