Daniel Hannan: Trade sanctions are a counterproductive foreign policy tool – which play into the hands of oppressive regimes

17 Feb

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative Life peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

What can one country practically do to halt crimes against humanity in another? The answer is far from obvious. At one end of the scale, it might decide that it has an absolute duty to intervene against genocide, and that the only choice is therefore to invade the offending state, with or without a coalition of allies, halt the killings or be defeated in the attempt. At the other, it might conclude that there is nothing much it can do beyond moving a condemnatory resolution at the United Nations, offering sanctuary to refugees and possibly withdrawing its ambassador.

Obviously, there is a huge spectrum between those two approaches. But there is surprisingly little discussion of what the optimum point on that spectrum is – the point at which exercising proportionate pressure is likeliest to result in a policy change in the other country. Perhaps inevitably in an age of performative anger, some commentators are more interested in signalling their horror at human rights abuses than in pondering the most effective way to tackle them.

The very first vote I cast in the House of Lords (electronically, under the current lockdown rules) was on this issue. An amendment moved by the crossbench peer, Lord Alton, would effectively have allowed British courts to determine whether any country trading with us was guilty of genocide and, if so, to trigger economic sanctions.

No one has ever accused Alton, a former Lib Dem MP, of performative anger. He is a decent and thoughtful man who manages – a rare thing in politics – to be moral without being moralistic. His amendment has attracted supporters from every party in both chambers – most of them, too, actuated by good and sincere motives. But, in the end, it seems to me that their proposed remedy is misplaced.

Ministers argue that issues of this kind ought not to be referred to courts. The question of whether another country is committing such atrocities within its borders as to constitute crimes against humanity should be one for our elected government. If, as would surely sometimes happen, our judges ruled that there was insufficient evidence to make a determination, the offending regime might seize on that judgment as vindication: “Britain has cleared us of genocide”.

All this is true, as far as it goes. We should be very careful about drawing judges into political questions – and drawing them into issues of foreign policy would be quite a step. But it seems to me that there is a more fundamental objection to the proposal. Put simply, trade sanctions are a terrible foreign policy tool. They are not so much useless as counterproductive, serving to hurt ordinary people in the other country as well as your own while propping up the regime of which you disapprove.

At the very least, trade sanctions – including the suspension of a free trade agreement, which we might consider the softest trade sanction – push people in the targeted state towards their leaders. One reason why Communism survived in Cuba when it fell in most of the world was that American sanctions had created a siege mentality. The embargo allowed Fidel Castro to tell his countrymen that their poverty was caused, not by Marxist economics, but by the yanqui blockade.

Vladimir Putin knows how to exploit the same phenomenon, triggering constant conflicts which are primarily intended, not to absorb bits of Georgia or Ukraine, but to foment confrontation with the West, so keeping Russians in a mood of defensive and angry patriotism – precisely the state of mind that makes them likeliest to rally to Putin.

More than this, though, economic sanctions create lucrative opportunities for elites within the countries at which they are aimed. In an open and competitive market, with low barriers to entry, prices fall – to general benefit. The more restricted or distorted a market becomes, the more opportunities are created for monopolists, especially those who are politically connected. States subject to sanctions – Iran, Russia, Venezuela – form a nexus, doing deals with each other which allow a few brokers to get very rich while doing nothing for the general population.

To see what I mean, think back to the oil-for-food regime that operated during the UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein. Notionally designed to allow food and humanitarian supplies into Iraq, it became a racket, allowing favoured Ba’athists and their allies in other countries to make a fortune.

If trade sanctions don’t work, what does? As I said at the start, that is not an easy question. But it surely makes sense to target sanctions at the guilty, something Western countries have become much more adept at doing over the past 20 years. Micro-sanctions vary in severity: travel bans, asset seizures, arrest warrants – possibly even, in extremis, Eichmann-style judicial kidnappings. As a general proposition, though, keyhole surgery must be more effective than hacking blindly with a cleaver.

I was struck, during that first House of Lords debate, by how many people still see trade in essentially mercantilist terms – as a favour to be bestowed rather than as a growth strategy. That fundamental misunderstanding distorted the coverage of the EU-UK trade talks. (“Why”, asked commentators “should the EU grant us access to their markets?” – as though doing so were an act of kindness.) But, more seriously, it distorts our approach to unfriendly regimes.

