After Egypt and Syria, there's never been a worse time to host an arms fair

Next week London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer.

Events over the past month have dramatically illustrated the true nature of military power in the world today: not, for the most part, a means of self-defence, but a tool of internal repression and external power projection.

In Egypt, having toppled the elected president in July, the new military government moved to eradicate the political opposition, arresting its leaders and murdering hundreds of activists during a few days in August. In Syria, the armed forces of a regime with deep roots in the military appear to have used chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas, again killing hundreds. In Western capitals, cruise missile strikes are threatened against Syria for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with self-defence, nothing to do with humanitarian principle (witness the continued, substantive support for the junta in Cairo), and everything to do with a geopolitical game being played with the lives of the Syrian people.

Britain’s place at the heart of global militarism is well established. It is a member of the elite club of nuclear states, spends more on “defence” by proportion of GDP than most developed nations, regularly involves itself in armed conflicts abroad, and holds perhaps 15 per cent of the global market in arms dealing, second only to the United States and ahead of Russia and France. In terms of exports, recent revelations that the UK allowed the sale of chemical precursors to Syria highlight the degree of commercial cynicism at work. But often, as one would expect from an industry largely dependent on the nanny state, political concerns shape the destination of exports. Britain mostly sells weapons to allies such as Saudi Arabia (with whom Margaret Thatcher signed Britain’s largest arms deal) not to strategic opponents like Iran.

Next week, with atrocious timing given recent events in Egypt and Syria, London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer. One of the participating firms hoping to network and make deals at the event is the Russian State Technologies Corporation  (Rostec), whose arms export wing supplies weapons to the Assad regime. It is not yet known which states the British government has invited to attend this year, but past guests provide an indication. Colonel Gaddafi’s notoriously brutal son Khamis appears to have received a personal invite in 2009, while 2011’s guests included delegations from Bahrain and Egypt. A few months before the 2011 event, Bahrain had violently crushed a broad-based pro-democracy movement with the help of a Saudi-led intervention force, while later that autumn the Egyptian military massacred two dozen civilian protestors in Cairo . Many states have pavilions at DSEi to showcase their wares, including Israel, which boasts that its kit has been battle-tested. Clearly the enemies of democracy and self-determination will once again be out in force at this year’s event.

The mindset of militarism has been reflected in the debate over Syria this past fortnight, with even the most liberal of those advocating direct intervention repeatedly insisting that the choice is between waging war and “doing nothing”. In the Syrian case, it is hard to see how serious attempts at diplomacy and serious provision of humanitarian aid (unlike the wholly inadequate efforts made on both fronts so far) can credibly be classed as inaction. Elsewhere, people wanting to do something to counteract the forces of state violence and repression, in the Middle East and elsewhere, could do worse than get involved in the range of creative anti-DSEi protests planned by campaigners for next week, including a mass action on Sunday by Occupy London, a ‘meet-and-greet’ for arms dealers and protests against government support for the arms industry outside Parliament. These too are “humanitarian interventions”, conducted at the level of civil society, aimed at ending British complicity with violent anti-democratic forces around the world.

David Wearing is researching a PhD on British relations with the Gulf states at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing

Military hardware on show at the 2009 DSEi exhibition. Photo: Getty
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times