TThe ineffectiveness of the West in the face of blatant use of torture, illegal arrest, savage imprisonment without trial, and blatant abuse of international law, even close to home in Europe, is one of the bleakest symptoms of our time. The popular power that we saw embodied in the strikes in the Gdańsk shipyards, the fall of the Berlin Wall and even the Arab Spring has not heralded the new era of democracy that we once expected. Instead, the 21st century is being defined as a new era of nimble autocracy and vicious strongman rule.
As Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab prepared the UK’s response to last Sunday’s crash landing of a Ryanair plane by a Belarusian MiG-29 over its airspace to secure the fabricated arrest of a well-known democracy activist, Roman Protasevich, it must have crossed your mind that Britain’s response would have been much stronger within the EU. The UK is now a little Sir Echo, which weakens the West. It’s part of the reason that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko can act with impunity, refusing to acknowledge his loss from last August’s presidential election.
Protasevich had rejected fears that his enemy would resort to such actions, which would likely provoke an international uproar. That’s what they’ve done, but the lack of forceful collective action to back up the angry words is more surprising. The EU managed to agree to an excessive ban largely in its own interests: who now wants to fly over Belarus? – which, if it lasts one year, will cost Belarus about $ 200 million in aviation fees; and has offered up to € 3 billion in grants and loans in the unlikely event that Lukashenko steps down. The United States will impose sanctions on nine state-owned companies. But what about Belarus’ valuable potash exports? In Lukashenko’s terms, the sanctions are easily lifted.
The EU is cautious. He does not want to bring Lukashenko into Putin’s embrace any more; And when the autocrat threatens, in response, to flood the EU with immigrants and drugs, EU governments panic. In any case, it is an astute reader of your options. It was one of the first signatories to the China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), making Belarus the third largest recipient of Chinese BRI Cash. Furthermore, the EU offer seems insignificant: Chinese President Xi Jinping describes the vast Great stone industrial park outside of Minsk as the “jewel” of the BRI. Lukashenko will point out that Germany counts on China for its markets and Russia for its gas: Angela Merkel’s response to its piracy will be cautious, knowing that both are allies of Belarus. You can set new precedents to politicize and violate airspace and get away with it.
Lukashenko is not alone. China’s repeal of its Hong Kong treaty promises and attack on fundamental citizens’ rights are not being seriously questioned: protests, like those in Belarus, are efficiently suppressed, and leaders summarily arrested regardless of their precautions. Similarly, any protest in Myanmar against the military junta coup and the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. People’s power has stopped working.
Why? First, surveillance techniques, developed and refined in China, have reached a new efficiency. Lukashenko does not idly boast that other activists in exile will soon be caught. “We know you by sight,” he said last week. Its brutal security services, already with 400 political prisoners to his credit, he will use state-of-the-art Chinese digital technology to identify and track down any suspects.
Second, there is the fact of Chinese power and money, and its refutation of the proposition that economic success lies in the necessary association of the functioning of democracy with honest capitalism. Around the world, the leaders of one-party states believe they can emulate Chinese “Leninist capitalism”, directing their banking systems to provide unlimited credit and controlling their populations. Worse still, too many Western companies and governments collude; they want export orders, especially from China.
Third, the West in general, and the United States in particular, is tired of war. The cost in lives lost and bodies disfigured in illegitimate and failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq has been too high. Democracies with volunteer armies cannot send young men and women to war, ignoring international law but responding to focus groups, without eventually triggering a pushback, jeopardizing the willingness to fight when there is a real need. There is no desire to lift a finger to oppose the new despots.
And, most sinister of all, a growing part of the Western political right no longer believes in the practice of authentic democracy, and large numbers of Western constituencies tacitly agree. Democracy is a system that works as a whole, encompassing elections and all the freedoms they underpin. These are not just fundamental human rights; they are the foundations of good government and of civilization itself. They frame a capitalism that is not degraded into cronyism and sclerotic monopoly.
But in 2021, neither the majority of the American Republican Party nor the current British Cabinet, nor the governments of Poland and Hungary and much of the opinion of the right in the EU, believe in this practice or culture. Maintaining political power, however it is achieved, is too seductive. See how the British Conservative Party deprives up to 2 million people of the vote by cynically demanding ID cards at polling stations to prevent nonexistent voter fraud, or the massive attempt by American Republicans to do the same. There is little political sanction.
But don’t think Roman Protasevich, raped by sadistic guards, Russia’s sleep-deprived political prisoner Alexei Navalny, or Hong Kong protesters languishing in jail are someone else’s problem. The values for which they suffer are indivisible and universal. President Joe Biden promises a summit of democracies. He is correct. We must fight for our values abroad, but more importantly, we must live them at home. It could be your vacation plane suddenly shot down or your son held indefinitely without trial after a protest march. Beware. Democracy is precious; assault on her anywhere is our concern. It is time to wake up.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism