Dispatch

Sweden's Problem Isn't Immigrants, It's the Internet

As a country tries to recover from a shocking attempted attack, the normal accusations don't really stick.

It was only a mixture of bad luck, incompetence, and the inadequacy of Swedish provincial hardware stores that stopped Taimour Abdulwahab from becoming a mass murderer. When he blew himself up just off one of the busiest shopping streets in Stockholm, only one of the six pipe bombs he had strapped around himself exploded. The rucksack full of nails on his back was not transformed into shrapnel; the car he had left parked a couple of blocks away likewise failed to explode.

Still, in the days since the Dec. 11 bombing, Swedish columnists on both the left and right have been eager to make the reassuring discovery that the averted catastrophe serves as further proof of their respective analyses of national politics. Jan Guillou, writing in the left-wing Aftonbladet, claimed that Sweden made the terrorism problem worse, partly by "joining in the American crusade in Afghanistan" and partly by repressive laws against "encouragement to terrorism" that would never be used against white Swedes. Meanwhile, Ulf Nilson, a former foreign correspondent writing for Aftonbladet's right-wing rival Expressen, caused an uproar when he referred to the diminishing number of "pure Swedes" and the growing influence of Islam in the country.

What all these explanations have in common is that they assume that homegrown terrorism is a political problem with its root causes in Swedish social conditions. In reality, however, the problem is primarily a psychological one that has been enabled by broad immigration patterns and deepened by technology that fosters social alienation. Unfortunately, these causes can't and won't be easily undone.

Four days after the attempted bombing, the Swedish security police produced a long-planned report on violent Islamist extremism in Sweden that put the true problem into some relief. It concluded that Islamist terrorism was not a huge threat to Swedish society, nor to its fundamental values, because "the people active in these networks are primarily concerned with supporting and assisting terrorism in other countries." Unsurprisingly, large immigrant communities do tend to bring the grievances of their home countries with them, often growing only more fervent and extreme. But the point should be that those grievances are brought with the immigrants themselves, not cultivated upon arrival.

Abdulwahab -- who was born in Baghdad but grew up in the small, almost entirely ethnically Swedish southern town of Tranas -- was part of an enormous wave of mostly humanitarian immigration into Sweden in the last 30 years. The figures for 2009 show that 14.3 percent of the Swedish population was born abroad. When you add second-generation immigrants, the total rises to 18.6 percent. The largest group is still Finns and other Scandinavians, but refugees from the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia have been the fastest-growing groups for decades.

For most of the last two decades, the idea that this large-scale arrival of immigrants from troubled, war-torn countries would have negative consequences as well as good ones has been unthinkable -- not to mention unspeakable -- in most of Sweden. Only in the far southern province of Skane was there a substantial anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, who have been established in local government there for years. In September, they burst into parliament, where they now hold the balance of power between the leftish opposition and the center-right government, both of which ignore them and devoutly hope they will go away.

That is not to say that the Sweden Democrats have any answers or that this is the type of problem a national parliament can really address. European countries have varying ways of combating the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism through economic and social policy, but the differences are ultimately superficial. Cross-border political comparisons usually obscure more than they reveal: Whatever the architectural demerits of the heavily ethnic French banlieues, or Germany's inner-city immigrant ghettos, they ultimately say little about the inner lives of the people who reside there.

Yes, Abdulwahab's schoolfellows in Tranas remember him as a sociable and well-integrated figure, whereas in Luton, Britain (where he had gone to study), he left the local mosque after an argument over his extreme views. But where was he really living throughout this entire time? From the initial evidence, it seems most likely that he was really radicalized neither in Sweden nor in Britain, but in the place where we all nowadays live -- online. Most of what we know about Abdulwahab comes from his online life: a dating site where the suicide bomber advertised for a second wife, with the permission of his first, and his Facebook profile, where he liked both "the Islamic Caliphate" and his "Apple iPad." He posted videos of Iraqi prisoners being harassed by U.S. soldiers and sermons from radical clerics.

Of course, the Internet is not only a bulletin board where terrorists leave behind traces of their individual lives -- it's also an endless repository of inflammatory material that terrorists use to fuel their homicidal fantasies. It's not long before they are soliciting the endorsements of more experienced criminals: Nidal Hassan, the perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, famously wrote emails to fugitive terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, seeking his advice before executing the attack.

Things were very different when I was a young man living in a Swedish provincial town quite similar to Tranas, shortly after my own immigration from England. I had no real choice then but to check Swedish books out of the library and speak Swedish with my neighbors and colleagues. Integration was painful and took a very long time. But there wasn't any other social life on offer. When I returned there 25 years later, there were girls in headscarves in the library; more to the point, they were huddled around Internet terminals displaying Arabic and even English pages. I don't mean that they were living in an imaginary world. It was certainly no more imaginary than the one that I had made for myself without any technological assistance, from books and memories and the knowledge that I was an outsider. But it was not geographically anchored.