We often stumble into trade sanctions because of the most dangerous sequence in politics: “Something must be done; here’s something; let’s do it”. In fact, commercial restrictions take from the many to give to the few – and the tyrants know it.

Peter Oborne: The remarkable Baroness Cox – loathed by Azerbaijan, loved in Armenia. And back there as war rages.

2 Dec

Baroness Cox at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in front of the eternal flame

Peter Oborne is a columnist for Middle East Eye. His books include Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan.

Ali Kemal was a Turkish journalist and politician noted for his pro-British views. He came to an unpleasant though courageous end when he was murdered by a mob after condemning the mass killings of Armenians in what has become known as the Armenian genocide.

After his lynching, the mob inscribed the phrase Artin Kemal in blood on his chest. “Artin” was a common Armenian name.

Today, Ali Kemal would probably be rolling in his grave at the inertia of his great grandson, Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister has said and done nothing to help Armenia in its latest conflict with Turkish-backed Azerbaijan.

Johnson has solid reasons. Azerbaijan has oil. Armenia does not. Total trade in goods and services between the UK and Azerbaijan was £1.1 billion in 2019. Turkey is a fellow member of NATO and important ally.

And even if the Prime Minister had followed his great-grandfather’s example, it would have made little or no difference. Britain does not have the capacity to come to the aid of a tiny landlocked nation squeezed between Russia, Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s geographical predicament does not just explain Britain’s silence in the 44 day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia which ended three weeks ago.

It also accounts for the shameful fact that Britain has never acknowledged the Turkish genocide of more than a million Armenians just over a century ago.

The United States, Israel and many other countries won’t do so either.

No wonder the Armenians feel so friendless and bereft. And no wonder Britain – and much of the West – is becoming unpopular in Armenia.

When I reported on an anti-government demonstration in Yerevan two weeks ago, I was unwelcome among sections of the crowd.

One protester shouted “Fuck Britain!” at me as I interviewed local people. Another repeatedly harassed me to explain in no uncertain terms that “Britain has let Armenia down”.

My Armenian companion felt the need to tell numerous protesters that I was a journalist reporting on events, and not a representative of the British state.

But there is one British politician who has indeed stuck up for Armenia through thick and thin.

She is the remarkable 83-year-old Baroness Cox. The Baroness was awarded her peerage by Margaret Thatcher 40 years ago, for her brave role in taking on Marxist agitators as a sociology lecturer at the Polytechnic of North London.

On one occasion, Baroness Cox was aggressively manhandled in the classroom. “I was standing on a table refusing to stop a seminar. I told them they’d have to carry me out, which they did.”

This principled stand brought her to national attention. The legendary Times newspaper columnist, Bernard Levin, devoted no less than three consecutive columns to her fight for academic freedom.

Since then, the doughty Baroness has made no less than 88 visits to Nagorno-Karabkh.

I saw for myself how she was loved in Armenia, when I accompanied her on her most recent trip last month, made at the invitation of the Armenian government which paid some of our costs. (For a part of the time, we were accompanied by an Armenian official.)

The Baroness is revered. She is a nationally known figure who has done more for Anglo-Armenian relations than any other British politician.

During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, she flew in many times under artillery fire to deliver aid. Today, her charity supports a rehabilitation centre in Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city, Stepanakert. Originally founded to cater for the many injured veterans of the first war, the centre provides support for all kinds of disabilities – and had to quit Stepanakert in a hurry after it was shelled. We met her committed team of approximately 30 medics and physiotherapists in the Armenian capital of Yerevan instead.

Here’s one episode which illustrates the love – affection is too weak a word – with which Caroline Cox is held.

Stopping off at a restaurant for lunch, we were met by a man who had heard by chance that the Baroness was in Yerevan. He had come specifically to talk to her.

Visibly emotional, he explained that they had met almost three decades ago on the 30 July 1992, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were engaged in their first war. The man was then a second year student and soldier who had been wounded in the fighting. The Baroness, who has trained and practised as a nurse, visited him and other soldiers in a basement in Stepanakert.

