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Defence and Security Issues Discussed in the 21st Century
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The DSF's Co-founder, Lady Olga Maitland
Welcome to The Defence and Security Forum

The Defence and Security Forum was founded by Lady Olga Maitland in 1983. It was originally a campaigning organisation known as Families for Defence launched to challenge the anti-nuclear protest movements such as CND. Families for Defence’s remit was to promote the NATO case for multilateral nuclear disarmament. In the course of doing so the purpose was to focus on the importance of a proper provision for the defence of the United Kingdom.
Major General Patrick Cordingley, our Chairman Our Keynote Topics

  • International Relations
  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Defence and Security
Under the Shroud of Pandemic: Governments Tighten the Noose
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Two months ago Alexander Lukashenko, the dean of the post-Soviet dictators, stood in a peaked cap of cartoon proportions and told the Belarussian people that vodka and trips to the sauna would see them through Covid-19. This attitude has been aped by other authoritarian leaders, choosing to downplay virus or even downright deny its existence, rather than having the shortcomings of their states exposed. Though the crisis has given rogue regimes the opportunity to implement strict security measures without the interference of the international community, it has also been unforgiving in highlighting the shortcomings of dictatorial government.

Covid-19: An authoritarian problem
Of course the experience of the pandemic was not meant to be like this. At its outset authoritarian leaders chose to focus on its exogenous nature, Covid-19 was a problem for “them”.  The presidents of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan denied the outbreak outright, insisting that their countries, though bordering China, would see the virus pass them by. This approach however came apart only too quickly, the modern dictatorship can no longer rely on insular states held together by the likes of the East German Stasi or the Shah’s Savak, pandemics are borderless and in the modern connected age, government failures are amplified within minutes.


Lukashenko’s derision of global reactions to the pandemic has resulted in the worst outbreak in Eastern Europe. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro refused to react to the pandemic and the country is now facing the worst outbreak in Latin America.  In Russia where the President has gone to great lengths to extend his rule the shortcomings that a large country which only has the state capacity of Mauritius[i] has become incredibly clear. Where large dictatorships have failed, smaller and poorer democracies have kept the pandemic under control, the Balkan and Baltic economies have led Europe in this regard and in Asia, Vietnam has stunned the WHO in its response to the pandemic.

Control in authoritarian states
Control in authoritarian states is often at best a veneer, masking the vulnerability of systems that have prioritised kleptocracy over public service distribution. The ability to mobilise state security forces is often the singular area of successful government functionality, the performance of ‘bread and butter’ functions otherwise subordinate. 

In Iran where the post-revolutionary zeal of 1979 has worn thin with millennials, the government’s responses to the crisis were found to be lacking. As the virus spread through the country like wildfire, the authorities were slow to close the pilgrimage to Qom, their concern with regime legitimation trumping public health. Where observers had initially lauded the ability of authoritarian states to institute lockdown, the sheer pressure of the pandemic has rather exposed the basic functions of the state to be wanting, when taxes aren’t collected healthcare services suffer, where precise statistical data is snubbed a pandemic cannot be dealt with efficiently.

Pandemic exposed the creaks
However where the pandemic exposed the creaks in rickety regimes, it has also begun to provide opportunities for consolidation.  China, at first at the heart of the pandemic, used the opportunity to export donated medical equipment and diffuse false media messaging that the virus was a US military biological weapon. It then jailed pro-democracy activists and cast aside Hong Kong’s Basic Law, making full use of the situation to humble the city’s separatist ambitions. In Singapore, where the government’s tough stance on law and order has often drawn consternation, emergency law was invoked allowing extraordinary tracking of where individuals infected with the coronavirus. 

The piracy protections that were relaxed to accommodate this effort are unlikely to be reinstated, the outbreak allowing the government unprecedented access to the movement of citizens. In Hungary, where for a decade the Orban government has raised eyebrows for rolling back democratic norms and eroding the rule of law, the pandemic allowed for the ushering in of an emergency bill giving the prime minister sweeping powers to rule by decree, without a clear cut-off date. 

Vague pretexts

Enveloped within the bill are vague pretexts upon which the government may imprison journalists for up to five years and more concerningly the legal justification for ruling without parliament, on the presumption that its gathering would spread the virus. The open-ended nature of these measures worldwide has given governments the ability to restrict movement, ban public gatherings, censor social media, seize property and declare martial law with an impunity unseen for decades.

Invariably it is cohesive states that are able to withstand crises and though authoritarian regimes may have achieved quick wins through the opportunity presented to them by chaotic circumstances, it is how they are able to cope with what will follow that is important. Economists have predicted the worst economic collapse for three hundred years[ii] is to follow the pandemic, a situation that would rapidly expose regimes often incredibly exposed to rent either from hydrocarbons or international aid. Strongman rule may be extraordinarily effective in herding people into their homes, but the distress and hunger brought about through economic crisis is the fastest in bringing them onto the streets.

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A DSF speaker. Lady Olga Maitland talking to delegates. A DSF speaker
Delegates enjoying the debate. Lady Olga Maitland chatting to a delegate. Cordingley

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