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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 April 2006

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]

9.30 am

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I am pleased to contribute to this Adjournment debate on the important country of Belarus.

Belarus, which is a country of 10 million people, was formerly part of the Soviet Union and is on the doorstep of the European Union. It abuts Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which are all former Soviet Union countries and now full and welcome members of the EU. Like Poland, Belarus has had a difficult history. It is wedged between Germany to the west and Russia to the east. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) with his expertise in military history knows only too well, sadly Belarus has seen occupying troops from west and east rampaging over its soil many times during the centuries. Its capital, Minsk, was particularly badly treated during the second world war. Unlike Poland, Belarus remains in poor shape to meet the challenges of the 21st century and a globalising world. Belarus adjoins Ukraine, which was also once a mainstay of the communist bloc, but is now a young and emerging democracy that aspires to join the EU, an aspiration that has my full support.

Unfortunately, Belarus, which is a European country, has become stuck in a negative time warp. Since 1994, it has been run by Alexander Lukashenko, who is sometimes described as the last dictator in Europe. I shall illustrate what he and the country are like. I was in Minsk just before the recent presidential elections and it was like stepping back in time. While I was there, Mr. Lukashenko spoke to a national convention in the capital for three and a half hours. His speech was punctuated with Soviet-style applause by the great and the good who were proudly displaying their medals. Every word of that speech was broadcast live by the state-owned television service, and when our meetings were over for the day we could rush back to the ambassador's residence and watch it again on an extended news broadcast. That was only a summary of the highlights, but it lasted one and a quarter hours. All that was just one week before the country went to the polls.

Since 1994 Mr. Lukashenko has systematically closed down the free press, banned most non-governmental organisations, stopped Churches meeting freely, imprisoned political opponents on trumped-up charges, outlawed street protests and filled all key positions in the Government, the judiciary and the electoral commission with his supporters. His party piece, which I did not witness, is to sack Cabinet Ministers on live television, showing firmly who is in charge. I hope that the Government here do not intend to follow that practice.
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Our excellent ambassador in Minsk, Brian Bennett, demonstrates a real commitment to the people of Belarus and is a credit to the Foreign Office. He describes Mr. Lukashenko as someone who is not yet quite a dictator but is a coming dictator. He is slowly eradicating dissent and eliminating opponents. I heard that assessment with a growing sense of foreboding. He presides over an old-fashioned, centrally planned economy that is dependent on heavily subsidised Russian gas and oil. The state-controlled media daily reinforce the message that life in Belarus is good and stable, unlike in the volatile neighbouring countries where, they say, unemployment is soaring. All public sector employment contracts are for 12 months only and if employees do not do what the president demands their contracts are not renewed. It is as simple as that. The public sector in Belarus accounts for well over 50 per cent. of its gross domestic product, so a significant number of people live their lives on 12-month contracts at the president's whim. Any student who takes part in dissident activity is banned from further study.

It is chilling that the president, who is only 52, has a growing iron grip on his fellow countrymen that is becoming tighter by the day. When he was first elected in 1994, not long after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the constitution permitted a president to stand for only two terms. He has recently cajoled the citizens of his country into voting through a change in the constitution to permit him to stand again and, I suspect, again and again. It is worth emphasising that that unacceptable form of leadership is not on the other side of the world or in some bygone era. It is happening now, today on our very doorstep.

I was in Belarus to meet Opposition party leaders in the run-up to the presidential election on 19 March. They were campaigning bravely despite constant intimidation, harassment, the risk of imprisonment and personal risk to themselves and their families. Many had been imprisoned several times and accepted that part of being in Opposition politics in Belarus is that they would spend some time in prison. That is part of political life there, rather as we think of campaigning and knocking on doors as being part of political life in this country.

I am pleased that many democracy-building organisations in the west, including America, other European countries and Britain through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, have worked for many years in Belarus to try to support and build capacity in fledgling parties and would-be politicians who struggle to usher in a new dawn of freedom and democracy in their country.

We all respect the Minister for Europe and I want to say in his hearing that much of the democracy-building work by political parties through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in many parts of the world is unseen, long term and difficult to measure, but its contribution is one of the most important that the House makes to the developing world and to many countries that have no history of democracy.

One of the good things that happened in the run-up to the election was that most of the Opposition forces agreed to form a coalition around an outstanding man, Alexander Milinkevich, who is as brave and honourable a man as anyone could wish to meet. I had a meeting
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with him for one and a half hours and left it feeling very humble and that I had been in the presence of a very special person.

One evening, I witnessed 3,000 courageous freedom fighters assembled in the centre of Minsk against the diktat of their Government and despite the best efforts of the police and the state storm-troopers who did everything in their power to deter them. I watched those brave souls march through the snow singing their songs of freedom while the riot police snaked around them. It was a truly inspirational moment that I will never forget. Mr. Milinkevich addressed the crowd and made it clear that they did not seek a revolution but simply wanted free and fair elections so that the people of Belarus could genuinely decide for themselves who should govern them.

It is not a matter for me, for this Chamber or for this country who runs Belarus. It is a matter for the people of Belarus. Our only concern lies in ensuring that they make the decision in verifiably free and fair elections. However, that is not what happened on 19 March when Mr. Lukashenko received an astonishing vote of 82.6 per cent. of popular support. We knew that it would be more than the 79 per cent. that he had predicted, but it takes some gall to suggest that 82 per cent. of the population voted for him.

Was that a genuine result? The preliminary report of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is an experienced organisation that we all greatly respect, stated:

It continued:

It goes on to talk about early voting, which is a very significant point. Whenever we talk about rigged voting—I shall come on to that point in a moment—the crucial question is how it is done. The report says that

It is not enough, it seems, for Mr. Lukashenko to brutalise all opposition forces, or for him to have sole control of all media outlets. He has gone on to ensure that voting procedures can be completely abused.

