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
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle