Ed McGuinness: A lesson for democracy in Europe from an abandoned airport in Cyprus

13 Oct

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s general election.

In the middle of the Mediterranean atop the Mesaoria plain lies a major European international airport. There is a terminal, a runway, baggage machines and even a first class lounge as you would expect.

What is missing are passengers and the passage of time. The Nicosia International Airport is abandoned in the Cypriot Neutral Buffer Zone between the Greek-Cypriot part of the Island in the South and the Turkish occupied territory in the North.

This no man’s land (though it actually contains several populated villages) was said to have been drawn on a military map in 1963, with a wax pencil, by a British general commanding the peacekeeping force on the island in the wake of the Turkish invasion. In recent times, it has become one of many explanatory points in the EU’s ever increasing complex foreign policy proposals.

Almost two and a half thousand miles away on an brisk autumn day in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen was delivering her first State of the Union address, amidst the backdrop of a huge coronavirus stimulus package, on-going migration crises and foreign policy dilemmas over Belarus and China.

As it stands at the moment, essentially in order to enact lasting change, the EU requires every member state to agree on such significant issues as economic sanctions. When effective, the result is the world’s second largest economic bloc exerting a hefty punch.

But more often than not, this bureaucratic behemoth ends up in months off stalemate, compromise and early morning solutions – not very conducive to effective law-making. Von der Leyen, frustrated with this, suggested that, for human rights and sanctions implementation, the bloc should move to a “qualified majority voting” whereby 55 per cent of member states (15) comprising 65 per cent of the population can vote for such measures.

The reason why this issue has come to the fore is the failure of the bloc to come up with unanimous sanctions against Belarus and its despotic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, following his blatant rigging of national elections and violent suppression of pro-democracy protests as a result.

The EU is seemingly united on the issue: indeed, all member states agreed to impose sanctions on their immediate eastern neighbour – all, that is, except Cyprus.

Cyprus, that small country in the middle of the Mediterranean amongst other forgotten Southern European countries, is still in a “cold” war against the Turkish invaders to the North. Their air forces engage in mock dogfights, and even their navies have quite literally run into each other.

Cyprus however, has less than two per cent of the population of Germany and just 0.25 per cent of the EU population.  So it has, whilst in an on-going state of conflict with Turkey, to stand by and watch Germany lead on negotiations with its rival over a migration crisis that is, in relative terms, more important to Angela Merkel than it is to the Cypriot people.

As a result, Nicosia has exercised its only real influence over Brussels to allow its people to be heard over what is its most important foreign policy dilemma – a mechanism that would much less effective under the changes proposed by vvon don der Leyen.

Ironically, von der Leyen is indeed correct. The only way to prevent endless vetoes, continuously circling the issue and ending up with watered down solutions is to adopt a voting system based on a simpler majority, but in doing so she fundamentally breaches the “universal value of democracy and the rights of the individual” within the Union – a phrase she uttered in the same breath as her comments on voting reform.

The confusion at the heart of the matter is this: the operative aspect of the EU is in persistent conflict with its aspiration – in short, it is suffering from an identity crisis with limited escape routes. It is trying, and failing, to be both an economic union and at the same time, seemingly whenever it choses, a political union, with both aims simultaneously mutually exclusive and co-dependant.

An example of which may be advocating for voting reform and lowering representation in one sentence, and espousing the democratic rights of its citizenry in another. Stating it stands up for the rights of its smaller nations, whilst its bigger nations club together to secure powers and influence over their own interests.

The EU is now attempting a slow death of democracy which will concentrate power and wealth in the north-western countries to the detriment and federalisation of the southern nations. It is no wonder that pro-sovereignty movements have taken hold there.

The EU faces a stark choice, which will upset a significant bloc either way.

The first course is to follow their stated aim of continual political integration, which is clearly the option favoured by the President and larger countries who will benefit given their scale.

The second is to recognise the value of devolution, and endeavour to support those countries on the periphery of the Union.

A final option is to simply do nothing…and allow these problems to continue to build in a state of perpetual crisis. As with much in the EU, some mixture of choices two and three is most likely followed by an undemocratic push into option one, sometime many years from now.

The result may well be a smoother machine, but will be a further drain on the power, influence and already low democratic representation in the smaller capitals of the Union who are trapped by economic shackles to the centre.

The UK, and Canada, at the time of writing, have enacted sanctions on Belarus, Lukashenko and his senior lieutenants, and have worked swiftly with the US on multiple occasions this year to act on aggression from Chinese and Russian abuses of the rules based international order.

