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11.30 am

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): I have been fortunate enough to secure this debate on Belarus. To some people, it is the modern equivalent of Neville Chamberlain's "faraway country" and a people of whom we know little. To others, Belarus has in recent months produced a hero in Vladimir Voltchkov at Wimbledon. It is good to be reminded of that country. Its sorry position and difficult circumstances deserve to be better known in this country.

Recently, I travelled to Minsk as a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The Minister and other hon. Members will know that it is both cross-party and party-orientated. That means that we can work to promote democracy together or party by party and with sister parties in countries throughout the world. I went to Minsk a few weeks ago with a group of centre and centre-right European sister parties and European Democrat Union colleagues from Sweden, Poland and Lithuania.

The British Conservative party has long-established links with the United Civic party, led by Mr. Anatol Lebedko. We are also developing closer links with the Belarusian People's Front (Renewal) party and its leader, Mr. Vintsuk Viacorka, who recently visited Westminster. We are keen to continue developing our ties with those parties. On our trip, we met the senior figures from both parties and I was impressed by the way in which they are working together.

Belarus is still a long way behind the countries that surround it; visiting Minsk is like going back 10 or 15 years. The atmosphere is one of oppression and fear, and President Lukashenko is very much an old-style communist leader. I have also visited Moscow recently and it is remarkable how much more liberal that city is than Minsk.

Surely this country and this Parliament have an interest in helping the democrats in Belarus, who deserve our sympathy. We should agree that the right place to put pressure is on Lukashenko, who is directly responsible for the misery and fear, the inflation in the economy and the uncertainty and instability in people's lives.

I shall explain a little of the background. Belarus declared independence in 1991. Lukashenko came to power in 1994 and, two years later, called a referendum that extended his powers considerably. He disbanded the Parliament, which was controlled by the opposition, and replaced the legislature with a body of his supporters, who are scheduled to come up for re-election shortly. I understand that the president has set the election for 15 October.

In 1996, close observers said that the referendum was fixed and western Governments have never recognised its results. As things stand, re-election of the chamber set up by President Lukashenko seems likely to face the same fate: people will not recognise its legitimacy.

Amnesty International published a report on Belarus last month. Again, it sounds curiously historical--like one that might have been written 15 or 20 years ago about the Soviet Union. It begins:

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Until recently, most observers thought that little could be done and that the course of misery was predetermined. Relations with Russia seemed more important and it was felt that poor Belarus could look after itself. Now, however, some close observers of the political scene believe that, after years in which the cause of democracy appeared to be moving in only one direction--backwards--recent developments in Russia have given rise to a moment of opportunity for Belarus.

President Lukashenko's personal ambitions have to some extent been thwarted by the emergence of a strong man, President Putin, in Moscow. It is difficult to read exactly how Putin will develop and react to international developments, but he may prefer a different leader in Minsk--he may prefer Minsk to show a more open and democratic face to the world at large. The problem is to interpret what opportunities the present moment provides. The immediate and difficult question for Belarusian democrats is whether to engage in the forthcoming elections. Presidential elections are scheduled for next year and I shall return to them in a few moments.

International advice differs. The United States takes a harder line than European countries about the participation of opposition parties in the elections. The week before last, the BBC reported that the United States had formally suspended Belarus from its list of countries with duty-free access to the American market. In a letter to Congress, President Clinton said that that action had been taken because of concern over workers' rights. American officials have criticised Belarus in the past for suppressing trade unions and harassing trade union leaders. The difference of opinion or emphasis between the United States and the Europeans about how best to move forward is regrettable, but it is important to understand it.

Various international bodies--we have already mentioned Amnesty International--take a close interest in developments in Belarus. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the parliamentary bodies associated with them are also interested, particularly in the forthcoming elections. Internally, there is a congress or forum of democratic forces, which co-ordinates political opposition to Lukashenko's regime. It met formally on 2 July and decided to boycott the elections unless Lukashenko agrees to its conditions.

