HOW do you deal with a man like Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko? This, after all, is a president who doesn’t play by any recognisable rules of international diplomacy. For going on five months now his regime has been pivotal in a tit-for-tat political game on the fringes of the European Union. In short, Lukashenko has embarked on what many see as a policy of revenge for EU sanctions on his country. Those ­sanctions it’s worth remembering were only imposed in the first place because of the Belarusian regime’s disregard for the rule of law and actions aimed at ­repressing civil society in the country ­during fraudulent elections last year.

But Lukashenko is not a man to be daunted by sanctions, instead his ­response has been to “weaponise” ­thousands of ­refugees and migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, and lure them to Belarus before funnelling them over the border into Poland. It’s a clever if utterly callous strategy quite simply aimed at widening divisions in the EU. Poland, like Hungary, is at odds with Brussels over the rule of law inside the EU, and Lukashenko is doing all he can to stir tensions. Poland after all was one of several EU nations to reject “quotas” of refugees ­during the mass influx from Syria and the Middle East in 2015. As regional ­observers point out it also conveniently diverts attention away from Belarus’s own increasing human right violations.

Accounts given to news agencies by refugees trapped on the border make for grim reading. Syrian refugee Youssef ­Atallah told Reuters last week how he feared he would die in the forest on the Polish border after being left without food or water in the freezing cold, unable to breathe through his nose after it was broken by what he said was an assault by a Belarusian soldier.

Many of those trapped on the frontier also spoke of being pushed back into ­Belarus by Polish guards, only to be blocked by Belarusian security forces who had previously helped them cross into ­Poland. In September after four ­people died at the Polish border, the ­United ­Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) condemned the ­Polish policy of pushing refugees back over the frontier. “Pushbacks endanger lives and are ­illegal under international law,” the ­organisation said in a joint statement with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). More recently some refugees told of how the Belarusian military have been rounding up refugees in groups of 30-40 and pushing them to the border saying it was an order from the state.

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To date, Lukashenko’s ruthless strategy has largely achieved what it set out to do putting Europe on edge, albeit at the ­expense of those unfortunates he’s taken to using as pawns for his own political purposes.

With every day that passes this crisis spirals into dangerous new realms. Last week neighbouring Lithuania declared a state of emergency while Kalle Laanet, the country’s defence minister, called the situation the “most difficult security crisis for our region, Nato and the European Union” since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Faced with a possible new round of EU sanctions, Lukashenko has only doubled down on his response, threatening to cut off gas supplies to Europe “We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said, referring to a Russian gas pipeline that runs through Belarus and into the EU. “And what if we halt natural gas supplies?

“Therefore, I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuanians, and other empty-headed people to think ­before speaking,” Lukashenko added.

If Belarus is quickly being cast in the role of Europe’s rogue state, then many insist that the narrow interests of ­Lukashenko’s regime don’t explain the whole picture, insisting instead that all this is being egged on by Russia. It hasn’t helped either these past few days that Moscow has sent paratroopers to Belarus for military drills in what is an obvious show of support for its ally. So how do you deal with a man like ­Lukashenko? Perhaps the best answer to this dangerous diplomatic wrangle lies not so much in dealing with the ­Belarus leader himself, but rather with the Kremlin chief without whose support Lukashenko would quickly lose his belligerence and swagger – President Vladimir Putin.


THE news a few days ago that Danny Fenster, a US journalist at Myanmar’s Frontier magazine, has been jailed for 11 years by a court in the military-controlled country was a sharp reminder that the junta there has not eased up on what it perceives as voices of dissent. Since overthrowing Myanmar’s elected government in February, the junta has struggled to consolidate power and it has accused independent media in the country of festering opposition against it. Right now, the last thing the regime needs is “prying eyes” as fighters resisting the Burmese army continue to step up their resistance and according to regional analysts are faring far better than expected. Anthony Davis of Janes, the respected defence-intelligence company, estimates that there are now around 50 armed groups that are conducting “sustained operations”.

But the battle against the junta aside this beleaguered nation has other fights on its hands right now including tackling a third wave in Covid-19 cases. The news then from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that millions of dollars in pandemic relief have gone “missing” within Myanmar has highlighted once again the lack of transparency within the country and the potential role the junta might have had in the disappearance of the cash. As reported in The Diplomat magazine recently, it was just days before the February 1 military coup, that the IMF transferred $372 million to authorities in Naypyidaw to help combat the virus. But almost nine months later, however, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said during a recent press conference that “it’s not possible for the Fund to ascertain whether the regime is using the funds as they were intended, namely, to tackle Covid and support the most vulnerable people”.

Myanmar’s military rulers have past form and previously faced questions over misuse of foreign aid.

In 2009, after an investigation they were found to have confiscated funds meant for victims of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, which claimed the lives opf more than 100,00 people, and sold the items in local markets. Currently the junta also stands accused of impeding access to more than 3 million people in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance since the coup. The UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths has warned that without an end to violence and a peaceful resolution of Myanmar’s crisis, “this number will only rise”.

With regard to the missing IMF millions, what angers many is that while the junta remains schtum over its use of the cash, its leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has had the audacity to call on the international community to donate more vaccines and Myanmar is also said to be seeking to tap into the Covid fund of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN) the economic union comprising 10 member states in south East Asia. With the jailing of journalist Danny Fenster, Myanmar has lost yet another important voice at a time when the flow of information from the country is vital and the situation in the country becomes increasingly unstable and complex.

The missing IMF millions are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the abuses and cover ups inside Myanmar right now.


IT pains me to hear that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has secured a fourth consecutive term. I say so for two reasons, the first is that many years ago back in 1979 in the wake of Sandinista Revolution that overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, an event in which Ortega played a key role, I was a young reporter on my first overseas assignment. Back then like many I believed in the good of the Sandinista cause and many of those revolutionaries remain true to being decent politically fair-minded people to this day. Ortega however is not one of them.

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Just last month Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, described Nicaragua as “one of the world’s worst dictatorships”. Now the longest ruler in the Americas, Ortega has installed his wife Rosario Murillo as vice president. Along the way he has locked up 39 political rivals and closed independent media and made sure last week that foreign journalists were barred from reporting the election.

Last Monday, not surprisingly, Nicaragua’s supreme electoral council announced that Ortega, who has governed continuously since 2007, had received 75% of votes, with about half of the 1.3m ballots counted.Many Nicaraguans though know this election was a sham and that Ortega’s presentation of it as a choice between the peace and economic stability he claimed to offer and the conflict, chaos and “terror” of the opposition was simply not true. For years now Ortega has faced criticism from human rights groups, opposition figures and international observers who know him for the autocrat he has become. So, with Ortega in power for another five years where does Nicaragua go from here?

The short-term answer from most political analysts and experts is that Nicaragua is facing a critical moment with warnings that the Central American nation could witness a further deterioration of human rights “The election day is going to come and go, and the situation for the people who are imprisoned isn’t going to change, the position of the opposition and the heavy, heavy boot print on them is not likely to change,” observed Jennie Lincoln, a senior adviser to The Carter Centre. Few would disagree.

With Ortega continuing to use oppression to rule it’s a far cry from the freedoms he and his fellow Sandinistas fought and sacrificed so much for all those years ago.