This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, as we try to take a step back from doom-scrolling and a hyper-accelerated news cycle, Jamil Chade focuses on the return of the BRICS—the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. A group of countries with many diverging interests and often in economic competition among themselves, the BRICS are reunited with a common purpose: to resist the efforts by the West to isolate Vladimir Putin’s Russia within the multilateral system.
We stay with Russia with an insightful and passionate essay on Putin’s lies by Russian culture admirer Geneviève Piron, before returning to last week’s story about controversial Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell joining the WHO. It looks like the plan has derailed. Pardon the Nordic cliché, but the story is turning into a saga.
Plus, we try our hand at the tricky art of predictions, with an ILO election update and a first look at the Russian candidacy for the top job at the International Telecommunications Union.
Finally, two important housekeeping notes: Over the next few weeks we will be regularly publishing op-eds on Ukraine directly on our website, thanks to our partnership with Project Syndicate. We will announce their posting on our Twitter account, @gvaobserver.
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THE BRICS ARE BACK—AND THEY ARE CHALLENGING THE WEST
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is tearing apart international bodies and submitting the multilateral system to its biggest stress test in recent history. But Ukraine and the Western powers’ efforts to isolate the Russian Federation and to make Vladimir Putin an international pariah is also facing a newly organized resistance. The BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—are behind it.
Along with some Gulf and African countries, the BRICS say they want to avoid inserting geopolitical confrontation into multilateral institutions. Their representatives are determined to counter what they describe as the “hijacking” of international institutions—which, they claim, ought to remain “inclusive and plural.” In part, emerging countries explain their position as a response to the devastating global impact of the war on energy and food supplies that is already being felt. They fear that a further isolation of Russia would only lead to a worsening of the situation, with dramatic consequences for their countries’ economies. But clearly, politics is at work.
A resolution passed yesterday by the ILO offers a good indication of the international community’s positioning as the war enters its second month. The decision to “temporarily suspend technical cooperation or assistance from the ILO to the Russian Federation, except for the purpose of humanitarian assistance, until a ceasefire is agreed, and a peaceful resolution is implemented,” was approved by a large majority of 42 votes. But China, India, and Brazil rejected the text (or chose to abstain), marking a shift in position for Brazil, which had voted in favor of the condemnation of the war at the UN General Assembly.
Also significant and consequential in yesterday’s ILO’s vote was Jakarta’s abstention. Indonesia holds the G20 presidency in 2022 and its role has been crucial (diplomats from emerging countries tell The G|O) in curbing the American and European pressure to further isolate Russia.
At the WTO, an initiative pushed by the US and the EU to suspend Russia’s trading status went unsupported by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The same coalition opposed a resolution at UNESCO which proposed to condemn Russia for recent attacks on freedom of speech, culture, and education. Over at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Latin American governments are pushing for fertilizers to be excluded from the list of Russian items embargoed. Pressed by agribusiness exporters, Latin America claims that such measures threaten to increase world hunger.
American and European diplomats tell The G|O they fully agree that the multilateral system must be protected. But they contend that the alleged “hijacking” of the system is a much lesser risk than the danger posed by Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and blatant attack on Ukraine, a clear violation of the UN Charter and a direct threat to European security. There are also fears that the BRICS’ position will weaken the international mobilization to punish the Kremlin for the crimes committed in Ukraine, and will make it more difficult to hold Vladimir Putin accountable.
Russia, meanwhile, can take advantage of this rift to claim it is not isolated. It is no coincidence that Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that he was planning to attend the next G20 summit in Jakarta, while Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, was all smiles when meeting with the BRICS’ Ambassador to Moscow.
ILO ELECTION WATCH
We will know tomorrow who will replace Guy Ryder at the helm of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Quick reminder: five candidates (among them two women, whose election would mark a first for the organization) from four continents are in the running. In alphabetical order: Togolese Gilbert Houngbo, South Korean Kang Kyung-wha, South African Mthunzi Mdwaba, French Muriel Pénicaud, and Australian Greg Vines.
The peculiar election process resembles a game of musical chairs: At each round, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. The candidates compete for a majority of the ILO Governing Body’s fifty-six votes—twenty-eight votes from governments, fourteen each from the Workers’ and Employers’ Groups, as the ILO is a tripartite organization, an exception at the UN. Click here for a very informative map on the GB’s composition, put together by KAS-Multilateral Dialogue Geneva.*
There is widespread agreement among ILO watchers that the last round will see a face-off between Gilbert Houngbo and Muriel Pénicaud, with a slight advantage to the former Prime Minister, who left the ILO to preside over the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development.
