A state hijacking shakes the international order

Last week, Belarusian authorities took the extraordinary step of forcing a commercial airliner belonging to an Irish company to land in its capital Minsk as it transited Belar-usian airspace in what was, by all accounts, an illegal move to arrest a dissident journal-ist on board. The Belarusian government, headed by strongman Alexander Lukashen-ko, said it had received a bomb threat from Hamas, the militant group based in the Gaza Strip, a claim that was quickly disproven by both evidence as well as simple logic. Con-demnation was swift and broad, with EU leaders calling it an act of “piracy” and a “hijacking”. The response is telling: this is not merely a story about a young journalist losing his freedom, and potentially his life, for speaking out against an authoritarian regime. It is about a threat to the very fabric of the rules-based global order. The ripple effects could prove disastrous.

Adnan R. Khan: What does that kind of move mean more broadly for international relations and the rules-based order?

Ilter Turan: The international system operates on a set of rules that have been de-veloped over time so that, despite disagree-ments, human beings can enjoy relative security and freedom of movement not just in terms of personal mobility but also in terms of mobility of investments and goods and services. When countries begin arbi-trarily to flout the rules whenever they think it is in their interest to do so, then there is the risk of a breakdown. The deeper problem is that when there is a failure to sanction this kind of bad behavior in one domain, it invites others to violate the rules in other domains, which gradually leads to chaos.

Adnan R. Khan: As a species of au-thoritarian action, what Belarus has done is not new. It is another example of a growing trend in which authoritar-ian regimes pursue critics wherever they can be found. We’ve seen this with Saudi Arabia and with the Russians, among others. Should we be concerned about more countries turning to these disruptive actions to silence dissidents?

Ilter Turan: First of all, let me say that this type of behavior, that is silencing critics through illegal means, has a much longer history than some might think. We might recall how Trotsky was killed in Mexico. Po-litical assassinations of diaspora dissidents stretch back centuries. The difference now is that the methods are expanding.

The critical question is: does it serve the purpose for which it was intended? Oppo-sition to a particular authoritarian regime is usually shared by a number of figures or movements. It’s not just a single person. It may be that a single person is particularly symbolic or particularly effective but by silencing that individual, you’re not going to bring an end to the opposition. Further-more, these days, opposition movements have new opportunities to reach their audi-ences that have not existed before including Twitter and YouTube and a comprehensive array other instruments.

So, in the act of trying to silence one person, you are also undermining an entire system of rules. What these authoritarian leaders often forget is that these rules also help them. International rules and regula-tions offer security and predictability to any government, authoritarian or not, which operates in a globalized order. Once you start violating rules from one end, others will violate them from another and those who have violated the rules may end up losing more than they ever imagined.

Adnan R. Khan: The western response to this has been quite forceful, with one exception: Turkey. It has played it more carefully, pressuring NATO to tone down its official response. How do you explain Turkey’s position, and is it the right one?

Ilter Turan: Already, Turkey has a shaky relationship with Russia. It may have wanted to take this opportunity to show that it values the Russian relationship, particu-larly at a time when it finds itself in rather difficult economic circumstances. There is also some Turkish investment in Belarus. It appears that the message Turkey wants to send is that it does not want either country to be fully isolated from the international community.

My own judgment is that this is the wrong way to approach what Belarus has done. Turkey has a lot to gain in ensuring that it lives in a predictable international en-vironment characterized by rules. Showing support for the rule breakers is not going to help Turkey. It has already been the case that Turkey was the victim of the rule breaking as in the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. The lesson Turkey needs to draw from what transpired is that this kind of law breaking presents a risk to all. Not criticizing the law breakers in one instance may lead you to become the target at the next round.

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