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The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain): I thank the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) for initiating this debate on Belarus. He is an experienced observer of Belarus politics, and his interest, energy and expertise are very welcome, as is his work for the admirable Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Like him, I think it long overdue that the torch of liberty should be lit in Belarus. I congratulate him on keeping that flame alive and for drawing the House's attention to that need.

The hon. Gentleman has developed close links with the centre right United Civic party and the Belarusian Popular Front. I know that he has gained the trust of the leaders of those two parties, Mr. Anatoly Lebedko and Mr. Vintsuk Viachorka. As he knows, the Government have a great deal of respect for these and other democrats in Belarus, as was shown last November when they visited London and called on my predecessor.

The hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate last July came at a time when Belarus was preparing for parliamentary elections in October. The international community hoped that Belarus would use that opportunity to take a tangible step towards democracy. Unfortunately, those hopes were not fulfilled. Belarus has now entered another crucial pre-election stage, with presidential elections to be held on 9 September.

Let me turn to the British Council closure, about which the hon. Gentleman, to his credit, has kept badgering the Foreign Office. The decision to close the British Council operation in Minsk followed a strategic review by the council designed to maximise effectiveness world wide. This focuses resources on countries where the Council can achieve greatest impact in support of British interests. It is important to stress, however, that council activity has not ceased. Through its offices in neighbouring countries, the council continues to co-ordinate Foreign Office Chevening scholarships for Belarusian students, youth exchange visits, Department for International Development regional academic partnerships with Belarusian universities and examinations work. The council enabled 92 Belarusians to sit British examinations in June this year alone.

It is also important to stress that the closure of the British Council does not affect our support for civil society, human rights and democracy-building projects. That support is not dependent on the presence of a British Council office. The Government have recently funded projects such as a domestic election observation network; a human rights conference and workshop organised by the British East-West Centre; a freedom of the media workshop organised by the OSCE's media freedom expert, Freimut Duve; a United Nations Development Programme project to improve the legal framework under which Belarusian non-governmental organisations operate, and funding for four Belarusian journalists and two NGO representatives on a United Kingdom study tour of the British election.

Belarus occupies a strategic position in Europe, as the hon. Gentleman said. It is set to be a neighbour of an enlarged European Union and it borders NATO. Given the country's strategic location in the east of the continent, it is extremely regrettable that Belarus, which promised so much at independence in 1991, cannot be regarded in any sense as a member of the family of democratic European states.

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From the hon. Gentleman's contacts and visits, he will be familiar with the nature of Mr. Lukashenko's regime. The flawed Belarus referendum in November 1996 significantly increased Mr. Lukashenko's powers; undemocratically and unconstitutionally extended his term of office until 2001; and undermined the democratically elected Parliament of the 13th Supreme Soviet. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Lukashenko continues to rule in an autocratic and increasingly idiosyncratic manner, preventing the development of civil society. He has ensured that no significant legislative powers have been granted to the National Assembly—a body that we and our partners do not recognise as legitimate. Crucially, the Assembly is unable to exert control over Government or president.

The judiciary lacks independence. The judicial process is inconsistent and prone to abuse for political ends. The recent trial of eminent professor Yuri Bandazhevsky is an example of that. The professor had criticised the Government for suppressing information on the harmful effects of even small doses of the radiation resulting from the Chernobyl disaster. The British Government and the European Union are appalled at the harshness of the treatment received by the professor. The sentence of eight years hard labour for allegedly taking a bribe is vindictive; it was based on the testimony of one person and no material evidence was offered by the prosecution.

In the face of that oppressive regime, our Government have a good track record of supporting projects—some of which I mentioned—which promote democracy and civil society, raise awareness of human rights issues and encourage objective, independent media in Belarus. We shall continue to look for such opportunities, and we hope that the Government of Belarus will not stand in our way. If the hon. Gentleman has any other suggestions, I shall be happy to receive them.

In that regard, we are concerned about another negative development—the issue in March of presidential decree No. 8. The decree, which has brought condemnation from the British Government, in concert with the United States and our EU partners, regulates and limits the use of foreign financial assistance in Belarus. It has the potential to restrict the legitimate activities that we, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe choose to support in Belarus as a means of promoting democracy and civil society there.

The OSCE's advisory and monitoring group is doing an excellent job carrying out its mandate under increasing pressure from the Belarus authorities. It is running good projects, some of which are directly funded by the UK. The head of the OSCE advisory and monitoring group has recently come under intense criticism for his activities and has even been threatened with expulsion by the Belarusian authorities. I deplore those attacks and, needless to say, we and the EU will continue to support the tireless efforts of Ambassador Wieck and his team. We hope that the recent criticisms from Mr. Lukashenko and some of those close to him in the Government will cease.