The conditions are intended to ensure a fair contest. There are four, all of which would be recognised in this House. What are the demands of the parties that make up the united opposition? The first is a full-powered and properly functioning Parliament with a proper division of powers--that does not exist in Belarus today because President Lukashenko rules by decree. The second is reformed electoral legislation--in particular, reform of a practice known as early voting, which is an open door for rigging election results. Thirdly, they want guaranteed, real and regular access to the state-run

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electronic media. The persecution of the independent press must stop and the means of distribution of journals and newspapers must be freed up. At present, a paper may be published, but it is often extremely difficult to circulate it. Fourthly, and most importantly, they want an effective and visible change in the political atmosphere--in other words, an end to political repression. Amnesty International has detailed the detentions, disappearances and forcible breaking up of demonstrations in Belarus.

On our fact-finding visit, it was clear that the opposition parties--those opposed to Lukashenko--were not just the centre and centre-right parties, but the trade unions, the non-governmental organisations and other bodies--[Interruption.]

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. This Chairman always wishes to hear the Member who is speaking. Interruptions from the side are distracting.

Mr. Trend : The opposition forces--the political parties, the unions, NGOs and other bodies--are severely beleaguered but unbowed. They act together impressively and come together in a forum. The question of whether to engage in or boycott the parliamentary elections has entered the end-game stage. My strong feeling was that the opposition parties would not take part unless substantial concessions were obtained and could be verified. At present, that seems unlikely.

The opposition parties would prefer, as far as possible, to frustrate Lukashenko's desire to legitimise the elections in international eyes; their eyes are set on next year's presidential elections. There is a good possibility that they will vigorously contest the presidential elections as long as the ground is not cut from beneath their feet in the next few months. They will agree a joint candidate through a primary system, although, for good reasons, they are unwilling to embark on it. That is a good example of the position in contemporary Minsk. If the opposition forces agreed on a chief opposition representative, who would be a figurehead for the presidential elections, that person would be under severe personal threat. It is therefore understandable that the parties would want to wait for a while before deciding who that person should be. That is the atmosphere in which democrats in Belarus have to work, and it is reminiscent of the worst moments of the Soviet Union.

Although I understand the pragmatic view that there might be gradual progress if the opposition parties engaged in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, it is difficult for foreigners who enjoy the luxury of liberty to criticise the present conduct of the Belarusian opposition. To return to Chamberlain, it is a faraway country about which we know little. He was speaking about Czechoslovakia, which is now well within the family of nations that enjoy democracy.

We were accompanied to Minsk by Poles. Ten years ago, people from the Conservative and Labour parties went to countries such as Poland to help them to establish democracy and to develop democratic structures. Now, we believe that the recent experience of Poles is most helpful; the virtuous cycle of the operation is beginning to show itself. One day, Belarus will be a

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country about which we know much more and we will have much friendlier relations with its people. We should never accept that we have reached the limit, but should keep pushing the border forward.

I ask the Minister to join me in urging President Lukashenko to move substantially on the four demands. It is unreasonable for the opposition to take part in the elections unless substantial progress is made. There is no place for President Lukashenko's behaviour in the modern world and we should do all in our power to ensure that he does not have his way. The people of Belarus also have the right to join the family of free nations.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) rose--

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. Is the hon. Member for Windsor, who is responsible for the debate, willing for the hon. Member for Thurrock to speak?

Mr. Trend indicated assent.

11.44 am

Mr. Mackinlay : I will not take more than a few moments.

I reinforce what the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) said and associate myself with his analysis. As a member of the left in Parliament, I am concerned about the denial of human rights in Belarus. President Lukashenko's mandate, and therefore his legitimacy, has long ceased to exist. I was disappointed that the European Union and other western countries did not protest more strongly about it.