This is what happens: people who vote early can turn up at the polling booth seven days before election day. It turns out that 31 per cent. of the people voted early. That night, votes are taken away by the election officials, under no scrutiny and with no one overseeing what goes in the ballot boxes, and the boxes are put out the next day with no check made of them whatever. That is one clear possibility of abuse for 31 per cent. of the vote.
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On election day itself, when the rest of the population vote, the system of informing the world of who has voted for whom consists of one person, a member of the precinct electoral commission. Unseen by anyone else or any of the opposition forces and not checked by any independent verifiers, in a small room on his own, he fills in a piece of paper saying who voted for whom. Would we accept that in this country as a fair way of recording who voted for whom? We would not. The situation is ripe for vote rigging and I have no doubt that this vote was completely rigged by President Lukashenko of Belarus.

It was announced that the president had won 82.6 per cent. of the vote, but what has happened since? Many brave citizens took to the streets to protest in larger numbers than ever before, but, sadly, the riot police were deployed in far greater force than before and many citizens were attacked and arrested. Hundreds have been imprisoned since 20 March and many of them were imprisoned by judges appointed by Mr. Lukashenko and those loyal to him, and, of course, he is quite capable of removing any judge. Some of those prisoners have not been heard of since.

On 20 March, I took part in my first ever street demonstration, outside the embassy of Belarus in Kensington. Standing there with people from Belarus, singing "Zhive Belarus", which means "long live Belarus", and waving their former white and red national flag was a very moving moment. We were there for about two hours. It was very cold—we were extremely brave—and the police were called three times by the people inside the embassy because they were frightened of our street demonstration.

I shall read an eye-witness account of some of the action in Minsk at about the same time. One person has written of her experience of demonstrating about the presidential election results in Minsk:

That is her daughter. She continues:

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I am really sorry if there are people in the embassy of Belarus in Kensington who were scared of 30 people in suits standing peacefully on the street corner chanting a few slogans, but that is as nothing to what the Government of Belarus did to their own people who had the audacity to protest and campaign for freedom in their capital city. But the election is over, the protests, for now, are quelled and Mr Lukashenko remains in office with all the apparatus of the state to keep him there.

What is to be done? My purpose in raising this issue is to ask the Government of the United Kingdom to do all in their power to play their full part in putting the Government of Belarus under pressure to change their ways and provide for free and fair elections. I hope to hear the Government's strategy for seeking freedom for the people of Belarus. I also ask the Minister to spell out his understanding of what the European Union intends to do to keep up this pressure on this European country.

I know that there is no magic solution. No one, of course, is suggesting military intervention—let us get that out of the way right now. There is no silver bullet, but there are some things that can be done and I have three suggestions. First, the people of Belarus lack basic information about the true state of their nation, their president and the true nature of the EU and the surrounding states. In the absence of a free press, how could they get a balanced picture? Many are poor and have no access to electronic media. Could more be done, perhaps by the BBC World Service, to ensure that more broadcasts in Belarusian are transmitted to get the message across?

I understand that during the past three or four months the EU has sponsored radio transmissions into Belarus, which is a good thing. However, I was told while I was in Belarus that it is transmitted in such a way—I will not say, "Typical EU"—that hardly anyone can receive it. There is a technical problem, but I am not qualified to say what that is. Will the Minister please look into that? It is important that transmission of what is really going on in the outside world takes place and it is important that the EU takes a lead in that. Will the Minister ensure that whatever is being done is done as effectively as possible, and will he say what resources the Government are prepared to commit to getting a message of freedom to the people of Belarus?

Secondly, a key to this situation is clearly the giant of Russia, right on the eastern border of Belarus. Although I understand that President Lukashenko and President Putin do not enjoy a harmonious personal relationship, Russia is no doubt keen to see a non-democratic neighbour on its doorstep, in contrast to recent events in Ukraine and elsewhere. The economy of Belarus is kept afloat by heavily subsidised gas and oil. I do not wish the people of Belarus ill in any way, shape or form, but sometimes it can take the harsh wind of economic reality to bring a nation to its knees and to its senses. What pressure are the UK Government and the EU putting on President Putin about these subsidies and the Russian approach to Belarus generally? If the President of Russia is keen to portray himself as a democrat and world leader, is it not the case that he should be encouraged to take a more robust approach with this rogue dictator on our doorstep?
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Thirdly, are we listening to the man who has managed to unite almost all opposition forces in Belarus, namely Alexander Milinkevich? He has called for the west to be tougher and more resolute. He has called for us

He has called for "targeted repressive sanctions" against officials and judges responsible for arrests and jailing of opposition supporters, as well as the state media journalists for "deceitful" coverage of the protests. The EU currently bans visits from about six of the top officials from Belarus, and I ask the Minister whether it is time to extend that travel ban to make it bite more widely and deeply. What does he say in response to Mr.    Milinkevich's calls for targeted, repressive sanctions? Does he agree that it should be a priority for the EU to bring about change in Belarus?

What is democracy about? It is about the rule of law, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society, respect for human rights and, above all, the ability of a people to elect and remove their leaders through verifiably free and fair elections. None of those elements is present in Belarus.

The Conservative party has committed itself, through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to working alongside opposition forces in Belarus to stay the course until freedom finally comes to that European country. I appreciate that the Government and our friends in the Liberal Democrats feel just as strongly about the issue as we do. We will continue to raise our concerns about Belarus on the Floor of the House. Some people will say that this matter has nothing to do with us and that our foreign policy should be narrowly in the national interest, but it is in our national interest to help to spread freedom and democracy to all parts of the world. It is offensive to have that tinpot dictator on our doorstep.

I invite the Minister at the end of the debate to satisfy hon. Members that the Government and the EU will marshal all their resources, harness all their political will and do all that they can until the freedoms that we take for granted in this country are present also in Belarus.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Mr. Streeter, for that fair presentation of a very difficult situation.

9.51 am

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) on obtaining the debate. That is the formula that we always use on these occasions, but in this case I sincerely mean it, because the debate is both timely and important. It is timely, coming so soon after the rigged election, and it is important because, as the hon. Gentleman explained, Belarus matters both to our country and in the context of the wider Europe. It matters in a more general sense almost at a global level.