The “take back control narrative” which prevailed in the UK in 2016 has begun to deliver on those promises. The EU, on the other hand, remains confused about its own democratic values and whether it actually works for all its member states, or only does so when it wants to, or when it benefits its larger members.

Ultimately, the smaller countries in the EU will be the losers in the reforms proposed by von der Leyen, echoed in a recent tweet on by Guy Verholfstadt suggesting “unanimity was killing the EU”.

Well, Guy, it will continue to hold back the EU – or else the EU will end up killing its smaller members. The President of the European Commission ought to visit the abandoned airport in Nicosia. There she would see the land that time forgot which would perhaps spur her, and her colleagues, to remember how easily democracy can die.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.

Daniel Hamilton: Why I see hopeful signs for democratic transition in Belarus

10 Aug

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

Over the past three decades, there has been much to celebrate when it comes to the democratic transitions of countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact.

One could easily argue that the transformation of many nations in the region from command economies with next to no political rights to free-market democracies represents one of the most rapid process of political and economic change ever recorded. This has been particularly evident in Central Europe countries such as Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Baltics.

Belarus has stood apart from this trend; ruled for the past 26 years by the former Communist official Alexander Lukashenko whose governing style has more in common with that of Vladimir Putin than modern European democracies.

Much as in Russia, Lukashenko’s recent years have been characterised by the predictable pattern of behaviour that has governed his actions since 1994: a tightening of controls on internet access, the jailing of prominent opposition activists, the imposition of travel restrictions on opponents of the regime and effective rule by presidential decree.

Indeed, such is Lukashenko’s hold on power that in all his years in office, he has exercised such personal control over government that a credible internal alternative – a popular prime minister, a commanding defence minister or powerful domestic security chief – has never been allowed to emerge to challenge him. All credible opposition challengers have found themselves variously subjected to detention, torture and political exile.

In the last few years, a lazy impression has been allowed to emerge in foreign policy circles that Lukashenko has pursued – albeit tentatively – a path of cautious political reforms. Indeed, in 2016 the European Union lifted the bulk of economic and political sanctions against government-aligned firms, the president and 170 other senior figures in his administration and the country has been handed fast-track access to the Schengen Visa regime.

The problem with this narrative was and remains that these reforms were largely external posturing rather than internal and meaningful. Keen to balance historic good ties with Putin with the practical economic benefits of closer relations with European nations, Lukashenko’s administration declined to endorse Russia’s position regarding Crimea annexation and has stalled on granting the Kremlin permission to construct an air force base in Belarus.

In practical terms, Russia and Belarus remain technically tied to one another via the supranational Union State of Russia and Belarus; a 1999 treaty which, while not fully ratified, envisages an eventually Anschluss of the two nations.

For this reason, the emergence of presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as arguably the first popular and viable challenger to Lukashenko in a quarter of a century is as welcome as it is, for those of us with a long-standing interest in Belarus, surprising.

Tikhanovskaya’s ascendency ought not to have been permitted by Lukashenko’s machine and owes itself to a combination of unforced errors, a good dose of hubris and old-fashioned misogyny.

Tikhanovskaya, as is so often the case in citizen-led uprisings – be it the small-town pastor László Tőkés whose harassment sparked riots against Ceauşescu in Romania or the Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation led to a wave of revulsion against the Ben Ali junta – is an unremarkable figure.

An English teacher and interpreter with no prior involvement in public life, she initially entered the race as a “placeholder” candidate for her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger whose YouTube channel rails against poor living standards in the country, after he jailed for anti-government activities.

Her nomination to run for president was accepted by the Lukashenko-controlled Electoral Commission which felt, naively, that a woman was incapable of securing popular support. Instead, the united front she was able to display with representatives of the campaigns of other jailed and disqualified candidates, saw her rallies draw crowds of up to 60,000 across the country, far outstripping any opposition activity seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Her campaign appeared to be almost hydra-headed; with government crackdowns on rallies in one city only leading to a stronger turnout in another and intimidation tactics against activists spurring yet more reluctant Belarussians to leave their homes and take to the streets.

It important to note that, while Belarussians are eager for political change, that sense rests more on a push for higher living standards and public discourse does not feature, as in other transitioning democracies such as Georgia or Ukraine, searing antipathy towards Moscow.

Indeed, a significant contributing factor to Lukashenko’s ability cling to power for so long has been his ability to insulate Belarus from much of the instability associated with economic upheaval and lawlessness that has been seen elsewhere in the former Soviet space via the maintenance of Soviet-era structures. There has essentially been a quid pro quo in place in which many older voters were willing to accept autocracy as a trade-off for stability.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign was arguably successful in that its message was a clear one: the introduction of reforms to weaken the all-powerful nature of the presidency and restore democratic oversight, the release of all political prisoners and a fresh presidential election within six months.