Neither, of course, was the small-town society around them. This, too, is increasingly constructed by people who see the world through screens and monitors. Closely knit small-town life was once the soil in which Sweden's concept of integration was rooted. With that life permanently altered by technology, that ideal is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. Not only are the immigrants reluctant to settle where they are; increasingly, there is no there there for them to integrate into. As national particularities and national cultures dissolve, it seems that we all -- immigrant and native, religious and secular -- are in this together. Wherever this is.

Dispatch

Lukashenko's Nine Lives

On the eve of elections in Belarus, the long-lasting dictator shows that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep his grip on power.

MINSK— Let there be no mistake: The presidential election in Belarus on Sunday, Dec. 19, will produce the same outcome as elections in Belarus have for the past 16 years. For the fourth time in a row, Alexander Lukashenko -- dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- will win the vote. His dismal human rights and democratic record notwithstanding, Lukashenko's skill at political survival never fails to impress. Like a cat with nine lives, he always seems to land on his feet.

While the outcome of the vote will surprise no one, the campaign season preceding it has been marked by two unexpected developments that hold significance for Belarus's future. 

The first surprise came when Lukashenko promised the European Union a democratic election. During last week's summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow, a smiling and confident Lukashenko boasted that "[w]e have already become such a democratic state that I am afraid the leaders of other states might start bolting from me because I am such a huge democrat."

Given Lukashenko's reputation as an autocrat, one might be tempted to laugh at this statement. However, a fresh veneer of political liberalization has indeed emerged during the current electoral campaign season in Belarus. At an informal meeting with local journalists earlier this month, Michael Scanlan, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Belarus, praised steps taken by the Belarusian government to facilitate greater freedom of association and electoral participation. Remarks like these from a U.S. diplomat would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Indeed, in a departure from past practices, there have been no widespread pre-election arrests of political activists this campaign season. To the contrary, public spaces have been made available for rallies, protests, and meetings with voters. Similarly, opposition presidential candidates have not been arbitrarily disqualified from running against Lukashenko. As a result, nine candidates are running against him for the presidency, three of whom have run sophisticated campaigns and two of whom are reasonably well-funded.

Commenting on the recent political liberalization in Belarus, one human rights activist in Minsk wistfully remarked, "I hope this change will stay and there will be no wave of repressions after the election." Whether this will happen remains to be seen.

Notwithstanding improvements in the ability of opposition candidates to run for office and to meet with voters, their access to the media and the composition of precinct electoral commissions have been heavily skewed in favor of Lukashenko. According to an interim report presented earlier this month by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Election Observation Mission in Minsk, the three main Belarusian television channels have devoted nearly 90 percent of their election coverage to the president -- the remaining 10 percent has been shared by his nine opponents. 

Of course, opposition candidates also have fears that extend beyond biased media coverage. They have routinely expressed concern that the results of the election will be falsified by precinct electoral commissions under the influence of Lukashenko. Likewise, media reports regarding early voting suggest that some students and factory workers have been pressured by supporters of Lukashenko to vote in order to boost the number of early votes available to manipulate.

The second interesting twist this campaign season is that Lukashenko, who has long thumbed his nose at the international community, has recently expressed for the first time his desire that the European Union recognize the results of the election as legitimate. This concern has largely been driven by the deterioration of Lukashenko's relationship with Moscow, his traditionally political and economic ally, which is likely one of the primary causes of the recent political liberalization.

The last time that Western nations recognized the results of an election in Belarus was during the country's first presidential election in 1994 when Lukashenko, then 39 years old, was first elected. During the past 10 years, the United States and the European Union -- in an effort to promote democratization and human rights in Belarus -- pursued a policy of diplomatically isolating Belarus. This effort culminated in 2006 with the imposition of economic and travel sanctions against the Belarusian regime.

The U.S. and EU sanctions on Lukashenko and his top aides arguably gave Moscow more leverage over Minsk by increasing Belarus's economic dependence on Russia and straining its relations with the West. In the past three years, however, the relationship between Belarus and Russia has suffered from intermittent sparring over various trade and strategic issues. Since the winter of 2007, Belarus and Russia have been engaged in a tug-of-war over renegotiating an increase in the price of gas supplied by Russia to Belarus. In addition, Belarus and Russia commenced a "milk war" in June 2008 over protectionist measures by Russia, which has harmed Belarusian dairy producers. The Belarus-Russia relationship has been further strained by Lukashenko's reluctance to acknowledge the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia recognized following its 2008 war with Georgia. Likewise, Lukashenko has frustrated Moscow by delaying the signature of further economic and military cooperation agreements with Russia and its Central Asian neighbors.