One of the simple realities is that Belarus as it exists at present cannot continue indefinitely. The future for Belarus is either a soft landing, whereby it becomes acceptable to and will receive support from the wider Europe, or an abrupt, hard landing, which is not in the interests of the people of Belarus, of the people of the
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European Union or, in the end, of the people of Russia. None of us needs instability and a political or social black hole in the heart of what is an enormous piece of territory in central and eastern Europe.

We have a national interest in Belarus. I notice that the broadcasting signs are on, but I do not suppose that millions of people are glued to this debate. However, even though the debate may be dismissed as not of immediate relevance to people in this Parliament and this country, I emphasise that it matters enormously that Britain and the wider Europe begin to get the debate about Belarus right.

A rather odd thing about Belarus is that it is a member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—the hon. Member for South-West Devon quoted from the OSCE's interim findings on the election. One of the ironies about the OSCE is that to become a member a country has only to say that it subscribes to the organisation's values and does not have to do anything to conform to them. It is interesting that Belarus wants at least that level of international approval.

Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, which makes it unique in the European family of nations. It is the one country that has not been allowed to join. Some people would say that there may be other countries whose standards are not of the highest Council of Europe order, but it is interesting that Belarus is the one country on which there has been agreement that not only does it not approach the standards of democracy and the rule of law that we would expect from a modern European state, it does not even try to approach them. That is a tragedy for the rest of Europe, although it is mainly, of course, a tragedy for the people of Belarus, because they are the ones who, in the end, become the victims of the process.

There is another oddity—I am not disagreeing with the hon. Member for South-West Devon but nuancing what he said—in that President Lukashenko almost certainly would have won a free and fair election, partly because the people of Belarus, perhaps wrongly, still see themselves as better off than many of their neighbours who have gone through the upheaval of economic and political change. I strongly suspect that Belarus has much of that to come, so it is a difficulty deferred rather than a difficulty avoided. Nevertheless, President Lukashenko would probably have won a free and fair election, although obviously with a significantly smaller majority than that which he claimed to have obtained.

Mr. Streeter : I agree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment: that was the view of most people on the ground while I was in Belarus. Does he not agree, though, that if someone feeds their citizens a regular diet of positive media reporting about themselves and negative media reporting about their opponents, that does not necessarily give a true picture—even though it sometimes happens in this country?

Tony Lloyd : I might just nuance my answer on the totality of the hon. Gentleman's comments, but what he says is right in the Belarusian context. We know that the election was stolen probably by ballot rigging, but also
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by the total suppression of proper access for alternative voices—democratic voices—to the media. The media simply were not able to perform their role in the run-up to the election. Nor is there the structure of alternative voices through non-governmental organisations and civil society that we would expect in a society such as ours, or even in a much newer democracy. Those processes simply have not been allowed to exist, and where they do exist, they have not been allowed to take root and flourish. Again, that is a tragedy for Belarus because it means that it has been denied the opportunity to examine its future in all the different ways that that would mean.

The conclusion that everyone draws is that the election was rigged. I think you were there last week, Mr. Hancock, when the Romanian chairman-in-office of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe made a strong statement on Belarus, making it clear that, across the whole European family, there was no ambiguity about the issue. There is one proviso, but the Council of Europe as a whole was of the view that the election was severely rigged. The oddity is that at the same time as the Council of Europe, the OSCE and most reputable bodies were condemning the election as rigged, the Commonwealth of Independent States concluded that the election was substantively free and fair. That is a significant shame, because it demonstrates a polarisation of views on Belarus between the European Union and those who take a similar view, and Moscow.

Our relations with Russia are of massive significance, but we have to say to the Russians that they are getting it consistently wrong about Belarus by going through a pretence that an election that was clearly flawed was free and fair. It was claimed that President Lukashenko obtained 82.6 per cent. of the vote—a ridiculous figure by almost any standard. I was almost inclined to ask the hon. Member for South-West Devon whether he could give me an accurate prediction of the result next time, as it is clear that President Lukashenko is ambitious to increase his share of the vote on each occasion. Such predictions may already exist in the presidential palace in Minsk. That cynicism, alas, is what we end up with. There is absolute cynicism about the capacity of Lukashenko to deal as an honest broker on behalf of the people of Belarus with the wider Europe and the wider world. He ends up with little credibility through this flawed or even non-electoral process.

Perhaps I should comment on another important issue that the hon. Member for South-West Devon raised: what happened after the election. There were not only protests outside the embassy in London, although I congratulate him on that. We have not only written witness accounts. Because of the wonders of the modern media, even in Belarus it was possible to see violence of a level that is simply unacceptable being meted out by the security forces and police to non-violent protesters on the streets of Minsk. I know not what happened elsewhere, but I could see on my television screen innocent people being savagely beaten by the security forces in a way that, frankly, ought to have led to criminal charges being brought against them, rather than against those innocent protesters, who were taking part in events that would pretty much be taken for granted in countries such as ours—and, indeed, throughout the entire European family. Even if such
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events had taken place in Moscow, they could not possibly have been met with the same kind of reaction by the security forces in Russia as we saw in Belarus. In that regard, Belarus is the back marker: things can take place in Minsk that would not take place in any other capital city or society in modern Europe.

What should we do? I again share the agenda of the Member who secured the debate. There is no magic wand or silver bullet; instead, there is a need for consistent pressure over time. It is easy for us all to become agitated at the time of an election, and to say, "Yes, the election was fraudulent, let's protest—and then let's gently allow this to be forgotten as we move forward." For all manner of reasons, it is necessary to ensure that we maintain an interest in the Belarusian agenda, because—returning to my initial comments—it is an important country within the European family. It is important that Britain works through the European Union. There is no unique British position on this: there must be a common EU position. We should say to our colleagues in the EU that there must be consistency, and there must be a determination to maintain that consistent approach over the weeks, months and indeed years to come.

We must examine what level and package of sanctions can be made available that does not strike against the ordinary Belarusians. It is not a rich country by any standards, although it may be better off than some of its immediate neighbours. It is a fragile society, and its people are entitled to expect better than blanket targets that damage the ordinary Belarusian. However, we are entitled to study the roles of those who run that society, and to consider how we might target sanctions against the leadership and those around it. That is absolutely legitimate—it is absolutely normal and proper.

