25 May, 2021

If the vicious authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, now a Russian puppet state in eastern Europe, will force down an EU civil airliner in order to seize, imprison and torture an opposition journalist, it seems to me that we are entitled to ask: To what lengths will this and any regime of a similar nature also go in using their embassies to pursue their opponents in the diaspora – to engage in what is now known as ‘transnational repression’? I have always been keen to defend the embassy as a key institution of the world diplomatic system but too often at the cost of treating it in a politically anti-septic sort of way. Not any more; the dark side that was always there is getting darker.

According to the latest edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, in 2019 57 of the 167 states it was able to assess had authoritarian governments and 35 had ‘hybrid regimes’ that are little better in their attitude to domestic political opponents, known to both as ‘terrorists’ or ‘enemies of the state’. And it is now common for many of these countries to require embassy and consular staff (or intelligence officers under diplomatic cover) to contribute to the regular surveillance of their nationals working or studying abroad, applying pressure on dissidents among them to desist (typically by threatening harm to family and friends at home and/or the termination of student grants), abducting and forcibly returning those that cause them most concern, and – in extreme cases – assassinating them. A tactic that assists such actions is getting them onto embassy premises, either by requiring them to report at regular intervals, or visit for a bogus purpose such as picking up ‘important documents’, collecting money, or renewing a passport that has become inexplicably out of date. Cultural attachés – of whom the Saudi Embassy in London has them in double figures – might be employed to make sure that students studying at foreign universities do not stray from the true path. The information on dissidents that embassies help to obtain is also employed to request the issue against them of ‘Red Notices’ by Interpol in order to facilitate their arrest and extradition – a flagrant abuse of the Interpol system that the TRAP Act introduced into the US Congress in 2019 sought to tackle but did not get to the vote.

A well documented report that sounded the alarm on the shocking rise in transnational repression in recent years, which gives some attention to the role of embassies, was published by Freedom House in February 2021. It presents case studies of its use by China, Rwanda, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, adding that ‘25 additional origin states, conducting transnational repression activities in 43 countries’ had been identified (p. 44). Which brings us back to Belarus.

According to the website of the Belarus foreign ministry, it has 70 missions abroad, 58 of which are embassies, including one in London that boasts a 1st Secretary (Consular, Cultural and Humanitarian Affairs – seriously). A diplomatic mission in Athens, from which the Ryanair plane forced down by Lukashenko departed, is not among these. However, the Russian Embassy in the Greek capital is second only to that of the USA in the size of its diplomatic staff and therefore a likely source of, or support for, the four intelligence officers who ‘shadowed’ Roman Protasevich and left the plane with him at Minsk Airport. The large Belarusian diaspora is fighting back with ‘people’s embassies’ in 16 European countries (including the Irish Republic, Ryanair’s home) plus Brazil and South Korea. At the moment, it seems, these are not much more than ‘online information points’ but who knows what they might morph into. There are, therefore, circumstances in which I shall not hear a word said against virtual diplomacy.