Soon, ignoring tyranny in Belarus won’t be an option

The diplomatic row between Belarus and Sweden means the UK won't be able to remain detached for long.

Over the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for having failed to register a diplomatic row within Europe that has left two embassies emptied and led to an emergency meeting at the EU.

It is worth examining the chain of events that has led to this swift rise in tensions between Sweden and Belarus: Alexander Lukashenko became President of Belarus in 1994; he maintained power for 18 years by allegedly rigging elections and using his Soviet-legacy KGB to imprison and often torture members of the opposition, journalists and human rights activists; on 4 July this year a Swedish PR firm flew into Belarusian airspace and dropped 800 teddy bears with parachutes carrying pro-democracy slogans. President Lukashenko’s reaction was to arrest two Belarusians – one a student who had posted photos of the bears online, another an estate agent who had considered renting an apartment to the Swedes involved but in the end, well, didn’t.

This provoked outrage from human rights and freedom of speech campaigners across Europe who have since been holding a range of protests and solidarity actions to draw attention to the absurdity of the situation. Turning it into a national security issue, Lukashenko sacked two of his top generals - those in charge of air defence and border control. Since this only drew more attention to the event, he went on to effectively expel all Swedish embassy staff from Minsk and withdraw his own embassy from Stockholm, destroying diplomatic relations between the two countries and creating an international news story out of what was, essentially, a publicity stunt.

Lukashenko then gave nearly two weeks for the story to fade away before dismissing his Foreign Minister on Monday. This was presumably intended as a face-saving move before he inevitably invites the Swedish embassy back to Minsk but has essentially brought the whole saga back into the spotlight by his sheer obstinance.

(It should be noted that Lukashenko claims that the closing of the embassies is unrelated to the teddy bear drop, but he also claimed the bear drop had not taken place, even weeks after Anton Suryapin and Syarhei Basharymau were arrested.)

Meanwhile Russian state media has made a lot of noise blaming Sweden for its provocations while the EU has condemned Lukashenko’s actions and agreed to consider extending existing sanctions in October.

The attitude of the UK Government towards President Lukashenko’s regime tends to be tacit condemnation. In the past the Foreign Office has taken a side against the Belarusian government only when pressed; the most noteworthy reaction they have so far given to the closing of the Swedish embassy has been a tweet from William Hague to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt:

Essentially, the UK Government’s position has always been "leave it to the EU". Soon however that attitude will not be enough. 

Apart from Lukashenko’s blunders, the long drawn out saga created over this has partly been due to chance timing, and there is no indication that this will change over the next few weeks.

The dust will still be settling from the diplomatic row, the PR company Studio Total will be continuing to maximise its hard-earned publicity and human rights groups will be trying to use the rise in tensions to gain support for the release of political prisoners when election time comes to Belarus in September.

Belarus’s 2010 elections saw mass protests, widespread accusations of tampering and the arrests of hundreds of activists – there is little reason to expect these will go any differently. Even with a boycott planned by many opposition groups, there will almost inevitably be violence and a brutal crackdown as seen two years ago. After the recent row with Sweden, Belarus is more isolated than ever. Next month Lukashenko will most likely consolidate his place as a pariah of European politics and there is little knowing what the diplomatic outcome could be.

While remaining comparatively aloof from the situation in Belarus in general, Britain has earned Lukashenko’s displeasure recently by upholding the EU travel ban and barring the notoriously competitive dictator from watching his team’s success at the London Olympics. The President has proven himself to be incredibly temperamental, skewed in political judgement and therefore unpredictable. Events are likely to come to a head next month and once again put Belarus at the forefront of European politics, and it seems unlikely that the British government can remain detached for much longer. This may be wishful thinking on the part of an activist, but it seems almost inevitable that we could soon see our government take some small but genuine stand in support of democracy and human rights, whether they want to or not.

Jack Barton works in a voluntary capacity for the Free Belarus Now campaign

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko waves as he walks with his young son Nikolay, 'Kolya' Lukashenko during recent independence day celebrations. Photograph: Getty Images
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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