We must also look into how we can support free media. That may be done by broadcasting from outside, although there are limitations on that: during the cold war, it was always possible to block signals coming in from the outside. I was rather interested in the concept of an EU radio-wave mountain somewhere, because transmissions are not getting across on the uniform plane in Belarus. However, it is certainly worth examining how we can support media being delivered from outside.

The most important thing is to support free institutions inside Belarus, where that is possible. I am aware that it is difficult, but we ought to try to do it. How do we support civil society, NGOs and free media?

We must also address the role of Russia. One of the big debates we must have with Moscow in the months to come is about how it sees itself in relation to that part of the world, and how it sees its relations with the EU and the rest of Europe. Frankly, the days of the Russian client states ought to be disappearing, as in the long run the alternative will not be in Russia's own interests. Not long ago, we saw how the client state that it felt it had in Ukraine disappeared and turned into something much more unpredictable, and much more difficult from Moscow's perspective. Moscow now needs to wrestle with the question of how it works with Belarus to get that soft political and social landing, and to do so in a way that allows Russia to maintain good relations with that important neighbour. If we engage with the Russians, it is possible—I do not say likely—that we could come up with a common agenda, allowing us to
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say that we share an interest in helping Belarus to move forward in a direction that is acceptable both to Moscow and the EU. I urge the Minister to look seriously at how we can do that.

In the end, the assessment must be made that Belarus is left in a much more fragile position than the election result would suggest. It is fragile because the economic and political winds will continue to blow, irrespective of whatever is done by the EU or in Moscow, and of whatever is done in the presidential palace in Minsk. Everyone has an interest in trying to move Belarus forward. If we can do that together and in a way that is consistent with the needs and interests of the people of Belarus, we will have achieved a significant victory not only for the Belarusians but for the wider Europe.

If we fail to do that, I do not predict doom and gloom—it would be ridiculous to do so—but Belarus could cause us headaches in the future, so it is worth putting in the effort to try to ensure that we get real progress. That is worth effort in London and Brussels, and it is worth effort with us all, with Moscow, in Minsk.

10.6 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) for securing this debate on what I think everyone accepts is a pressing matter for Europe. At the conclusion of his speech, he asked rhetorically whether the subject of Belarus and the situation there ought to be of concern to this House. The answer to that question is emphatically yes. There are people throughout the world who live in circumstances that we would not wish upon ourselves, and who look to the British Parliament to be a beacon of liberty and to articulate concerns and fears that they are not always able to articulate themselves. Although this debate does not have as high a profile as those attending it would wish, we are making an important contribution by making it clear that we in the United Kingdom are concerned about the state of affairs in Belarus.

In passing, I might add that it is also worth pausing to reflect on how important it is that we maintain our own standards of democracy, not least with regard to some of the new voting procedures that have been introduced, so that we can continue to uphold the highest standards, and to ensure that when we talk about other countries we are not seen to be in any way vulnerable to counter-charges from people in those countries.

To take into account a broad sweep of history, some people might think that the most memorable single day or event of the past 50 years or so was the terrible things that happened in the United States of America on 11 September 2001. We will certainly continue to witness the ongoing struggle to counter al-Qaeda and its threat to the way of life of people in the west and throughout the world. However, although there was not such a dramatic single image to illustrate it, perhaps the most significant event in international affairs during that period was the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, hundreds of millions of people who had not previously enjoyed the liberties, freedoms and values that we in this country often take for granted suddenly had exposure to them in their everyday lives. Those people might not have been able to read newspapers that were produced independently of the state, to gather or form
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organisations in the way they wished, to speak freely, or to stand in free, fair and open elections. Suddenly, such opportunities presented themselves to those people in a way that they had never done before. That was tremendously significant for the development of the world and of the values that we in this country and this Parliament hold dear. More importantly, that was tremendously significant for the people who live in those countries.

This debate is of particular interest because for many people there is a sense of unfinished business about Belarus; there is a sense that it is a throwback or hangover from an era that in many other ways has receded and passed. I am not making a party political point, but all those in this House who are keen to champion the liberal cause—I think that is pretty much all Members of this House, and of the House of Lords, for that matter—see before us an opportunity to make sure that we continue to roll out such values in Belarus.

I, for one, was heartened by the developments in Ukraine a year ago. I say that not only because I am always an enthusiast for an orange revolution—I think that many other countries would benefit from one—but because it is a country with a population of similar size to ours that was suddenly exposed to not only freedom of speech and media, but a more liberal economic situation.

I add a cautionary note: we in this House should be careful not to oversimplify the subject. I say that because when one reads media coverage about Ukraine, it appears to be a good-news story, from a British or EU perspective. We read about all those people, many of whom were brought up under a relatively repressive regime, now being exposed to the great opportunities and freedoms previously denied to them, yet when one reads those articles more deeply, or speaks to those who are knowledgeable about the country, one finds that under the surface there remains a degree of discontent.

Many people—how do I put this bluntly?—are concerned about their day-to-day living, their circumstances, and their economic well-being. That follows on from a point made by both previous speakers: the irony is that in Belarus, in other circumstances, the election result may have been less emphatic, but there would probably have been the same overall outcome. That is because for many people, particularly those in fairly dire—certainly by European standards—economic circumstances, their day-to-day concerns about pension payments and employment are perhaps of greater importance to them than some of the concepts that we have discussed, such as freedom of speech and of media. That does not mean that those concepts are not important—they are extremely important, and that is why this debate is so welcome—but we have to try to understand the motives for people voting as they do.

Even taking into account allegations of vote-rigging and a heavily skewed media, we should not assume that all people in Belarus—or, for that matter, in other countries that we are similarly concerned about—are voting in a state of ignorance. In many instances, they may be voting for what they perceive to be their self-interest, and—we should say this with a degree of humbleness—they may even be right in their assessment
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of their self-interest, at least in the short term, although I accept that in decades to come they may be proved to have made a short-sighted decision on their own behalf.

