Chris Whitehouse: One elderly recipient burst into tears with joy that we had made the delivery. My own story of anti-communist smuggling.

29 Mar

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Reading the article by Harry Phibbs about his youthful exploits smuggling leaflets into the then communist Soviet Union, I admit it, I too was a smuggler. In my case a smuggler of books into the then communist Czechoslovakia through an informal network in which my contact was Alex Tomsky [see here and here] who was a senior figure in the charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, particularly, back then, in the then Eastern Bloc. Tomsky was known by Margaret Thatcher and lent her a book every month for three years.

I made the run to Prague three times (1988-1989), each time accompanied by a different friend, two of whom I cannot name, but the third trip was with David Paton, now Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University.

The deal was simple. A benefactor (not the charity itself) would pay the flight and hotel cost for a budget weekend break in Prague. As book-runners, we would place our own things in the hand luggage, but the main suitcase was filled with books. Our task was to take that suitcase through customs checks and then deliver it to an address we were given.

We were assured that there was not much chance of us being caught, books not being as detectable as, say, drugs or explosives; and that if we were caught the outcome would likely be an interview with the authorities, a night in the cells, then deportation. It seemed a great prospect for an adventure, with little downside. But, for those to whom we were delivering the books the risks were much greater. Their interrogation would no doubt be much more robust and intense, and the subsequent spell in prison, indefinite.

The books were a variety. Bible tracts to political pamphlets; George Orwell classics to Ivan Klima and first editions of Czech writers whose manuscripts had been smuggled out of the country on trips by other smugglers. The recipients were yearning for this content to feed their craving for news and for new ideas, for hope that the situation might change.

One elderly recipient actually burst into tears with joy and relief that we had made the delivery – then a sobering dark cloud descended on a young Chris Whitehouse. As the books that we’d smuggled were unpacked, I realised with a shock that one of those pamphlets was one of which I had been the author, on the subject of abortion law reform. That somebody would be willing to risk a long prison sentence, in God knows what conditions, for something that I had written and published with no thought of its value, was a truly humbling moment.

We met a wide range of subversives, from Catholic priests to punk underground bands, from intellectuals to the publishers of samizdat leaflets; and we got an early liking for real Budwar and Pilsner Urquell beers long before they were widely available in the West, even meeting for drinks with the team who were working closely with Vaclav Havel who went on to be President of the country with the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia following the “velvet revolution” in 1989.

The only downside for this trip was that at that time, wheels on suitcases were not that common, and I’m sure my arms stretched a little carrying that full case of books through customs trying to make it seem so much lighter than it was.

But this was not my first experience of communism and the excitement of visiting the Eastern Bloc. My first visit was to communist Poland in 1981 as a guest of the “official” trades union movement in that country. To be fair, they treated us well, with time in both Warsaw and Lodz, followed by a trip to Gdansk where we were allowed to meet the local Solidarity leader, soon to be President, Lech Walesa. We hadn’t expected this, and had come unprepared, so we took a collection in Western currency (then worth in cash much more than the official rate) to contribute to the movement’s funds. Our guides were shocked, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Martial law was declared in Poland that same year, but communism fell in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I had also visited the Wall, in 1981, whilst on a trip to East Germany with the British East German Friendship Society that offered a week-long tour to foster relations between the two peoples for just £100. I wasn’t, needless to say, a supporter of the communist government of that country, but at that price, who could decline? Every town we visited had a prominent display of opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles by the United States of America.

Crossing the East German border on a train at midnight, whilst it was being searched by guards with Alsatian dogs was an experience I’ll never forget.

On all those visits, the strongest emotions were of excitement on my part, but of fear and resentment amongst the people. We weren’t to know it at the time, but those were the dying years of the Soviet Bloc. The people we met weren’t without hope, not anywhere we went, but they were definitely without expectation.

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.