Tue, May 02, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Beware the crusades of powerful nations

Washington's paradoxical treatment of its friends and enemies - rewards for China, penalties for Belarus, for example - is more than a sad lapse of morality, it is a ruthless show of strength

By Jonathan Steele  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Here is an ABC of how to promote undemocratic regimes. The leader of country A was US President George W. Bush's guest on Friday after recently supervising a parliamentary election that was widely considered not to have been free and fair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent the usual team of observers, described it as "not meeting international standards."

The incumbent leader had tight control over the media, and used state-funded TV to highlight his alleged achievements while ignoring or denigrating his opponents. His police were brutal and broke up rallies.

"There were restrictions on the freedom of assembly, as well as harassment, intimidation and detentions of some candidates and their supporters," as the OSCE put it.

The week before, the president of country C was given an even warmer reception in Washington, with ceremonial pipers and drummers serenading him on the south lawn of the White House. As a beacon of un-democracy, his regime far outshines that of country A. It does not bother with election fraud, since it runs a one-party state and allows no contest for power at all. It restricts religion and imposes harsh regulations on women's reproductive rights that make Islamic fundamentalists seem liberal.

Yet Bush made no mention of any of this in his public welcome for country C's leader or, apparently, in his private talks.

Now to country B. Its political repression is considerably milder than country C's and about on a par with country A's. A presidential election last month was a travesty of democratic principles. State-run TV did allow opponents airtime, but for the most part they were insulted and demonized. Unlike in country A, foreign observers reported no cases of ballot-stuffing, but they saw falsification of the vote totals awarded to the incumbent in the protocols signed by officials at polling stations. Independent analysts believe most of the people were satisfied with their economic position and probably voted for the president, making his use of fraud grotesquely unnecessary.

What was Bush's response? Instead of rewarding this champion of repression with an invitation to Washington, country B's president and several of his cronies were told they were being punished with travel bans. EU foreign ministers made the same decision. What kind of message does this send? Do only the worst dictators get a Washington trip? If he wanted a session with his US counterpart, should the president of Belarus (country B) have been more repressive, ensuring his judges were as tough in sentencing demonstrators who protested against the fraud as were the judges who answer to Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan (country A), whom Bush greeted on Friday?

Should Belarus revert to a one-party system on the pattern of China (country C), whose president, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), was Bush's guest two weeks ago? Would that give President Alexander Lukashenko a ticket to a White House dinner? The leader of the main opposition party in Belarus was sentenced on Sunday to 15 days in prison for attending a rally on the anniversary of Chernobyl. Is that enough for lunch with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at least?

I jest, of course. Powerful states' pressure on other states has always been contingent on a messy range of considerations. States with nuclear weapons are treated with more sensitivity than those without. States with oil or other much-needed minerals are favored over others. Size matters. So does geography. That was as true in the 19th century, when states nakedly made alliances of convenience, as it is in today's world, where states dress up their behavior, on occasion, in the new clothes of "democracy promotion."

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