It is right that every country should be free to make decisions about its own economic policies. I, for one, think that the economic policies being pursued by the Government in Belarus are not likely to lead to a prosperous country with happy people, but, for that matter, they may think that the policies being pursued by the British Government are not likely to lead to a prosperous country with happy people. Those are decisions that we need to make in free, fair and open elections. I am cautious about lecturing the people of Belarus about which economic policies are wise for them, because that is a decision that they have to take. However, they may care to look at which countries have been most successful economically and at the policies that those countries have pursued, and they may then come to a conclusion that the policies offered by the Government in Belarus are unlikely to achieve their objective. None the less, that is their decision. Civil liberties issues are quite different; those are universal values, and we should look to promote them, even aggressively, throughout the world.

I finish with a series of questions or challenges to the Minister, and I hope that he will address them. On my first question, a day or two ago I read in the newspapers an unfavourable report about the Minister that I thought was unfair. He had been asked during a radio interview—I think on Radio 4—to describe what benefits the European Union brought the people of Britain. The report appeared to imply that the Minister had not been able to think of a sufficiently robust and impressive case for British membership of the European Union. I think that the Minister cited cheap flights as a good example of how British people directly benefited from our membership of the EU. I do not disagree with that answer, but if we are looking to make a wider point that appeals a bit more to British people's altruism, or at least not to their direct economic self-interest, Belarus is a perfect case study of how we benefit from a joined-up, collective EU approach.

There is no particular reason or need for individual countries in the European Union to take different approaches to Belarus; we share the same values and we all share our criticism of the recent election in broad terms. We speak more effectively, and in a way that is more likely to gain results, when we are a collective voice championing freedom of speech, free economics, freedom of assembly, freedom of media and all the other freedoms that are the common goals and values of the European Union.

Secondly, I would be interested to know the Minister's view on how Russia can help with the situation in Belarus; is Russia part of the problem, or part of the solution? How can we in the EU, and how can the British Government, engage Russia in seeking that solution, or at least progress in Belarus? Thirdly, in what way can the United States play a part? The United States Administration has used particularly strong language in describing Belarus. If one reads background briefings about the country, the most strongly articulated case against the president and the conduct of the recent election is in the official briefing notes from the State Department in Washington. Is there an
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opportunity for the US to offer a more practical role, rather than simply articulating its concern in particularly strident terms?

Fourthly, what can the UK Government and the EU do to bring internal liberalisation to Belarus? Earlier, we touched on whether that could involve greater access to information. Broadcasting was the example given by previous speakers, but perhaps the internet would also be a suitable way of bringing more information about the outside world to the attention of people of Belarus. Also, contacts, exchange schemes with students, and greater opportunities for people to travel would allow the residents of a country that is, in a way, sealed off from outside opinion to gain greater access to how the rest of the world sees its own Government, regime and way of life.

Finally, what assessment have the Government made about the external security concerns that arise from the current Administration in Belarus, particularly in terms of nuclear material? Although our primary concern in this debate is the well-being of the 10 million or so Belarusians, having a rogue state within Europe is also a legitimate concern of ours. What implications would that have in terms of organised crime, nuclear material, or any other threats that may project themselves beyond that country's borders?

I conclude by once again welcoming this debate, which the hon. Member for South-West Devon secured. The subject is tremendously important for liberals across the parties, across the countries of the European Union and across the world. I hope that the very fact that we are holding this debate sends a powerful message about the attitude of the British Parliament. I hope also that the British Government, in their ongoing activities—both in the EU and on their own—will continue to send that strong message in the months and years ahead.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you for that thought-provoking speech, Mr. Browne.

10.19 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) on securing this important debate. I remind the Chamber that the debate is about the progress of democracy in Belarus; we are not just discussing a sort of endgame in itself. My hon. Friend has a long track record of promoting democracy, not only for Belarus but for other countries. He is effectively the Conservative party's chairman for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which involves all the main political parties and does a tremendous amount of valuable work.

In one sense, my hon. Friend lost his political virginity by demonstrating outside the Belarusian embassy; no doubt he now has a police record. He may decide to ascertain its details under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. All who have spoken so far have warmly congratulated him on raising this subject.

I am tempted to take a historian's walk down memory lane, although I shall try to restrict myself. It strikes those of us of a certain age that 30 years ago, when I taught military history and defence studies to many generations of British officers, none of us envisaged that
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the cold war would end as it did. We used to game that out, and the gaming was always pretty bleak: either the cold war would end in Europe with a massive nuclear exchange after political instability and a clash between NATO and the Warsaw pact countries, or there would be a collapse in eastern Europe, but one that involved violence on a vast scale. That is a lesson for many pundits as they consider current crises.

We have discussed central and eastern Europe, and also the middle east, on other occasions. When doing so, we ought to bear in mind how difficult it is for countries in such regions to move from what they had to what we think they should have today—a pluralistic society, democracy and tolerance.

A number of hon. Members have touched on the history of Belarus; it is pretty awful by anybody's standards. People there have been trampled on by surrounding great powers, whether Austria-Hungary, Germany, the old imperial Russia or the Soviet Union. Belarusian relations with the Poles have been pretty insensitive at times, to say the least. Belarus lost one third of its population in the second world war, and before and after that war it suffered a series of massive purges.

If anything, I am struck not by the fact that the countries of central and eastern Europe have had major problems in adapting to the changes, but by the fact that they have adapted surprisingly well. Whatever the main problems still faced in Belarus, it is something to say that only 15 years after the end of the cold war, there is only one European country left in which there is a serious and major problem, although I do not say that there are no problems in other countries.

My final point about the history is that Chernobyl is very close to Belarus. We are commemorating the 20th    anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster; on television this morning there were depictions of the problems still faced by families hundreds of square miles around the site and of what has been happening to a new generation of children. Belarus has been dumped on from a great height by history and natural events.

I agree with those who have said that the great irony is that President Lukashenko would probably have won the election if he had carried on, as far as he could, in a normal democratic way—perhaps with a bit of the arm twisting and ballot rigging that happens in many democracies, including ours and that of the United States. The supreme irony is that he probably would still have won the election.

As far as I can see, the problem for democracy in Belarus is the apathy and indifference of the majority of the population, who have been brought up among the horrors of their history and have an ability just to survive. As my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) pointed out, Lukashenko has delivered a degree of economic stability, even if that is propped up by Russia.