I have tabled questions to the Minister about parliamentarians and journalists who have disappeared in Belarus and I hope that the good officers of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can throw some light on what has happened to them and tell us what representations Her Majesty's Government and the European Union have made on their behalf. We must be constantly vigilant in our monitoring of what happens to opponents of the regime.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to make a statement on whether the Government and the EU think that the parliamentary elections in October should be monitored. When I was in Bucharest last week with the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, there was grave concern that observers from the OSCE and western Governments might validate that which is illegitimate. I do not want to rush a judgment, but we need to make up our mind. A large number of observers will be needed almost immediately. It is not enough to send them 48 hours or three days before polling day.

What is the EU doing for communities bordering Poland and Belarus? Those communities, which depend on cross-border trade, will have a problem when Poland accedes to the EU. Our mission in Minsk is extremely small. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the obvious reasons to upgrade significantly our resources there.

Let me reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Windsor. Belarus is thought of as a faraway country. I was in Krakow, Poland, on 25 December

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1998 when the treaty was signed by the President of Belarus and the President of the Russian Federation. Although there was great alarm in that region and throughout Europe about the dangerous implications for security and co-operation in Europe, there was not a peep about it in the western press. I returned to the House of Commons and searched for a press report on that major treaty but, despite the enormous ramifications for everyone in the EU and the west, there was no mention of it save a thumbnail in the Washington Post. That underlines how we are fiddling while Rome burns. Belarus is important and, while the totalitarian regime is allowed to endure, dangerous.

11.47 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Keith Vaz ): The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) is a knowledgeable commentator on the situation in Belarus. I congratulate him on his work with that country as part of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I am grateful to him for the opportunity to debate Belarus as it enters a crucial pre-election phase. This is the first time that the House has debated Belarus, so it is an important occasion.

I wish to set out the Government's assessment of the underlying situation in Belarus, explain our policy and comment on the forthcoming elections. I regret to say that the flawed Belarusian referendum of November 1996 set the country on an anti-democratic path from which it has not deviated. The referendum significantly increased President Lukashenko's powers, extended his term of office until 2001 and undermined the democratically elected Parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet. Lukashenko disbanded the Soviet and replaced it with a rubber-stamping legislature largely comprising his own deputies.

To this day, political oppression and the anti-democratic style of Government in Belarus remain a major concern for democratic countries throughout the world. We are particularly concerned about cases of excessive pre-trial detention, politically motivated legal proceedings, the unresolved disappearances of several high profile political figures, the absence of judicial independence, state pressure on the independent media and strong political bias in the state mass media. Current European Union policy is based on the General Affairs Council's conclusions of September 1997, which place restrictions on EU-Belarus relations pending the restoration of democratic rule in Belarus. Those restrictions include withholding technical and financial assistance, except that which is in direct support of humanitarian or regional projects or initiatives that promote democracy; a ban on bilateral ministerial contact; stopping work on the European Union's partnership and co-operation agreement with Belarus, which had reached the stage of ratification by European Union member states; and refusal to support its ambitions for membership of the Council of Europe. The United States has adopted a similarly restrictive policy towards Belarus.

Last year, the European Union attempted to kick-start a rapprochement with Belarus by explaining to the Minsk authorities that the restrictions imposed by the 1997 General Affairs Council conclusions could be lifted step by step if Belarus made progress on specific constitutional and human rights issues. Regrettably, the

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authorities' respect for human rights has not increased in the past year, so relaxation of the restrictions has been impossible.

In addition to applying pressure on Belarus to improve the overall quality of its democracy and show proper respect for human rights, the European Union has been quick to take up specific human rights cases with the authorities in Minsk. Those include the cases of Mikhail Chigir, Nikolai Statkevich, and Valeriy Shchukin. Following Chigir's arrest in April 1999, the EU pressed repeatedly for his release from pre-trial detention and his right to a free and fair trial. The EU has criticised the suspended sentence handed to Chigir in May, which seems designed to prevent him from standing as a candidate in the forthcoming elections, and we have made it clear that we view his appeal to the supreme court as an opportunity to revise the judgment against him.

