The west’s ineffectiveness in the face of the arrant use of torture, unlawful arrest, savage imprisonment without trial and flagrant abuse of international law, even close to home in Europe, is among the bleakest symptoms of our times. The people power we saw embodied in the strikes in the Gdańsk shipyards, the fall of the Berlin Wall and even the Arab spring has not presaged the new era of democracy we once hoped for. Instead, the 21st century is becoming defined as a new era of agile autocracy and vicious strong-man rule.
As the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, prepared the UK’s response to last Sunday’s forced landing of a Ryanair jet by a Belarusian MiG-29 over its airspace to secure the trumped-up detention of a well-known democracy activist, Roman Protasevich, it must have crossed his mind that Britain’s response would have been so much stronger within the EU. The UK is now a little Sir Echo, weakening the west. It is part of the reason why Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, can act with impunity, as he refuses to acknowledge his loss of last’s August presidential election.
Protasevich had been dismissive of fears that his enemy would resort to such actions, which were likely to provoke international uproar. So they have, but the lack of hard-hitting collective action to back up the angry words is most striking. The EU managed to agree an overflying ban largely in its own interests – who now wants to fly over Belarus? – which, if it lasts a year, will cost Belarus some $200m in aviation fees; and has offered up to €3bn of grants and loans in the unlikely event of Lukashenko giving up power. The US will impose sanctions on nine state-owned companies. But what about Belarus’s valuable potash exports? In Lukashenko’s terms, the penalties are easily dismissed.
The EU is wary. It does not want to drive Lukashenko further into Putin’s embrace; and when the autocrat threatens, in response, to flood the EU with immigrants and drugs, EU governments take fright. In any case, he is a shrewd reader of his options. He was an early signatory to China’s belt and road initiative (BRI), so that Belarus is the third most important recipient of Chinese BRI cash. Besides which, the EU’s offer looks paltry: China’s president, Xi Jinping, describes the vast Great Stone industrial park outside Minsk as the BRI’s “jewel”. Lukashenko will note that Germany counts on China for its markets and Russia for its gas: Angela Merkel’s response to his piracy will be guarded, knowing that both are Belarus’s allies. He can set new precedents for politicising and violating air space, and get away with it.
Lukashenko is not alone. China’s abrogation of its treaty promises on Hong Kong and attack on core citizen rights is not being seriously contested: the protests, like those in Belarus, are efficiently suppressed, with leaders summarily arrested whatever their precautions. Similarly, any protests in Myanmar against the military junta’s coup d’état and placing of Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. People power has stopped working.
Why? First, surveillance techniques, developed and honed in China, have reached a new effectiveness. Lukashenko does not idly boast that other activists in exile will soon be caught. “We know you by sight,” he claimed last week. His brutal security services, already with 400 political prisoners under their belt, will be using state-of-the-art Chinese digital technology to identify and track 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 partnership of functioning democracy with honest capitalism. All around the world, leaders of one-party states believe they can emulate Chinese “Leninist capitalism”, directing their banking systems to supply limitless credit and controlling their populations. Worse, too many western companies and governments collude; they want export orders, particularly from China.
Third, the west in general, and the US in particular, is war-weary. The cost in lost lives and disfigured bodies in the illegitimate, 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 blowback – so endangering the readiness to fight when there is real need. There is no appetite to lift a finger to oppose the new despots.
And, most sinister of all, growing parts of the western political right no longer believe in the practice of authentic democracy – and large numbers in western electorates tacitly agree. Democracy is a system that works as a whole, encompassing elections and all the buttressing freedoms. These are not only fundamental human rights; they are the foundations of good governance and civilisation itself. They frame a capitalism that does not degrade into cronyism and sclerotic monopoly.
But in 2021, neither a majority of the US Republican party nor in the current British cabinet – nor the governments of Poland and Hungary and much rightwing opinion in the EU – believe in this practice or culture. Holding political power, however it is achieved, is too seductive. Watch Britain’s Tory party deprive up to 2 million people of the vote by cynically requiring ID cards at voting stations to prevent non-existent voter fraud – or the mass attempt by US Republicans to achieve the same. There is little political penalty.
But don’t believe that Roman Protasevich, violated by sadistic guards, Russia’s sleep-deprived political prisoner Alexei Navalny or the Hong Kong protesters languishing in jail are somebody else’s problem. The values for which they are suffering are indivisible and universal. President Joe Biden promises a summit of democracies. He is right. We must fight for our values abroad – but, as importantly, we have to live them at home. It could be your holiday plane suddenly downed, or your child indefinitely detained without trial after some protest march. Beware. Democracy is precious; the assault on it anywhere is our concern. Time to rouse ourselves.
Will Hutton is an Observer columnist.