The purpose of this debate is to ask the Minister questions about how the British Government can further progress on democracy. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, the Minister said that the Foreign Office was actively discussing with partners specific measures to take in response. Will he elaborate on what further measures the Government might take to bring pressure to bear on the Belarus Government? I accept that that will not be easy.
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My party welcomes the conclusions reached at the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg on 11 April this year and the European Council's decision to take restrictive measures against President Lukashenko and the Belarusian leadership. However, although it is an important first step, what real impact does the Minister believe a travel ban will have on the Belarusian regime? There is no easy option, but we have seen the limited impact of the travel ban on the regime in Zimbabwe, which in many respects carries out even more horrendous acts against its own people.

I draw the Minister's attention to human rights. Have the Government made it clear to Minsk that it will receive international respect only when it ceases violating the human rights of its citizens and recognises that the detention of individuals for politically motivated reasons is utterly incompatible with democracy? Does the Minister have available, through our Government or EU Governments, a list of individuals arrested purely for exercising what we would understand to be their democratic rights? If he has, what are we doing actively to publicise the fact that such men and women are being held under what we would regard as illegal measures?

What progress, if any, have the Belarus Government made on their obligation to co-operate fully with the Commission on Human Rights and in particular with the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus? As the special rapporteur's already extended mandate is due to expire, what are the prospects for an independent, credible and full investigation into the cases of forced disappearances and/or summary executions?

I turn to the issue of support for democracy, a strong element in the debate so far, and pushed by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon. I agree that it is important to keep the issue on our parliamentary agenda; we should not just have a debate and then forget the issue until the next elections in however many years' time. Secondly, that should be done EU-wide. The Government's White Paper on UK priorities for their 2005 presidency of the EU did not mention Belarus; in retrospect, some of us might find that somewhat surprising. I am sure that the omission did not reflect any lack of interest in the issue on the part of the Government, but future major official Foreign Office publications, particularly those that deal with European matters, should highlight Belarus next time.

However, the UK presidency issued numerous statements on behalf of Belarus. What progress has been made since then to increase contact with the Belarusian people and strengthen our support for civil society? I link the question to what my hon. Friend said. What support can we give Belarusian groups that represent democratic parties—those that visit and those domiciled in the United Kingdom? What resources can we allocate to provide opportunities to inform the population of Belarus? As the hon. Member for Manchester, Central said, it is sometimes difficult to quantify what impact that might have. Even though a large majority of the people in Belarus do not have the opportunities that we have through the internet or even through television, the
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fact that things are being beamed to them will get the attention of quite a significant minority of the Belarusian electorate.

In the light of the deteriorating situation in Belarus, do the Government still consider that their decision to close the British Council in Minsk in November 2002 was appropriate? Following the elections, what concrete actions will now be taken to bolster the freedoms of assembly, association and expression in Belarus?

Finally, I shall discuss two of the neighbours of Belarus. Poland has a great interest in what goes on there because of the large ethnic Polish population that is involved. I recognise that persuading the Poles to intervene politically to influence events in Belarus could be regarded as counter-productive. Nevertheless, they have a direct interest. Poland is a fine example of a country that has moved from the horrors of occupation and totalitarian communism to an open democracy. We should use as much influence as we can to persuade the Poles to do what they can in a practical and constructive way to influence events in Belarus.

Russia is obviously the key to persuading the current president of Belarus at least to moderate his policies. We are in a quandary because we currently wish to persuade the Russians to moderate the policies of a large number of countries, not least those of Iran. However, I hope that we will continue, in a drip-drip manner, like water on a stone, to persuade them that, as the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) said, the continuation of the current regime in Belarus is not in their long-term interests. It would not be to Russia's disadvantage if there were eventually free and open elections in Belarus.

As Churchill said, democracy is in many respects a bad form of government, but the alternatives are far worse. We sometimes have to live with the election—in pretty broad democratic terms—to office of parties that we do not like and that we regard, to a certain extent, as a threat to regional security at least. Such a situation has occurred in Palestine with the election of Hamas. We have not reached that stage in Belarus, where the progress of democracy will involve a long struggle over the next few years. The raising of this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon is a small way of publicising to the President of Belarus that the United Kingdom does not accept what he is doing. We hope that raising this debate gives comfort and aid to those brave men and women who wish for Belarus to have the open democracy that we are lucky enough to have in the United Kingdom.

10.34 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander) : I welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) has given the House to discuss Belarus. As other hon. Members have done, I acknowledge and welcome his personal commitment to    democracy promotion generally, particularly his important work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. We are grateful for the important efforts of all parties in taking forward its work. I also thank him for his generous words about Britain's ambassador in Minsk. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also proud of his work, and I will ensure that a copy of the remarks made is relayed to him at the Minsk embassy.

Today's wide-ranging debate does great credit to the House. It is based on the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd),
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who spoke wisely about the need for consistent pressure on the Belarus regime, and on the insights and historical perspective given by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne). He had my sympathy until he urged all parties to embrace the liberal cause. Knowing, as I do, the Foreign Secretary's clear views on liberal democracy, I do not relish return to King Charles street this morning and casually mentioning that in the course of an Adjournment debate I had embraced such a cause.

The hon. Member for Taunton asked a specific question about an interview that I undertook while, it appears, he was enjoying the sun during the recess last week. For clarification, I was asked to list five specific benefits for an individual British citizen. In the course of doing so, I mentioned that the operation of the single market had allowed for cheap flights, which the hon. Gentleman has perhaps enjoyed during the past few days.

I went on to say that those were individual benefits to individual citizens, but one must also recognise that the European Union has been hugely successful during the past 50 years in establishing peace, stability and democracy across the European continent. I hope that there would be agreement in all parts of the House that those are hugely important gains, which the EU has played a role in securing. I am thinking in particular about the transformation of central and eastern Europe to liberal democracies in recent years, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. By any measure, that is an historic achievement that will be judged hugely important and successful.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) gave us a lower-key historical tour d'horizon than he tempted us with at the outset of his remarks. The Army's loss has clearly been Parliament's gain in terms of the historical perspectives that he brought to bear. He made several important observations about the historical context in which we debate Belarus today. I will endeavour to answer the specific questions that he put to me.

