Though I was born in Parsons Green, my father grew up in Pakistan, which acknowledges citizenship by descent. That means the home secretary could annul my Britishness, without even telling me, on the strength of a foreign entitlement I wouldn’t know what to do with. Apologists for executive discretion often argue that the innocent needn’t worry, but that complacent assumption misses the point. It isn’t only the notional risk of a despotic home secretary that’s disturbing. It’s the injustice of knowing that most citizens face no risk at all.
Priti Patel isn’t the first politician to overstate her experiences of adversity, and her opinions, at least, are consistent. She’s been an ardent nationalist since working as a press officer for James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in the mid 1990s, and politicised patriotism runs in the family: her father contested a council seat for Ukip in 2013. The dodgy backstory matters, however, because it illustrates how hard it is to differentiate between worthy and unworthy refugees. Just as Patel’s parents escaped Uganda to improve their lives, most migrants are compelled to leave their homelands for mixed reasons: hopes as well as fears, ambition as well as anxiety.
Just over a year ago I was in eastern Poland. The edge of the European Union – a strip of sand between two rickety gates – was quiet.
The nuclear weapons launch site in San Cristobal that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis was modelled on one at Plokštinė in Lithuania, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1961. The disused installation is no longer top secret – it’s now a museum – but it is still out of the way. Overlooked by dense pine forests, the silos yawn with ominous promise, like thermonuclear wishing wells. Each of the SS-4 rockets that might once have roared out of them had more than half the firepower used throughout the Second World War, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single warhead could have flattened London within ten minutes of take-off.
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.