The Kremlin, which has found Lukashenko increasingly impossible to deal with, unleashed the Russian media on him and his sons this summer, leading to speculation that Russia would not support his reelection or recognize falsified election results.

Paradoxically, Lukashenko's spat with Russia has gained him ground with some of his past critics, many of whom privately say that tomorrow they will vote for the incumbent president -- albeit while "holding their nose." Reflecting on the election, one taxi driver in Minsk recently explained, "In the past, I crossed out every name on the ballot, but this time I think I will go and fucking vote for him. I don't want the Russian oligarchs taking over Belarus. Just look at what's happening in Russia."

Sensing a political opportunity in light of the faltering Russia-Belarus relationship, several E.U. member states threw a diplomatic lifeline to Lukashenko two months before the election. First, the Lithuanian president paid a working visit to Minsk in late October, the first time in over a decade that Lithuania's head of state has done so. Although she also met with opposition candidates, her visit was interpreted in Belarus as indirect support by a state wary of Russian influence for Lukashenko's reelection campaign during his standoff with Moscow.

Then, in early November, two E.U. envoys -- the Polish foreign minister and the German foreign minister -- traveled to Minsk to state that the European Union cared primarily about "the quality" rather than "the results" of the election, and was willing to recognize Lukashenko's reelection provided the election is held in accordance with democratic standards. While most observers believe there will be some voting irregularities in this election, it remains to be seen how extensive they will be and whether the European Union will recognize the election results as legitimate notwithstanding their imperfection.

The U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks confirm that Western states have made a concerted effort to normalize relations with Lukashenko for the past two years. One cable from the U.S. embassy in Warsaw indicates that the Polish foreign minister felt -- as early as 2008 -- that engaging with the authoritarian regime in Belarus was a "lesser evil" than a Russian "resurgence" in the region. According to this cable, Poland lobbied for a temporary repeal of the 2006 EU sanctions against Minsk and for an increase in Western investments into Belarus, so as to counterbalance Russian economic influence and to create a buffer between Poland and Russia.  

The WikiLeaks cables also show that Belarus may have been open to this resurgence in Western engagement. Another cable from the U.S. embassy in Stockholm revealed that the Belarusian foreign minister privately communicated to a senior EU diplomat in 2009 about pressure from Russia to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Following this conversation the EU diplomat was quoted as saying, "Belarus is bankrupt, and therefore vulnerable to Russian exploitation."

Belarus's democratic opposition is growing jittery about Lukashenko's attempt at normalizing relations with the European Union, as well as the diplomatic breakthrough he achieved with the United States earlier this month, after agreeing to relinquish his country's stockpile of enriched uranium. They fear that Western actors will shift their support to the current Belarusian government for pragmatic and strategic reasons, causing a further retrenchment of the political status quo in Belarus.

The opposition, however, has shot itself in the foot this campaign season by failing to unify around a single candidate. Despite opposition candidates' greater visibility and access to voters, the existence of nine opposition candidates has made it difficult for many Belarusian voters to believe that a credible and electable alternative to Lukashenko currently exists.

According to one reputable poll conducted two months ago by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, nearly half of the respondents favored Lukashenko, while his closest rival had an approval rating of only 17 percent. Thus, Lukashenko has the chance to legitimately win the election outright by securing an absolute majority of the vote during the first round of voting. And if he does not legitimately win the election outright -- or wishes to boost his perceived mandate -- precinct electoral commissions might engage in creative vote counting to assist him.

In a final surprise move this election season, Lukashenko -- at the eleventh hour -- patched up his relationship with the Kremlin a week before the vote. In a swap for energy concessions that are likely to win him political points at home, he recently signed documents facilitating the further integration of Belarus into the Russian economic space. These energy concessions will eliminate Russian tariffs on oil consumed in Belarus while retaining tariffs on the export of petrochemical products refined in Belarus.

In light of Lukashenko's last-minute truce with Russia, the Kremlin will likely endorse the results of tomorrow's presidential election and will support Lukashenko in the near term. Accordingly, at the moment Lukashenko's life in politics appears to be safe.

But whether or not Lukashenko is now on his ninth life in politics ultimately will depend on how he acts as president during his fourth term and on how external actors react to his policies and actions. One thing is clear: With its foreign debt mushrooming and its currency reserves dwindling, Belarus, like its long-lasting president, finds itself between a rock and a hard place economically. According to the International Monetary Fund, Belarus's foreign debt, which has tripled in the last three years, now stands at a record 52 percent of GDP.

To survive as an independent and economically viable state, Belarus must revamp its predominantly state-controlled economy, which has long helped Lukashenko cement his hold on power. However, liberalizing the economy could bring about Lukashenko's ultimate political undoing. Accordingly, while the results of tomorrow's election will be unsurprising, the surprises of this campaign season suggest that the election may mark an important crossroads for both Belarus and its president.

PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images