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Belarus: An unexpected opportunity

BY GWYNNE DYER

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateus Morawiecki condemned the “hijacking” of the Ryanair jet on the orders of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko last Sunday, accusing him of a “reprehensible act of state terrorism”.

Dominic Raab, the British Foreign secretary, agreed, warning that “this outlandish act by Lukashenko will have serious implications”.

And United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly condemned the flight diversion as well as “the Lukashenko regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists”. (Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile, was removed from the plane in Minsk and arrested before the plane was allowed to continue to Lithuania eight hours later.)

This chorus of condemnation was in welcome contrast to the silence or mumbled doubts that greeted the last outrage of this sort in 2013. The target of that incident was whistle-blower Edward Snowden and its perpetrator was the patron saint of American liberals, then-president Barack Obama.

Snowden had spilled the beans on the US National Security Agency’s secret electronic surveillance of millions of people (including foreign leaders like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel), and was fleeing the US government’s vengeance.

Washington knew that Snowden had been trapped in the transit lounge of Moscow airport while trying to get to Ecuador. (The US cancelled his passport.) It suspected that Evo Morales, the Bolivian president and a longstanding critic of US policy, who was in Moscow for a conference, would try to smuggle Snowden out on the presidential plane.

Morales’ plane (which did not actually have Snowden aboard) was forced down in Vienna, but the spooks in Washington are less crude and clumsy than their equivalents in Minsk. No lies like “Hamas has put a bomb aboard and you must divert to Belarus”; just a whole bunch of America’s Nato allies in Europe refusing to let Morales’ plane overfly their territory on its way home.

France, Spain, Portugal and Italy only let Morales’ pilot know that he could not overfly them when he was already more than an hour out from Moscow. He did not have enough fuel on board for the huge detour that he would now have to make and had to land in neutral Austria to take on more. American agents were waiting.

US agents confirmed that Snowden was not aboard while the Austrian president took Morales to breakfast and Morales then continued his journey unharmed. The American behaviour showed a lot more finesse than Lukashenko’s action, but it was equally arbitrary, arrogant and arguably criminal.

Or am I guilty of the crime of “moral equivalence” for even suggesting such a thing?

Moral equivalence is a term that was used by Western governments during the Cold War to attack anybody who suggested that Soviet human rights abuses could ever be compared to those of Western countries. Communist actions were evil beyond measure; similar Western actions were innocent mistakes or simply didn’t happen, and anybody saying otherwise was a traitor.

Thus you were never supposed to link the Ronald Reagan administration’s secret war in Nicaragua with the Soviet Union’s in Afghanistan, or to mention Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup in Chile in 1973 in the same breath as Moscow’s military overthrow of the Czech government in 1968.

It continues to this day. Western media devote 20 times more space to China’s persecution of the Muslim population of Xinjiang than they do to the Indian repression of Muslims in Kashmir.

The Russian bombing of civilians in Syria is endlessly condemned while the Western-backed bombing of Yemeni civilians by Saudi Arabia gets very little attention.

In the case of the “Minsk hijack”, as we might call it, the right first responses have already been made. Belarusian aircraft may not enter European Union airspace (i.e. all of western and central Europe), and no European planes will fly to Belarus. Further sanctions on trade and travel will doubtless follow. But this should not be used as a pretext to attack Russia.

Lukashenko is a stupid and brutal dictator who richly deserves condemnation and the Russians, who are not stupid at all, are undoubtedly furious with him. However, using Lukashenko to make anti-Russian propaganda and putting Moscow on the defensive about this would be extremely counter-productive.

Lukashenko’s claim to have won the last election is a blatant falsehood and he only got the protesters off the streets late last year by much violence (abetted by the harsh nature of the Belarusian winter). The arrival of spring, combined with Lukashenko’s new status as international skunk, may enable the democratic opposition to revive.

Belarusians are basically well-disposed to Russians and it is imaginable (though not likely) that Vladimir Putin could tolerate a democratic Belarus. To give the Belarusians their best chance, the West should concentrate on the illegality of Lukashenko’s actions and not meddle in the broader domestic political struggle that may soon resume.

Leave that to the locals. They know best.

Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

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