The backdrop to this debate is that Belarus briefly hit the international headlines last month following presidential elections that yet again delivered a win for Lukashenko, with, as we have heard, an implausible 83 per cent. of the vote. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe election monitors declared the elections flawed and undemocratic. As a result, Belarus has been the subject of considerable debate within the EU, and sanctions are being imposed to apply pressure to Lukashenko's regime.

As hon. Members have said, it is all too easy to forget the daily struggle of the people of Belarus when the story slips from our headlines. It is critical that we maintain our support for the vast majority of the Belarusian people who will continue to fight for democracy, despite the risk involved, when the election monitors have gone. It is crucial that we maintain the pressure on Lukashenko to change his approach and recognise the democratic wishes of his people. I therefore greatly welcome the contribution that this debate has made to increasing the profile of the problems facing Belarus, and I sincerely hope that there will continue to be debates in this House on the subject.

I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for South-West Devon. We do not support individual candidates or individual parties, because it is for the people of
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Belarus to choose their future and their future leadership. I, too, have had the opportunity to meet Mr. Milinkevich and to hear directly from him about his desire for a genuinely democratic state and about the struggles that opposition politicians have faced. Speaking, as we do, from the relative comfort and safety of Westminster, as democratic politicians in a longstanding, settled democracy, hearing of such struggles for democratic rights is humbling, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Belarus is an anachronism. It is a European country lying on the borders of the European Union. It claims to be at the heart of Europe politically and economically, but the policies of its leadership prevent its developing into that role. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in a debate after the European Council,

There is indeed no place for dictatorship in modern Europe.

Over recent years, the political and human rights situation in Belarus has worsened as Lukashenko has sought to isolate the regime and its people. In answer to the specific question put to me by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, we have no comprehensive list of the disappeared. The European heads of mission have been trying to ascertain how many people have been arrested over the past few weeks, but have been able to establish only that about 800 people have been arrested. Opposition figures have been arrested, beaten and imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and the European humanities university has been closed. It was the only independent university in Belarus before it was closed because of its promotion of diverse ideas and vigorous debate, and its refusal to promote state ideology. There has been harassment of political parties, a restrictive law on non-governmental organisations, the closure of independent newspapers, new limits on freedom of worship and a new anti-revolution law designed to muzzle any form of dissent.

United Kingdom and European Union policy towards Belarus has been and will continue to be a two-pronged approach. First, we are applying restrictive measures against those who are responsible for the serious deterioration in the human rights situation in Belarus to encourage them to change their ways. Secondly, we will reach out further to the Belarusian people through support for civil society, NGOs and independent media. We will not forget the Belarusian people and their attempt to make their voices heard in a flawed election and in the subsequent demonstrations against a result that they felt was rigged.

In a statement on 20 March, I expressed the Government's deep regret about the way in which the Belarusian authorities had held the elections. I commented again on 24 March in reaction to the violent breaking up of an opposition rally. EU declarations have also detailed our strong concern about the regime's actions in suppressing legitimate democratic expression.

Depressing as the events of last month were, there is some cause for hope. The election showed that there are people in Belarus who are ready to unite in the fight for democratic values. They showed extraordinary bravery in standing up for the right to vote freely, as we heard in the testimony read to us today, and a determination to change Belarus for the better.
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Lukashenko blames such activity on external interference, but, in doing so, he misreads and demeans his own people. The people of Belarus expect honesty and accountability from their Government, and they expect to choose who governs them. No Government who ignore that can be sustainable in the long term.

Before I discuss the EU's response to the elections, I shall briefly review the history of its approach to Belarus. EU relations with Belarus stalled in 1997 as a consequence of serious setbacks in the development of democracy and human rights in that country. A particular trigger was the replacement of the democratically elected Parliament with a National Assembly nominated by the President in clear violation of the constitution.

The EU immediately froze talks on concluding the partnership and co-operation agreement with Belarus, and restricted ministerial contacts. At the same time, the EU established clear political benchmarks on democracy and human rights which, if met, would lead to improved relations. However, Lukashenko has made no attempt to improve the situation.

Under the UK's presidency last year, the EU laid down a clear marker that it expected the forthcoming presidential elections to be free and fair, and that it was prepared to take further appropriate restrictive measures if they were not. The EU's concerns mounted throughout the election campaign. During the demonstrations that followed the 19 March election, approximately 800 political activists were detained, some without charge, for up to 15 days. One of the leaders of the Opposition and an ex-presidential candidate, Alexander Kozulin, remains in prison charged with organising group actions to disturb the public peace. He faces up to six years in prison.

As a result, at the 10 April EU General Affairs and External Relations Council, Ministers agreed to impose travel bans on 31 individuals deemed responsible for the fraudulent election, the violations of international human rights law, and the crackdown on civil society and democratic opposition. The travel ban includes Lukashenko. Ministers also stated their readiness to consider further restrictive measures. They condemned the treatment of political detainees, urged the regime to allow freedom of expression and assembly, and reiterated the EU's commitment to Belarusian civil society.

Members have asked about the BBC World Service and the action that is being taken by the EU to support free broadcasting in Belarus. Let me first set out the position on the World Service. It broadcasts in Belarus in the Russian, Ukrainian and English languages via its shortwave transmitters. A key issue facing the World Service in Belarus is the practicality of reaching its audience. Shortwave transmission is not as audible in some regions as FM transmissions, which are broadcast locally and produce a strong signal. Ideally, the World Service would like to work with FM partners to deliver its product in Belarus, but the media market is tightly controlled and regulated. Given the current political situation, there is no possibility of the World Service or any other western broadcaster getting air time on an existing FM frequency or hiring a new frequency within
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the country. Therefore, the World Service offering remains shortwave only in a market that is largely FM-dominated. We are aware of no jamming issues.

On several occasions in recent years, the World Service has examined the possibility of special programming for Belarus. The problem that I have just set out surrounding delivery of the product into the region remains the key stumbling block. The World Service product is available on-line, but, again, access in Belarus is difficult, as home internet usage is low. On-line facilities are mostly available in work places or in public internet cafes.