In a hotly contested campaign, with governments actively supporting their candidates (except for South Africa who didn’t back Mthunzi Mdwaba), Houngbo ultimately managed to rally the Workers’ Group vote behind his candidacy and secured the support of the Latin American bloc. Pénicaud, a former French labor minister, is officially supported by all EU members. Still, it will be difficult for her to significantly extend that base of support during the later rounds of voting, even if she is expected to get some of the Employers’ Group votes. French business daily Les Echos also reports that with a qualified African candidate in the running, Emmanuel Macron’s letter of support to French-speaking African countries may have been perceived as overreaching.
Finally, the war in Ukraine will loom over the election, although ultimately it is not likely to be enough to change the dynamics. Logic dictates that China and Russia, both members of the ILO’s Governing Body, will vote for the Togolese candidate—an endorsement that Pénicaud supporters might argue places Houngbo on the side of the aggressor.
*The Geneva Observer Briefing is supported by KAS’s Multilateral Dialogue Geneva. KAS has no say on The G|O’s content.
ANDERS TEGNELL: MR. NO-MASK IS A NO-SHOW AT WHO
There is a fair amount of confusion—and stonewalling—around the appointment of highly controversial Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell to the WHO, which we reported on last week. Contrary to the Swedish Public Health Agency announcement that Anders Tegnell would join the WHO as a vaccine expert on March 14, it appears the appointment is not a done deal. “It is an internal matter, send us your questions by email,” WHO’s Margaret Sullivan told us on Tuesday as we attempted to clarify the situation. But several emails sent by The G|O have remained unanswered. “We have received an offer from Sweden that is still under discussion,” WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaid told Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden’s paper of record) yesterday.
Might Sweden have tried to force WHO’s hand by presenting it with a “fait accompli?” One can only speculate. But the Swedish answer is altogether one of documented inconsistency. The Swedish Mission here referred us specifically to the head of the International Secretariat at the Ministry for Social Affairs. In an email, they told The G|O that the Swedish Government had “no formal role in the process,” and advised us to contact the Public Health Agency. But, in contradiction with the Ministry’s statement, the Agency told Svenska Dagbladet that it had moved ahead “after dialogue with the Government Office.”
It is common practice for WHO to hire experts and consultants for specific missions under arrangements usually discussed between the organization and its member states. But why would Sweden recommend the 65-year-old Tegnell, knowing his appointment was bound to create controversy? Could it be to soften the blow of his stepping down as Sweden’s top epidemiologist after his policy during the early phase of the pandemic was officially rebuked by an independent panel of experts? At time of going to press, The G|O has received no answer from Stockholm.
ELSEWHERE IN THE ECOSYSTEM
Rashid Ismailov, the Russian candidate for Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), introduced himself to the Geneva UN press corps yesterday (Wednesday 23). Invited to speak by the UN Correspondents Press Association (ACANU), Ismailov, a former deputy minister at the Russian Ministry of Telecommunications, spoke by Zoom, unable to travel.
“My bank account is frozen, and so are my credit cards,” he told us. Hoping that the situation will have changed by September when the election is due to take place, he admitted, however, that campaigning would be “problematic.” Echoing Moscow’s position that the war was a “special military operation” and that, as a Russian, he supported his country, “right or wrong,” Rashid Ismailov said ITU had violated “its Convention and Constitution” when it decided to ban Russian applications to its working groups.
The September election of the new ITU Secretary-General is widely considered one of the most important events on International Geneva’s agenda and has been the object of sustained diplomatic efforts. The other candidate for the position is American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, currently Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.
At stake? Arguably the future of the internet as we know it, and beyond that, the future of cyberspace itself. The ITU, a standardization organization (SDO), has become a major battlefield in the future of the internet, as China and Russia are actively trying to replace the current multi-stakeholder governance model with a state-centered model. Russia has repeatedly attempted to change ITU’s mandate to include internet governance, an effort supported by Beijing. In 2019, Russia adopted a series of measures to allow for the development of what has been referred as Russia’s “sovereign internet law,” which could de facto allow Russia to disconnect itself from the internet, allowing it to control access to cyberspace within its borders. In a similar effort, China is actively pushing for a “new IP” at the ITU. Both efforts are opposed by Western countries and by civil society.
In response to a G|O question, the Russian candidate refused to admit that his country’s “sovereign internet law” was in complete contradiction with the concept of an open internet. “Look what is happening now and who is cutting whom?” he said. “With the sanctions and restrictions now applied by the West on Russia’s internet, many countries will now start to think about their sovereignty, their control, and say that the gates shouldn’t be open all the way.”
He conveniently failed to mention that it was, in fact, Moscow that shut down Instagram and Facebook in Russia, and that Putin’s regime has used strong intimidation tactics on foreign internet companies operating in the country.
“Z”: THE LAST LETTER IN THE ALPHABET OF LIES
By Geneviève Piron, PhD in Russian studies
Pure fabrication, interpretation, and lies. Where is the line between these different types of distortion of truth? And how deep have we sunk?
