The Great Dictator

One of the great joys of this job is having an excuse every day to search the internet for interesting and stimulating stories. Over the last 24 hours, I have read about exploding buses in Rome. Apparently, more than 22 caught fire last year and already this year another 7 have self-combusted. It is a rare city where a vehicle catching fire is shrugged off and the first reaction is not to call for an anti-terrorist squad. Thankfully no one has been hurt.

I have also read about Kendall Jenner, model and half-sister to the Kardashians, pushing assistants out of the way on a red-carpet event so that the photographers could get a better shot of her latest dress. Sadly, it wasn’t even the prettiest, most outrageous, or most transparent. It was generally described as a dress made of toilet roll paper. Ah well.

These are fluff and trivia. Of far more seriousness was the Victory Day parade in Red Square, Moscow. If you know me at all well, or better still read my first novel, The Masterful Manipulation of George Cove, you will also know that I have a long lasting and huge admiration for the people of Eastern Europe in all that they did defending us from Hitler.

I have written about this many times so I won’t ramble but just say that the Western allies had losses of 2 million while the combined Eastern Allies of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia lost 10 times that number with more than 20 million deaths. America didn’t win the war. The West didn’t defeat Hitler. It was the bravery and sacrifice of the Eastern allies that gave their lives to defeat tyranny.

Today’s Moscow parade of soldiers and arms may say as much about Putin as it is a reflection of the past. However, it does reflect the patriotism of a country and its people. Patriotism is at the core of the Brexit argument as it gives us the opportunity to control our own laws, or so it is said, but patriotism can be as much a  negative influence, particularly in our hyper-interconnected world.

President Trump has used the ‘Put America First’ slogan extensively over the last three years as an excuse for many a bad policy. Trade protectionism was the first issue and that will impact the global economy but now it has become far more dangerous.

President Trump has withdrawn America from the Iran Nuclear deal and that puts the whole world in crisis.

It may not be a great deal. It may not be the best of deals but it was the best that could be done at the time. It was never meant to be a zero-sum deal but a win-win. Both sides had to gain something. Yes, it has deficiencies and doesn’t cover what happens in 15 years when it runs out and maybe it could be stronger on ballistic missile development but it was a deal for the time.

Taking America out of the deal puts us all at greater risk and Trump did it unilaterally.

I remember when I was in Dubai I was deeply impressed by the leadership of  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The UAE is not a democracy yet President Bush supported the UAE while simultaneously preaching a sermon that democracy was the only way forward. In fact, he used it as a basis for many of the disastrous, war-mongering, Middle East policies.

President Trump may have been properly elected (we can discuss that on another day) but he is now acting as a dictator. We do not know how much support he has in Congress for his actions but from the outside, it does look that he sits in the Oval Office making his own decisions. He is behaving just like the Chairman and CEO of a company where he owns 100% of the shares. In his company, he treats it like a fiefdom. Now he treats the United States of America just the same.

If this had been President Putin the world would have been talking tyrant or autocrat.

In the UK we are now going through Brexit and I am sure that Prime Minister May would like the same freedoms as Trump to decide and commit. She doesn’t.  She has the oversight of a Cabinet and Parliament. In a democracy, there are checks and balances on every corner.

We can and will argue about the route that President Trump has taken. I think it is wrong. Many others think it is wrong. In a real democracy, there would be a debate, discussion, and a vote. Not so in America.

Charlie Chaplin’s greatest film was possibly The Great Dictator. It was a satire and comedy. Oh, how I wish it was so now and in 90 minutes the popcorn would be done, the credits have rolled, it has all finished and it was time to go home with a smile.

The problem is that with this action from Trump everything may just finish in 90 minutes.

Why is Lukashenko tolerated?

There are some moments in sport that are so pivotal that they can’t be ignored. This is one. Read what the press has said:

The Olympic champion of Sochi 2014 and a favourite of Pyeongchang 2018 came in nowhere because of biased refereeing. The final assessment from the judges was unreasonable. Each of them overestimated the assessments of their respective compatriots and underestimated the competitors.

After his first jump, I thought he would be first. But he won’t. After his second perfect jump, I was sure that he would be at the top. But he won’t either. It’s a total chaos! So, judges are free to do whatever they want. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

The judges… None of them has anything to do with freestyle and aerial skiing. They learn from video reviews. They are amateurs come there just for the sake of attending the Olympics, to drink coffee and rest.