“You hugged me and you held my hands. They were covered in dirt and blood,” he said Badoyan, tears in his eyes. “When everyone abandoned us, toy arrived to help. You gave us all a lot of hope. I’ve waited 28 years to say thank you.”

It was humbling to watch the two embrace.

The Baroness has been agitating in the House of Lords for Britain to take a much more robust stance on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

At present, her burning priority is the release of prisoners of war. “We have watched video evidence of horrible brutality inflicted on prisoners, including torture, beheadings and mutliations”, she says.

The Baroness is also calling for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious sites that have come under Azerbaijan’s control following the ceasefire agreement, as well as increased humanitarian aid.

“More than 14,000 civilian structures – homes, schools, hospitals – have been damaged during the conflict. We need an urgent plan of economic support,” she says.

There are two sides to every conflict, and it’s important to stress I did not visit Azerbaijan and hear its side of the story. According to reports from Human Rights Watch, there is evidence of both Azerbaijaniand Armenianforces using illegal cluster munitions against civilians.

According to Azerbaijan, Armenia “resorted to the brutal tactic of terror by deliberately targeting large civilian settlements of Azerbaijan … with heavy artillery and missiles, including ballistic and cluster munitions.”

It says that evidence of “reckless attacks of Armenia on civilians and civilian infrastructure” amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Baroness Cox’s support for Armenia has not gone unnoticed by Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijan Ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghizade,sent a letter to Baroness Cox shortly before the latest conflict broke out stating that her language reminded him of the “inflammatory rhetoric used by the Armenian propaganda”.

Shortly after the ceasefire was agreed, the embassy released a statement regarding the Baroness’ trip last month.

It accused her of supporting “the separatist puppet regime illegally established by Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” and called her visit “disturbing”, “disruptive in nature” and not in line with the UK government’s official position “which recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and welcomes the signing of the document ending the fighting

Baroness Cox’s response said: “members of the House of Lords reserve the right to hold conversations with interested parties in any given conflict, and also reserve the right to hold opinions that differ from those of the official UK government position.”

And that: “Members concerned with the actions and history of Azerbaijan towards Armenians will continue to monitor the situation and, where applicable, support the internationally recognised precedent for self-determination.”

In a victory speech, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, referred to Armenians as “savages”. He describes his victory in the one-sided conflict against the under-equipped Armenian army as the destruction of “Armenian facism”.

Such pronouncements will do little to assuage concerns for Armenians that their latest defeat is not an end to trouble in the region whose security is currently in the hands of Russian peacekeepers.

Baroness Cox is adamant that the only way to secure the long-term future for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is to recognise its independence. But with Azerbaijan securing vast swathes of territory in the region, and little international support for Armenia, this looks unlikely.

It’s easy to dismiss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a far away war with which Britain has no reason to get involved. But whichever side you take, there’s no question that Baroness Cox’s long involvement in this troubled area has served as witness to the terrible troubles faced by the beleaguered Armenian people. She has helped keep their story alive during a time when few others in the west have done so.

I can’t help feeling that Boris Johnson’s great grandfather, Ali Kemal, would approve.

The Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, of which Baroness Cox is director, covered a substantial proportion of my expenses.

Garvan Walshe: Strife in the Caucasus. How Armenia and Azerbaijan are pawns in a new great game between Russia and Turkey.

8 Oct

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

The Soviet Union’s strategy of ruling its non-Russian subjects by giving them autonomous regions where they would be in the local majority unravelled with the USSR’s collapse. Instead of having locally-rooted patronage networks controlled by the Communist Party, Russia’s periphery became a zone of chaos, terrorism and frozen conflicts.

Vladimir Putin, who exploited the Chechen war in his rise to power, learned to live with this. He was able to disrupt neighbouring states enough by allowing “frozen conflicts” to fester, threatening their territorial integrity and ensuring they didn’t, as the saying goes, poke the bear. This strategy is starting to wear thin in the Caucasus, however, as an increasingly assertive Turkey has begun to boost its own influence in the region.

