Bolivian President grounded in Austria over Snowden fears, sparking fury in Latin America

Evo Morales' plane was refused leave to overfly four Western European nations in the early hours of this morning.

The Bolivian President, Evo Morales, was forced to redirect his plane home from Russia last night due to apparent suspicion it was carrying Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Morales had to make an unscheduled landing in Vienna, which his staff blamed on France and Portugal, who, the staff say, withdrew their permission for the plane to pass through their airspace.

Both Austrian and Bolivian officials say that Snowden was not, in fact, on the plane. The Bolivian foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told reporters that "We don't know who invented this lie. We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales."

The suspicion seems to have been based on comments Morales made on Monday, while attending an energy conference in Moscow. Asked on Russia Today if he would give asylum to Snowden, the New York Times reports that he responded, "Yes, why not? Of course, Bolivia is ready to take in people who denounce — I don’t know if this is espionage or monitoring. We are here." He added that the country had not received a request for asylum.

Based on those fears, it appears that France and Portugal – as well as Spain and Italy, according to Bolivian defence minister Ruben Saavedra Soto – decided they were better off not getting involved, and refused the plane leave to fly through their airspace.

The fallout from the decision has been major. Morales was "kidnapped by imperialism", in the words of Bolivia's Vice President Alvaro Garcia; Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is tweeting regularly about the incident, saying "No se si ponerme a reír o llorar" (I don't know whether to laugh or to cry); Kirchner also says she has spoken to Uruguay's president, José Mujica, who is "indignado" (indignant) at the situation; and Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, writes "Decisive hours for UNASUR! Either we graduated from the colonies, or we claim our independence, sovereignty and dignity. We are all Bolivia!"

 

 

The most important question remains unanswered, though: what was the extent of US involvement in the affront? Saavedra, Bolivia's defence minister, thinks so, saying "This is a hostile act by the United States State Department which has used various European governments". If it turns out that the American government did explicitly tell the European nations to ground Morales, that is a wound which will not heal quickly.

Morales with Putin yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.