The European Union has also made it clear to the Belarusian authorities that we regard the legal proceedings against Statkevich and Shchukin as having been politically motivated. We deplore the fact that their sentences seem designed to prevent them from participating in the parliamentary and presidential elections.

Hon. Members would also expect me to say something of our policy towards Belarus. We have strictly enforced the EU restrictions while continuing to work with civil society, the independent media, human rights organisations and non-governmental organisations. Our embassy in Minsk is in close contact with opposition political parties and the independent trade union movement. Leading opposition figures and union leaders have visited the United Kingdom as guests of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The hon. Member for Windsor will recall meeting the chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, Mr. Viacorka, during his visit to the United Kingdom in May. Mention also needs to be made of the excellent work of the OSCE in Belarus.

The OSCE Istanbul summit declaration last November emphasised that only a real political dialogue in Belarus can pave the way for free and democratic elections through which the foundations for real democracy can develop. Through its advisory and monitoring group in Minsk, the OSCE has continued to strive for a breakthrough by maintaining objective and critical dialogue with the opposition and Government. The OSCE parliamentary assembly is another valuable tool for bringing international pressure on Belarus. I am well aware of the important role that Members of Parliament play in that assembly, and of their influence on the strong resolution on Belarus that it adopted in Bucharest earlier this month.

The hon. Member for Windsor mentioned the parliamentary elections. We consider the October elections to be an important opportunity for Belarus to take a step towards real democracy. Delegations representing the OSCE and its parliamentary assemblies, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have all visited Belarus in recent months and have pressed the authorities to create conditions in

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which the opposition can contest the elections on fair terms. The improvements that are being called for are: first, better opposition access to the state media; secondly, a pre-election environment free from political persecution; thirdly, the strengthening of the electoral code; and fourthly, more powers to be given to the Parliament that is to be elected.

European Union ambassadors in Minsk have frequently put the same message to the Government of Belarus. Subject to Belarus's ability to create appropriate conditions for a free and fair election, the international community will consider whether to take up the Belarusian authorities' invitation to monitor the elections. Time is now pressing, but it remains possible for the Belarusian authorities to take the necessary steps, as set out by the OSCE and others, to provide a proper environment for a fair election.

As Belarus's closest ally and leading trading partner, Russia has more potential than any other country to exert influence on Belarus. During a recent meeting of EU senior officials with Russia, the EU side called on Russia to use its influence to convince Belarus of the advantages of free and fair elections. We will continue to take that approach in our discussions with the Russians.

Although it is looking increasingly unlikely that many of the Belarusian opposition parties will contest the forthcoming elections, we encourage them not to close the door on the opportunity that the elections might represent. I heard what the hon. Member for Windsor said about whether they should contest the elections. Their participation in an election that proved flawed would not be regarded by the international community as validation of that election, as some of the opposition parties seem to fear. On the contrary, as the recent example of Zimbabwe has made clear, participation in elections can make an important statement even when the conditions in which they are contested are not free and fair. Of course, the presidential election in 2001 marks another important opportunity to move towards democracy in Belarus. I hope that the opposition parties there will contest that election and offer a genuine choice to the people of the country, bearing in mind all the caveats that I have mentioned.

The Government share the concerns of the hon. Members for Windsor and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) about the situation in Belarus. We agree with the hon. Member for Windsor that closer relations with Belarus are desirable but can be envisaged only when Belarus brings itself back into the fold of democratically governed European states. I hope that the Government of Belarus will take the necessary steps quickly to ensure that that happens. I am convinced that improved relations with Belarus are in everyone's interests, not least those of the people of Belarus itself. However, it is up to the Government of Belarus to prove that they have changed and that they wish to make a genuine success of democracy.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. As the sponsoring Member and the Minister are both present, we may move to the second of this morning's three half-hour Adjournment debates.

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