The last big war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region which had some autonomy from the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, ended in 1994 with an Armenian victory. Nagorno-Karabakh itself was ruled by supposedly independent institutions under Armenian protection. Armenia, meanwhile, helped itself to land between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, guaranteeing access to the former enclave.

Azerbaijan considers these territories to be illegally occupied by Armenia and promotes a narrative and eventual “return” for the tens of thousands Azeris displaced from there and Nagorno-Karabakh itself, while Armenia tolerates the settlement of the territories with the support of major funding from the Armenian diaspora (incidentally, Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan, which it sees as a check on Iranian influence).

Russia maintains two military bases in Armenia, including one near the capital Yerevan, and has signed a defence pact with the country, but the power balance has tilted in Azerbaijan’s favour since the 1990s. First, Azerbaijan has prospered thanks to plentiful natural gas, but more importantly it now has strong backing from another important regional power and, historic enemy of the Armenians whose genocide it denies ever committing, Turkey.

Tensions have been building between Yerevan and Baku for the best part of a year, and serious skirmishes broke out in June. Azerbaijan’s irredentism as been appears to have been turned up a notch, while Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new Prime Minister, who came to power following a popular revolution in 2018, has also been happy to keep the temperature high.

Last week, Azerbaijan launched a much larger than expected offensive, even reportedly commandeering civilian trucks, and deploying mercenaries demobilised from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. It has bombed Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and threatened the main highway supplying the enclave from Armenia (Armenia retaliated by bombing Ganja). It does not seem to have yet met with much success, in part due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s not much time left before winter makes offensive operations difficult.

It also appears that Turkey is egging Azerbaijan on, adding to the flare-ups between Erdogan and Putin. Having long been at loggerheads in Syria and Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh forms a third front in their proxy war. Russia, which backs the Assad regime has the upper hand in Syria thanks to a major error of judgement by Erdogan. The Turkish leader persuaded Trump to withdraw American protection for Kurdish forces in Syria, tilting the balance of the war towards Assad. In Libya, Turkey which supports the internationally recognised Libyan government, has come out on top, and General Haftar, backed by both Russia and France, is much weakened.

By backing Azerbaijan so strongly, Turkey is making two strong geopolitical claims. First, it is getting involved against Russia not in North Africa or the Middle East, but in a conflict between former Soviet states. Second, Turkey is not currently a member of the Minsk Group, convened by the OSCE to address the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute, but will surely have to be involved in any new ceasefire. This is partly due to Erdogan’s ambitious (some would say neo-Ottoman) foreign policy, but it also reflects Turkey’s growing economic importance.

This significant shift would normally attract the attention of the United States. It has a close ally of its own in the Caucasus – Georgia – and a significant and influential domestic Armenian constituency (there are between half a million and a million Armenian Americans). Though if an election campaign is never the best time to attract Washington’s attention, the Trump Administration’s evisceration of the State Department meant the US couldn’t use its weight to damp the conflict down.

America’s absence has left two aggressive powers – Russia and Turkey – to begin to test their strength against each other in the small countries that border them. Whatever happens in this particular conflict, it seems a new Great Game is afoot in the Caucasus.

Matt Kilcoyne: Anti-democratic China is testing the West’s resolve, and it’s CANZUK that has risen to the occasion

11 Aug

Matt Kilcoyne is Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute

When I was growing up, I believed that the West had won. Not just won militarily, economically, or even culturally. But philosophically.

The enlightenment values of the United Kingdom, the free market popularised by thinkers in the United States, and the pragmatism of European countries converging after decades spent tearing each other asunder. No more a half-century long battle between communism and capitalism, no more chance of fascism or socialism holding down the liberties of the world’s peoples.

Slowly, but surely, the world had changed. Gradual liberalisation was inevitable. I thought, foolishly, that the empirics of a world made richer, with more choice, happier, freer, more tolerant people, engaged in commerce with others right across the world would be obvious to all.

I had not yet got that old enmities die hard and traditions die harder, or even that institutions really matter. I had misunderstood that, to a great degree, the victory of the liberal world order was one built on universal claims of the rights of men, but predicated on an uneasy realist peace between American, CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK), and European ideals.