My opening paragraph may be tongue in cheek, but the press quotes weren’t. Then again, they were all taken from Stolichnoe Televidenie, the Belarusian State television channel after Sochi champion, Anton Kushnir, from Belarus failed to get through to the finals of some skiing or snowboarding final.

Elise Christie of GB was the favourite and world champion when she was disqualified from three events. What did Prime Minister May do?  As far as I know – nothing.

But Belarus President, Alexander Lukashenko resented the decision of the judges and wrote a strong letter of protest to the head of the IOC, Thomas Bach. We can leave this because, of course, nothing happened other than I suppose a ‘thank you and noted’ reply.

What it did remind me was that dictators can throw out their toys if they don’t get what they want. In this case, a gold medal for Belarus.

Maybe you didn’t know Lukashenko was a dictator? Well, that is the big news and if he hadn’t reminded me with his tantrum and silly letter, I might have left him at the back of my mind.

The closest I ever got to visiting Belarus was when I transferred through Minsk when Sasha and I went to Krasnodar from Kiev. It was a fine airport, but I have learnt that one of the symbols of every 3rd world dictatorship is a flashy airport. If you want to understand Belarus’ political allegiances, then it is enough to say that the entrance into Russia takes place inside Minsk airport. Part of Minsk is forever Russian.

Because of a once close friend, I developed an interest in the country and a pre-Lukashenko Belarus is one of the key locations in my first novel, The Masterful Manipulation of George Cove.

Like many in the region, it has had a rough time. It was on the western flank of the old USSR and the main borders are with Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.  It was ravaged by the Second World War and proportionally lost more of its people and property than any of the other allies. Most of the radiation of the Chernobyl disaster swept across what were previously abundantly rich farmlands. While other countries became freer with the downfall of the Soviet empire, nothing changed in Belarus.

In the 2006 ‘elections’ Lukashenko received 82.6% of the vote and then 79.6% in 2010. Presidential elections were held in Belarus on 11 October 2015 and Lukashenko ran for his fifth term in office. He has won every presidential election since independence in 1991. He was re-elected with 83.47% of the vote.

Do not believe this is a sign of popular support.  Protestors and dissenters are ruthlessly put down and imprisoned. Talking about the 2010 election USA State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.  “The United States concurs with the assessment of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). We cannot consider the election results yesterday as legitimate.”

A White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: The United States strongly condemns the actions that the government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process and (the use of) disproportionate force against political activists, civil society representatives and journalists.  We call for the immediate release of all presidential candidates and the hundreds of protesters who were detained.”

President Lukashenko is at the head of a brutal dictatorship generally overlooked by the West.  This is dangerous and important.

Belarus is in the heart of the new Europe.  Two of its bordering countries, Ukraine and Poland, hosted the European Football Championship and for what it is worth, each year, Belarus enters the Eurovision Song competition. But that is the trivia.

Economically you may want to worry about the Russian gas pipeline into Europe that goes through Belarus. Do you mind it is in the hands of a dictator?

Russia exports about 150 billion cubic metres per annum to European markets, the equivalent of roughly 30 percent of the continent’s gas needs. There are 3 main pipelines – one through Ukraine, one through Belarus and Poland and a third called Nord Stream that goes straight under the Baltic Sea from northern Russia to northern Germany. Only 40 billion cubic metres pass through Belarus. That’s a quarter of Europe’s needs.

Socially you may worry the continuation of the old Brezhnev Doctrine which led to many Russians being sent to the satellite states to ensure Russian hegemony by removing, squashing and all but eliminating Belarusian culture. But what does culture mean when you have an ideology?

We could add our support to the dissidents like Mr Sannikov.

Sannikov, a former adviser to the Belarusian diplomatic mission in Switzerland, and later Deputy Foreign Minister, was one of the most popular opposition candidates to stand against Alexander Lukashenko in the disputed December 2010 presidential elections. When protests broke out over claims of voting fraud, President Lukashenko responded with a brutal crackdown that led to hundreds of arrests, widespread torture, the imprisonment of almost all those who ran against him.

I understand the political machinations that mean the Belarusian people don’t have a free vote or the right to decide their own culture and direction. Belarus is a convenient buffer State for Putin on the Western front but a dictator on our doorstep cannot be tolerated. He is ruthlessly restricting all the freedoms of the Belarusians.

There is a brutal dictator in the heart of the new Europe. We should condemn him and not pander to his silly outbursts.