Julian Assange and Europe's Last Dictator

The former WikiLeaks chief will moderate a public discussion about Belarus, despite damaging the cau

The Old Vic will tonight host the premiere of Europe's Last Dictator, a documentary about the savage dictatorship that thrives in the heart of Europe. For 17 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet state, in the fashion of his hero Joseph Stalin: public assembly is banned, the press is censored, the internet is monitored, telephones are tapped, and people's livelihoods -- and lives -- depend on eschewing politics.

A film that casts a spotlight on Lukashenko's crimes deserves a wide audience. And yet, paradoxically, staying away from this film would be one of the strongest expressions of solidarity with the battered pro-democracy opposition movement in Belarus. The reason is the filmmakers' decision to invite Julian Assange of WikiLeaks to moderate the post-premiere Q&A session. Why does this matter? Because to dignify Assange with a place on the podium at an event about Belarus is to mock the men and women who endure the brutality of Lukashenko -- a tyrant whose vicious grip on Belarus Assange helped tighten.

In December 2010, Israel Shamir, a WikiLeaks associate and an intimate friend of Julian Assange -- so close, in fact, that he outed the Swedish women who claim to be victims of rape and sexual assault by Assange -- allegedly travelled to Belarus with a cache of unredacted American diplomatic cables concerning the country. He reportedly met Lukashenko's chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, handed over the documents to the government, and stayed in the country to "observe" the presidential elections.

When Lukashenko pronounced himself the winner on 19 December 2010 with nearly 80 per cent of the vote, Belarusians reacted by staging a mass protest. Lukashenko dispatched the state militia. As their truncheons bloodied the squares and streets of the capital, Minsk, Shamir wrote a story in the American left-wing journal Counterpunch extolling Lukashenko ("The president of Belarus ... walks freely among his people"), deriding the dictator's opponents ("The pro-western 'Gucci' crowd", Shamir called them), and crediting WikiLeaks with exposing America's "agents" in Belarus ("WikiLeaks has now revealed how... undeclared cash flows from the U.S. coffers to the Belarus 'opposition' ").

The following month, Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper, began serializing what it claimed to be extracts from the cables gifted to Lukashenko by WikiLeaks. Among the figures "exposed" as recipients of foreign cash were Andrei Sannikov, a defeated opposition presidential candidate presently serving a five-year prison sentence; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov's press secretary, who was found dead in suspicious circumstances months before the elections; and Vladimir Neklyayev, the writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who also ran against Lukashenko and is now under house arrest.

Did Assange at this point repudiate Shamir or speak up against Lukashenko? No. Instead he upbraided Ian Hislop for publishing an article in the Private Eye that exposed Shamir as a Holocaust denier and white supremacist. There was, he claimed, a "conspiracy" against him by "Jewish" journalists at the Guardian. Addicted to obedience from others and submerged in a swamp of conspiracy theories, Assange's reflexive reaction to the first hint of disagreement by his erstwhile friends was to hold malign Jews responsible.

His subsequent attempts to distance himself from Shamir were undermined when James Ball, a former WikiLeaks staffer, revealed that not only did Assange authorise Shamir's access to the cables -- how else could he have got hold of the documents from this impenetrably secretive organisation consecrated to transparency? -- he also stopped others from criticising Shamir even after news of his Belarusian expedition became public.

Reasonable people can have genuine disagreements about America's foreign policy, but the fact remains that many dissidents in repressive states across the world seek Washington's support. In Assange's dogmatic worldview, this is an unpardonable crime. As he told the Guardian's David Leigh about Afghans who cooperated with the United States against the Taliban,"[I]f they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it." A man who lacks the intelligence to make a distinction between the Taliban and its victims -- and relishes the prospect of Afghan civilians being butchered for the crime of aligning themselves with America -- perhaps should not be expected to feel troubled by the excesses of a European dictatorship.

Belarus needs all the attention it can get. But why are the custodians of its cause in the west aligning themselves with a charlatan who has not only helped Lukashenko, but is also now employed by Russia Today, the official mouthpiece of the Kremlin, which is Lukashenko's principal enabler? When I pleaded with the filmmakers to reconsider their stance, they sounded very much like zealous converts to the Cult of Julian Assange. Every piece of evidence I offered was dismissed as malicious hearsay -- or as downright propaganda from "Julian's enemies" at the Guardian.

The absurdity of seeking greater western interference in Belarus, and then inviting along a man who imperilled the dissidents who received western support, did not occur to them. It is difficult to imagine a more sordid insult to the brave opposition of Belarus than to let Assange whitewash his appalling record by attaching himself, unquestioned, to this screening.

In all of this, the stance of Irina Bogdanova, a participant in the documentary and one of the chief organisers of its premiere, is startling. Because she is the sister of the opposition leader Sannikov, she regards herself best placed to judge Assange's role in Belarus. But to say that Sannikov is not the sole victim of Lukashenko's crackdown is not to demean him. When I urged her to reconsider her invitation to Assange, she told me that she had carried out investigations and could not find any opposing voices.

She should have spoken to Tatsiana Shaputska, a journalist in Minsk who has spent more than her fair share of time in the fetid detention camps of Belarus. She considers it a "shame to invite Assange to the film". She's not alone. Reporting from Minsk last year, I met young Belarusians living in fear of being paraded as traitors on live television because they feared their names had appeared in the American cables. It is on the fears and anxieties of these activists that Assange built his tawdry fame. In seeking to stir up sympathy for the plight of Sannikov, it is sad that Bogdonova remained, despite repeated pleas, so unsympathetic to the feelings of others.

Even without this baggage, it is difficult to see what precisely qualifies Assange to play the expert -- to moderate others' views -- on Belarus. The only Belarusian his work ever truly benefited is Lukashenko. And in 2010, fresh from suppressing the pro-democracy uprising, the dictator paid rich tribute to Assange by disclosing his desire to start a "Belarusian WikiLeaks" -- designed to name and shame the traitors who collaborated with the United States.

Assange may attempt to slam the door on further scrutiny of his squalid conduct in Belarus by casting his invitation to the premiere of Europe's Last Dictator as a certificate of exoneration. But an endorsement from some blinkered Belarusians drawn to the lustre of his trashy celebrity cannot erase the harm Assange has done to the cause of democracy -- and to democrats -- in Belarus.

Kapil Komireddi is an Indian freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservaitves support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This is a sentiment that was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision as a “fantastic opportunity” for fracking.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because of the question of their replacement once they eventually run out: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.