In Russian, there is a word that suggests there is indeed a distinction: the word “vranio” means something between baloney and untruth, it is used to refer to a storyteller who distorts or exaggerates, even creates myths. We like it in Russian culture; it gives colour to life. The word “lies” in the Russian language has a different connotation, with a more active, performative dimension. There is an expression which alludes to this moral aspect: “To live not in accordance to lies”. It was used by dissidents to encourage people to resist State lies and to stand for truth.
Since the first day of the Russian attack on Ukraine, I have had flash-bulb memories from my time in the first Chechen war as an ICRC interpreter. These memories give me a point of reference, allowing me to gauge where we stand within the different levels, or rings, of lies.
I remember watching the news then, on an old brown sofa in the delegation office. Through the window I could see part of the completely destroyed, bomb-flattened Grozny. Simultaneously, I was watching on the TV screen a completely intact “normalized” Grozny—the image that was shown to the common Russian people (who watch the First Channel news en masse). My eyes were flitting back and forth from the screen of the TV to the window outside and my brain slowly analyzed: “Never believe images; always suspect manipulation; never do politics from afar; look for truth.” This is propaganda, the war of information that we have all experienced and seen developing since the Yugoslav wars, with an exponential growth in recent politics with the arrival of fake news. The purpose is to make people believe, and then feed these narratives.
Another Chechen memory: We are in a military base, negotiating an exchange of hostages, and during the negotiation, a helicopter takes off from the field behind us. The noise is so loud that we cannot speak; swirls of dust hide from sight the bags of sand, the fortifications of the military base, with its tents and wires; we are surrounded. When we can resume conversation, the general says, “What war? You speak about the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war. But there is no war here. We are not at war.” All around, I can see the dust raised by the huge military helicopter that left for the frontlines one minute ago, as I watch the man in his military outfit, who looks at us threateningly, repeating slowly: “There is no war here.”
I remember this feeling of danger, as if I was almost dissolving into the dust. This is the threshold into another level of lies. It denies reality, and by doing so, it denies your right to live in reality. This is chilling.
A NEW THRESHOLD HAS BEEN CROSSED
During the current war, Ukrainians are fighting both to defeat the lies (through the war of information) and to defend their right to exist (one of Putin’s justifications for the attack was the claim that Ukraine doesn’t exist historically). For a short time, Russians at home were only contemplating the lie from outside, in the context of the war. But recently, there was a turning point: the lie, like a boomerang, came back to their country. Under the form of a letter, a “Z”, it came back quickly in a new form, ready to divide and kill.
Originally, the letter “Z” was a sign painted in white on the tanks to distinguish the Russian equipment from the Ukrainian—some confusion was possible because of the common Soviet past. Quickly, however, it became a symbol of support for the Russian “special operation”, and then later started to be used as a banner—like the swastika of the Nazis (ironically brandished by those supposedly opposing “the neo-nazis”).
Since the law on fake news was enforced in Russia—the first victims of it were sentenced two days ago—a new threshold has been crossed. Teachers who refuse to participate in the state lies and active propaganda are fired, threatened, or choose to quit—the same for journalists. The letter “Z” has become a sign worn on clothes, on hats, exhibited to show people’s consent for and pride in the government. An orchestra conductor wore it demonstratively during a recent concert at the Institute of virtuoso musicians in Moscow. Children hold posters with this letter, or create a “Z” with their bodies in the yards of kindergartens. It has quickly transformed into a weapon to threaten and stigmatize. It is drawn by anonymous groups on the doors of people who are—even silently—against the war or the regime. Even being suspected makes them targets for aggression. Nobody is protected from a “Z” on the door, bringing violence from the street or the State on any individual.
"THEY HAVE USED THE LAST LETTER OF THE ALPHABET, AND THERE IS NO LANGUAGE BEYOND."
A song created recently and published by Novaya Gazeta through YouTube (YouTube is among the media outlets now blocked by the State, but some know how to get through) expresses the love, pain, distress, fear, and rejection of war, from a man in Moscow writing to his brother in Kyiv. The last lines echo the new threshold of terror reached with the symbol “Z”:
“There is not a single inch of hope, There is no future anymore, Some people came to our house To draw a “Z” on our doors, Now we can only be killed or hurt, Exiled or prisoners of camp, They have used the last letter of the alphabet, And there is no language beyond."
When a lie offers the possibility to take sides, interpret and debate, it means we are still in an open society, and diplomacy can be a part of the game. When it starts to kill, dissolve reality, and threaten those who live in it, it is too late for nuance and explanation. We are back to a time in history when pluralism and multilateralism are not possible. We must show resistance, and fight with all our strength against the “Z”.