Following pressure from EU member states, not least the United Kingdom, the Commission launched a second media project at the start of this calendar year. The project is for two years and will cost approximately €2 million. It comprises TV and radio broadcasts from Poland, Lithuania and Germany into Belarus. It also provides funding for internet print media and training of journalists. The radio broadcasts started in February on various frequencies. However, as I said, the media market is tightly controlled, and the EU project faces challenges that are similar to those faced by the World Service because of the current political situation. I hope that the British Government's strong support of the Commission's efforts gives some comfort to the hon. Member for South-West Devon that we will continue to take an interest in the matter, notwithstanding the hurdles that we face in ensuring that the messages are heard by a wide section of the Belarusian population.

Support for the Belarusian population and for civil society is, of course, fundamental to our approach. While holding the regime to account, we must also reach out to the Belarusian people and help them in their struggle for democracy. The UK actively uses bilateral programme funds to support civil society, particularly in the areas of human rights, independent media, good governance, and youth participation in events that are designed to increase awareness of democratic principles.

We are working with EU partners to consider further steps to increase the EU's contact with the Belarusian people and to strengthen support for civil society, including technical assistance and the opening of an EU office in Minsk. To provide practical support, the EU has transferred €2 million from its TACIS programme to the European initiative for democracy and human rights and decentralised co-operation programmes.

However, we must make it easier to get assistance to NGOs and independent media that work on human rights, good governance, democracy and freedom of expression, and which face constant pressure from the Lukashenko regime. We are investigating with our partners the means of developing more flexible EU funding mechanisms to allow us to increase our direct engagement.

As the hon. Member for Taunton said, it is not only EU partners who remain focused on the current deplorable situation in Belarus. The United States also takes a close interest. President Bush has repeatedly indicated his personal concern for the people of Belarus and has pledged

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US policy closely follows that of the EU: the US demands the same improvements in Belarus before building closer relationships, and the US and the EU co-sponsored last year's UN Commission on Human Rights resolution on Belarus. I assure Members that the EU and the US closely co-ordinated their response to the 19 March presidential election.

The new Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, said in a statement immediately following the presidential elections that he was

The UK and the EU will continue to work closely with the US, Canada and others to co-ordinate and unite our approach for future support of civil society and the people of Belarus.

I shall write separately to the hon. Member for Taunton on the nuclear issue that he raised, and ensure that a copy of my response is placed in the Library. Belarus has no nuclear power stations, and all nuclear weapons were withdrawn by Russia in the early to mid-1990s when Belarus joined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Chernobyl is in Ukraine, but, as we heard earlier, Belarus got much of the fallout as a consequence of that terrible disaster.

In bringing my remarks to a conclusion, I shall focus on a couple of further points, in particular the issue of Russia, which was central to the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk.

I applaud the commitment of the hon. Member for South-West Devon, who continues to put Belarus on the public agenda. In turn, I assure him that the Government are committed to supporting the Belarusian people in their efforts to build a lasting democracy. We cannot and will not ignore those who seek to suppress their efforts.

As a number of colleagues have said during the debate, there is no magic wand, nor any easy and immediate solution. Therefore, I turn to the issue of engagement with Russia. When I visited Moscow at the beginning of March, I raised the issue of Belarus and, in particular, the issue of pricing parity and greater transparency in energy pricing. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue of Belarus with its largest neighbour, Russia, following the elections that took place last month.

The United Kingdom and Europe uses every available opportunity to raise Belarus when appropriate with Russia. The European Union troika met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin on 12 April to set out the EU's concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation, and to explain the decisions taken by Ministers at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 10 April. We continually stress to the Russians the shared objective that we have—including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—of encouraging Belarus to meet its international commitments to democracy and human rights. I can assure the House that we will continue to outline to our Russian counterparts our concerns about the deteriorating situation in Belarus.

Tony Lloyd : It is right and proper to urge Russia to share our view about the absence of acceptable legal
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norms and democratic standards. Although it is difficult for Russia to see this, is not the central point, however, that it is not in Russia's own interest to have a failing state on its own borders? A Belarus that lapses into criminality, corruption and gangsterism is not a healthy neighbour for Russia any more than it is for the European Union.

Mr. Alexander : I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend's intervention. His sentiments are similar to the points that I communicated when in Moscow. All of us are concerned about one of the principal challenges that we face in the 21st century, which is failing states. If states fall into criminality and end up with the status of failed state, they create problems not only for their immediate neighbour, Russia in this case, but for the region generally. That is why today's debate is of such importance to us.

I also made the point when I was in Russia about the reputational damage that I believe was caused in the minds of many western Europeans by the reporting of the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute at the beginning of the year. If Russia were to make it clear that there is a level playing field and a commercial approach to gas supplies, it would contribute significantly to setting right some of the perceptions that took hold at the beginning of the year about the commercial treatment of Ukraine on the one hand and Belarus on the other.

I share with the hon. Member for South-West Devon no ill will whatever towards the people of Belarus. However, when the Russians tell the British Government that they wish to see a more commercial approach to the provision of gas supplies generally, it should necessarily and appropriately include Belarus in the same way in which it includes Ukraine and other countries. There will be a strong focus on those issues, not least with the spotlight falling on Russia ahead of the G8 summit taking place at St. Petersburg in July.

There is a real opportunity in the months between now and July to continue to impress on the Russian authorities not only the importance of their conduct in relation to democratic standards within their own borders but the importance of the messages that they send out through their comments about Belarus and other neighbours.

We shall continue to impress those points on the Russians. We shall try to persuade them that it is in all our interests to have a democratic, prosperous and stable Belarus. The future of democracy within Belarus rests on a credible political alternative to Lukashenko's dictatorship. We will continue to support that ambition.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I was hoping the Minister could have spun the debate for another couple of minutes, because we now have to suspend the sitting. I should like to thank all Members for their contributions. It has been a thoughtful and interesting debate. Congratulations to the hon. Gentleman who secured it, the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), and to the Minister on the way in which he replied.

10.54 am

Sitting suspended.

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