Belarus had an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community that it was committed to taking a democratic path at last October's parliamentary elections. Regrettably, it did not seize that opportunity. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which carried out limited observation of the elections,

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concluded that they had failed to meet international democratic standards. As a result of that assessment, the EU does not recognise the legitimacy of the Belarus National Assembly.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I was also alarmed at recent newspaper reports of the existence of so-called death squads in Belarus. Our embassy in Minsk is monitoring that situation closely, and will inform us of any evidence that substantiates reports of the alleged existence and operation of such death squads.

On disappearances, Britain, together with our European Union partners, has, as the hon. Gentleman said, repeatedly called for the Belarusian authorities to investigate the disappearances of Viktor Gonchar, Deputy Chairman of the 13th Supreme Soviet; Mr. Gonchar's business associate, Anatoly Krasovsky; former Interior Minister, Yury Zakharenko; and television journalist for Russian ORT, Dmitri Zavadsky. The latest European Union declaration issued on 7 May—the second anniversary of Zakharenka's disappearance—urges the Belarusian authorities to do more to ascertain the fate of the disappeared, and it is part of the pressure that we are putting on them.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, current European Union policy towards Belarus is based on the General Affairs Council conclusions of September 1997, which were adopted in response to Belarus's poor record on constitutional matters and human rights. Those conclusions include a restriction on bilateral ministerial contact; the suspension of aid to Belarus, except for projects that directly support humanitarian causes or the democratisation process; the suspension of the ratification of the EU-Belarus partnership and co-operation agreement; and an agreement by the EU member states to oppose Belarus's accession to the Council of Europe.

The United States has a similarly restrictive policy towards Belarus. Of course, Britain and our European Union partners have no desire to isolate Belarus, but we remain very concerned about the continued dreadful human rights record, the harassment of opposition politicians and the failure of the Belarusian authorities to investigate the disappearance of several opposition sympathisers. We continue to receive reports of harassment of the independent media, with publishing houses being burgled or their printing presses impounded. We stand ready to review the General Affairs Council conclusions and to engage further with the Belarusian Administration when we see signs of steps towards democracy and respect for human rights.

In a statement made on 11 June, the European Union made it clear that the holding of free and fair elections could be the step towards modernising relations with Belarus. I underline that message in the House this evening. Full, mutual beneficial relations would be to the advantage of all the citizens of Belarus and the EU, but policy has to change for that to be possible. EU Commissioner Chris Patten's tough statement on Belarus, delivered to the European Parliament on 5 July, shows that European Commission thinking at the highest level is very much in line with ours.

The presidential elections of 9 September represent yet another opportunity for Mr. Lukashenko. It appears that he is a popular politician in his country, so I call on him to rise to the challenge of allowing democratically accountable presidential elections to take place in an environment free of intimidation, but I fear that that will

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not happen. Following its visit to Minsk from 30 June to 2 July, the OSCE parliamentary working group to Minsk reported no improvement in political conditions in Belarus at all. In fact, it seems that the reverse is true.

What does the international community want of Belarus? What do we mean by free and fair elections in that country? We want opposition candidates to have better access to the state-controlled media, coupled with objective political reporting in regular current affairs and news programming. We want the political campaign to be free of harassment, starting with the registration and signature-collecting phase that is under way at the moment. We want the electoral code to be implemented in such a way that those who have complaints against the system can seek and obtain redress. We want the voting and counting process to be transparent and reliable, and preferably to be observed by a full international observation mission under the authority of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. It is not who wins but how that person wins that concerns us. We are concerned only with the fairness and transparency of the process, not with the individuals.

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We should not overlook the pivotal role of Russia, either. As Belarus's closest ally and largest trading partner, Russia has more potential than any other country for exerting a positive influence on Belarus. I hope that Russia will seek to convince her neighbour of the need to conform with democratic norms appropriate to a member of the OSCE and to a Council of Europe aspirant. I hope, too, that the other neighbours of Belarus, including the Baltic states and Ukraine, will use their special relationship with Minsk to convey that message.

We want to deepen our bilateral relationship with Belarus. The country is too important for us to neglect. The holding of free and fair democratic presidential elections will be a first important step in allowing us to realise our aim. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman and to receiving his representations to achieve the objective that we share.

Question put and agreed to.

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