Tikhanovskaya’s “loss” yesterday – by an utterly implausible 80 per cent to 10 per cent margin – comes as no surprise.

Election Day itself was a predictable farce, with the Electoral Commission stating, as the polls opened, that in excess of 40 per cent of votes had already been cast during the early voting window. Numerous social media apps and VPN connections designed to circumvent government controls were reported to be inoperative, while independent election observers were denied access to all but a handful of pre-selected polling stations.

Here in the UK, reports from friends seeking to cast their ballots at the Belarusian Embassy in London yesterday say that around 300 people queued to vote, yet staff permitted only 20 per hour to enter the polling station, disenfranchising many.

It is often said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn – and that is where we are today.

The sheer brazenness of Lukashenko’s margin of a victory has left opposition forces with little choice other than to take to the streets in order to register their dissatisfaction. Indeed, the result appears almost intentionally designed to provoke the very type of street protests that were evident at the close of poll and are likely to continue in the weeks ahead.

The images of government brutality witnessed in the early hours of this morning were distressing and grimly predictable. The decision of security forces loyal to Lukashenko to deploy stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors destroys any forlorn hopes that may have existed that the government may be willing to consider a political compromise. Footage of armoured vehicles driving into crowds at speed, no doubt causing serious injuries and fatalities, is an aberration that cannot be overlooked. As Belarus wakes up this morning, the waves of revulsion will only build.

It is clear that the excitement Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has sparked in younger and ambitious middle-class Belarussians represents an aggressive reboot of civil society in the country – something that has been badly lacking in recent years.

On a personal level, seeing images of Pobeditelei Prospect, a three mile-long, six-lane drag that connects the city centre with the suburbs filled not with traffic, but political protest feels almost implausible. To me, the immaculate cleanliness of its pavements, the polished-yet-unprofitable conservatoires, the poignant museums to mark the country’s huge sacrifices in World War Two and austere Orthodox churches were symbols of Lukashenko’s sterile and autocratic rule – which is now showing signs of reaching its endgame.

This sparks the question as to how western governments ought to respond in order to place maximum pressure upon Lukashenko and best prepare the country for the democratic transition that – hopefully – lies ahead.

The re-imposition of sanctions against Lukahsenko, his key lieutenants and state-run businesses must be an immediate priority for the UK, EU and US. While critics of sanctions have argued that they may have the unintended consequence of increasing Belarussian economic dependence upon Russia in the medium-term, their imposition may yet prove to be a stabilising factor for the country.

It has long been the case that Lukashenko and key administration figures have sought to “securitise” billions in state assets in offshore banks in order to protect their personal finances in instances of political upheaval. To not cut off the country’s banking system from international payments systems at the time risks widespread asset-stripping in the coming days.

A fresh approach towards how western governments engage with civil society institutions in Belarus is also needed. The concept of an effective opposition is a new one for Belarus and political ideology, beyond a basic belief in the concept of democratic plurality, has played a limited role in the growth of support for Tikhanovskaya in recent weeks.

If change is to come in Belarus, that change will necessarily involve a fundamental overhaul of an economic structure which vests vast power in the hands of state officials at the expense of the private sector. To this extent, a strong package of technical assistance should be offered by both government and the think tank community in both Washington DC and London to help Belarussians fashion the kind of future state they wish to see – be it social democratic or centre-right.

Finally, those who wish to see the realisation of a democratic Belarus must accept that change may not come overnight.

Tikhanovskaya appears to recognise this; challenging the Electoral Commission to publish the correct, unaltered results or otherwise risk her supporters continuing their street protests throughout the coming days and weeks. These demonstrations of mass support will be critical in weakening the resolve of the domestic security apparatus who are, as I write, remaining loyal to Lukashenko and acting as de facto guarantor of his continued rule. In some outlying regions of the country, reports suggest that police have already started refusing orders to attack demonstrators.

While it’s rather passé to draw comparisons between the present situation in Belarus and the ousting of the former Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, some critical lessons can be drawn from Ukraine’s recent experiences. These lessons revolve around a number of key areas: assiduous organisation of visible activities across the country, guaranteeing a united front against a common enemy even when other policy disagreements may exist, deploying the power of creativity and positivity in campaign messages and the use of social media and remaining patient and unstinting in the face of oppression.

In each of these cases, the Belarussian democratic opposition has already demonstrated their courage and fortitude.

The next days may yet prove to be difficult and bloody ones but, for Europe’s last dictatorship, change is finally coming.