At a recent press conference, a written statement attributed to the Taliban’s ‘commander of the faithful’, Haibatullah Akhundzada, said that the incoming government of Afghanistan will ‘work hard to uphold Islamic rules and sharia law’. In Arabic, ‘sharia’ implies a path to salvation, and ultra-pious Muslims don’t abandon that road willingly. But the rules to be upheld are less obvious. They’ve been contested for at least twelve hundred years. Some jurists have been tolerant and inclusive; others not. One prolific scholar popular in Taliban circles, Ibn Abiʼl-Dunya, a stern tutor to several princes in late ninth-century Baghdad, wrote seven tracts on prohibition alone. Among the frivolities he thought hateful to God were stringed instruments, chess, pigeon-fancying and sitting on seesaws.
At least 3400 alleged ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ are currently awaiting trial in Belarus. According to Alexander Lukashenko, protesters against his government have been ‘literally’ inspired by Mein Kampf. Contemplating tensions on the Lithuanian border, he warns that ‘true Nazis’ are on the warpath. For a year now, Lukashenko has been branding his enemies fascists. The rhetoric has escalated steadily since May, when he pushed through a law to prohibit the ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’. The statute was modelled on a Russian edict passed after Crimea’s annexation in March 2014, and mirrors legislation enacted by nationalist governments throughout Eastern Europe. What distinguishes the ‘memory laws’ is their targets. Beyond Minsk and Moscow, they’re hostile to Communism as well as Nazism.
Alexander Lukashenko’s media outlets aren’t happy with Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya. The least insulting thing they’ve so far said about the Belarusian athlete’s sudden exit from the Tokyo Olympics is that it was precipitated by ‘her emotional and psychological state’. The main TV channel ridiculed her ‘failure’ to qualify for the 100 metres, and called her decision to seek refuge in Poland instead of returning home a ‘cheap stunt’ and a ‘disgusting act’.
The fate of Roman Protasevich has taken another unexpected turn. Though the powers-that-be in Belarus have described him as a ‘terrorist’, they initially pretended that his arrest was unplanned. On Alexander Lukashenko’s account, a bomb threat necessitated the grounding of his Ryanair flight, and his presence on board was a coincidence. But a new narrative has gained traction. State media are reporting that his detention, like the arrest of his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, wasn’t an accident after all. It was a Western plot. To intensify pressure on Belarus, Western secret service agents ‘framed’ Protasevich.
All that’s so far certain about Alexander Lukashenko’s decision last Sunday to force down a Ryanair flight on its way from Athens to Vilnius is the immediate outcome. Roman Protasevich, an exiled Belarusian journalist on board, was arrested after the plane landed. Criminal charges have been outstanding since November – because he helped run a Warsaw-based Telegram channel that circulated material hostile to Lukashenko after August’s contested presidential election – and within 24 hours, the authorities had what they wanted. The 26-year-old, his face visibly bruised, appeared on state television to assure the world that he had been ‘treated with respect’ and was co-operating with the police. Wringing his hands, he kept the rest of his statement short: ‘I confess to organising mass protests in Minsk.’
Ever since Alexander Lukashenko’s highly contested re-election, the ruler of Belarus has had problems with the neighbours. Having spent 27 years imagining himself the true heir to Soviet power, he’s increasingly dependent on the rival he used to see as a subordinate, Vladimir Putin. And though Brussels once played counterweight to Moscow, the EU states adjoining Belarus are no longer friendly at all. Lithuania has granted asylum to Svetlana Tichanovskaya, the presidential candidate who claims to have beaten Lukashenko last August, and isn’t about to extradite her: the Lithuanian foreign minister says ‘hell will freeze over’ first. Resistance to Lukashenko has taken root among the Belarusian community in Poland, and the government in Warsaw is financing calls for regime change in Minsk.
Disarray has been spreading among Republican Party leaders. Right-wing opposition to Donald Trump is no longer confined to Reagan-era fogeys and nostalgic neo-cons. Since the Capitol riot of 6 January, toadies of long standing like Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, disappointed to learn that Trump enthusiasts hoped to make America great again by lynching them, are acting as though the president they propped up for four years is someone else’s problem. Among the rank and file, confusion is even more acute. A poll taken just before Trump left office found that Republican-leaning voters disapproved of his presidency more than ever before (though that still left 60 per cent crediting him with doing a good job).
The customs post at Bobrowniki was looking busy a couple of weeks ago. Inactive, too. When I drove there from Białystok, the stationary juggernauts snaked back ten miles. A driver halfway along said he’d already spent two nights in his cab. Individuals headed for Belarus could jump the queue, but only if they surrendered all goods acquired in Poland. When I optimistically suggested to Nikita Grekowicz, a Belarusian-Polish journalist, that we one day meet in Minsk, he smiled. ‘Not today though,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t take a cookie. And they’d probably arrest me as a spy.’
In the hope of understanding Alexei Navalny’s fate, I’ve been watching RT. The Kremlin-funded media network formerly known as Russia Today has dubious form when it comes to apparent poisonings. A couple of years ago, its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, interviewed the two men suspected of smearing Sergei Skripal’s door handle with a ‘novichok’ nerve agent. She didn’t challenge their claim that they visited Salisbury to admire its cathedral spire. Almost despite itself, however, RT’s coverage of Navalny’s sudden illness has been revealing.
Alexander Lukashenko has normalised many dubious practices during his 26 years in power in Belarus, and his share of the vote in the most recent presidential election – 80.1 per cent – is uncannily similar to the figure recorded at his five previous landslides. His initial response to suggestions of vote-rigging was characteristically ruthless. Protests were met by water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades, and three demonstrators were killed. As more than seven thousand people were taken into custody, social media were flooded with accounts and images of torture. Lukashenko wasn’t defiant in the face of the resistance so much as dismissive. His adversaries were either criminals or unemployed, he said. Insofar as they reflected a genuine threat, it was only because they were ‘sheep’ under the direction of shadowy foreign powers.