LAST week we saw what was, in effect, a hijacking of a civilian airliner. The government of Belarus forced it to land so that somebody who had annoyed the government could be dragged off the plane and arrested. 

The excuse given was feeble; they claimed Hamas had placed a bomb on an Irish airliner flying between Greece and Lithuania, an unlikely combination to say the least.

If Belarus gets away with its action then it will be open to any government to down any airliner in order to arrest anybody that they don’t like.

No journalist would be able to travel freely and politicians who are critical of authoritarian regimes could be intimidated. This is of course, precisely what these regimes want.

All this would have been seen as far-fetched in the 1990s. The Berlin Wall had come down and democratic governments were being established across Eastern Europe. 

The Soviet Union had broken up and Russia at least was on the path of open democracy.
It was also an age of international co-operation against aggressors. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait there was an unprecedented international response, free from the first time of the shackles of the Cold War. 

The war in Yugoslavia was brought to end and when the Serb army tried to suppress Kosovo, it was pushed out. Politicians were brought before courts for war crimes. The historian Francis Fukuyama talked of the ‘End of History’.

In the years since, things have changed. Russia has become a “managed democracy”. China, which didn’t claim to be a democracy in the first place, is now more authoritarian.

In Brazil, the country is headed by a right-wing “populist”. Even Hungary and Poland have governments which have mild authoritarian instincts at times.

On the international stage, Russia has its client states and Belarus is one of them. Its appetite for international action is solely determined by its own national interests. 
In a world where collective action has weakened, they would see this as a logical position.

China has a longstanding doctrine of non-interference in other states’ affairs, driven by China’s extreme sensitivity to criticism of what it regards as purely domestic issues.

And then there’s the USA. If I had told you in, say, 1995 that the American President of 2017-21 would actively cuddle up to strongmen, would be played like a fiddle by North Korea, and would cast doubt on the security system that had underlined peace in Europe for 60 years, you would have thought that I’d lost my mind.


If I’d then gone on to tell you that the same US President would refuse to accept that he had lost an election and had claimed mass fraud that, had it been true, would have made America a laughing stock.

If I had then told you that the same president would stand by for hours while a mob stormed the nation’s capital trying to find, kidnap and possibly murder his own vice-president, you would have suggested a future for me in science fiction.

Yet all these things have happened. The democratic world is fragile. There have been times when the battle for democracy was in the balance. During the Trump years the democratic world was being led by Germany because Angela Merkel had such democratic instincts. The US had abdicated that leadership.

The US is still not out of the woods. There are attempts in 14 states to make it far more difficult for people to vote. Of the last eight presidential elections, the Republicans have won the largest share of the vote only once. A democratic party would start asking itself questions and broaden its appeal. 

Instead, the response from some Republicans has simply been to make it more difficult for their opponents to vote. In Arizona there have even been suggestions that the state’s legislature should be free to ignore how their own people voted and support a different candidate for president. These, by the way, are the same people who criticise other countries for not being democratic enough.

There are glimmers of hope though. We now have a serious president in the US, an Atlanticist who recognises the need for collective security and the importance of standing up to authoritarian regimes. America can be an example again after four years of invisibility. 

In Brazil, there are protests against the Bolsanaro government that has allowed Covid to rip through the population. And so back to Belarus. Thankfully we are seeing the stirrings of protest and sanctions against a regime that doesn’t accept losing and is happy to arrest people who are merely flying over its territory. It’s a breach of international law by any definition. 

The UK has banned incoming flights from Belarus’ airline and overflying the country has stopped. The EU, where getting agreement from all of its members states is not always easy, is taking action. And at last, in the US we have a president who has the moral authority to lead.

The democratic world might be getting its backbone back. Let’s hope so, because for too long we have sat and watched. If we want to preserve our freedom, that’s never going to be enough.

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