I had mistaken the peace and prosperity that coincided with the end of the Cold War as a victory of our civilisations – when really other rulers, some far colder and more cruel, were always waiting to stake their claim.

To do so was wrong. Russian expansionism has re-emerged in Ukraine and Georgia and Putin has spent the past decade sabre rattling at Middle Eastern and Baltic states. Erdogan’s Ottomanite expressions in Turkey and his dalliances in Syria and Libya stand out too. And, of course, China – in its outwardly hostile relations to Taiwan, military skirmishes over the border with India, and treaty-defying legislation over Hong Kong.

Each of these states are nations, but I suspect that the leaders of them think of the international order they find themselves in as too limiting of their ambitions. They mean to mould the world around their vision for their own seemingly exceptional civilisations.

I suspect you know this in your heart of hearts. Russia’s consecration of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was egregious in its scale and its pomp. Christ has been co-opted to glorify the victories of the Red Army. Erdogan’s reconversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque marks the effective end of the secular republic of Ataturk. China’s placement of party power in Hong Kong, in silencing critics and arresting students for holding flags, shows a commitment to its communist ideology above that of international treaty obligations.

Foreign policy is not something the Adam Smith Institute focuses on too heavily. We prefer the domestic, and learning from the best of the rest around the world. The relations between foreign governments and our own is a fascination of some policy wonks, but we’d far rather ambassadors were left handing out Ferrero Rocher than having any real bearing on the everyday dealings between companies, scholars, friends, and family.

To that end our policies are focused on trying to make life as free as possible for people here, while proposing policy that would open up new opportunities overseas for trade and exchange. Sometimes though, the rest of the world comes knocking and you should not ignore when wolves are at the door.

Adam Smith said in his Lectures on Jurisprudence that “Opulence and Freedom, [are] the two greatest blessings men can possess.” I do not for a second suppose that he mistook the order of his words. People can tolerate lower levels of freedom if they’re rich enough to have choices left. However, there comes a point where a lack of freedom threatens the peace of a place.

In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith makes the correct observation that “little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”

I’m afraid to say that Hong Kong’s opulence looks set to diminish. Yesterday the tolerable administration of justice was tested right to breaking point.

The arrest of the founder of Apple Daily, journalist Jimmy Lai, the arrest of ITV News freelancer and British National Wilson Li, young pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow and the likes of Reuters, AP and AFP from a news conference show that individuals are now targets of the state. It shows too that the commitment under Article 4 of the new National Security Law supposedly upholding freedom of the press is not worth the paper it is printed upon.

This is a test of the West’s resolve and our ability to act. But the West is splintered. Macron’s acquiescence to Xi Jingping showed up a coward’s response. The French president is a man of action as his stint in Lebanon shows but no action is forthcoming on China. Merkel decided her little chats with Beijing were worth more than the rights of Chinese people. The EU Commission called the National Security Law deplorable but again did nothing beyond pushing the press release to save face at home.

The CANZUK states though, and the US, have risen to the occasion. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom joined the USA in condemning moves to shut down free and fair elections in Hong Kong this autumn. Australia and the UK joined Taiwan in offering refuge from those looking to escape communist control of the city.

The universal values that we preached, that we set in the basic law of Hong Kong, have been an inspiration to Hong Kongers that took to the streets. It was the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes that flew in protestors hands.

Yes the fact of easy geography plays to regional blocs strengths. But our common cause in recent months with CANZUK states on Russia and Chinese aggression has shown the ease with which we, with common language, common political systems, common history, common sense of purpose, translate into a sheer force of fact re-emergence of a global role that has eluded the mandarins in the foreign office for far too long.

Our civilisation needs champions to save it from opponents and challengers abroad, but also nationalists at home. Greater freedoms for us all, and expanded out to include those in our sister countries overseas allow us all to be the champions of it through our deeds. We must defend the gains of globalisation for the whole of the world, while challenging those that seek to usurp the norms that made those gains possible.

Adam Smith was right when he argued that there was a great deal of ruin in a nation. But there might yet be a great deal of good in our civilisation.

At 6-7pm tonight, the Adam Smith Institute is hosting an event titled: In Defence of Globalisation. Click this link to register your place.

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.