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16 July 2008 : Column 98WH—continued

I welcome the recent invitation from the Belarus Government to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to observe the elections. I hope that the OSCE will be given unfettered access to as
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many polling districts as it requests, that sufficient numbers of observers will be granted visas, and that they will be issued in plenty of time for the OSCE advance teams to prepare and set up. The invitation to OSCE is a positive first step on a multi-step stairway—a “process”. The Government of President Lukashenko probably have more to gain from free and fair elections than possibly anyone else who would hold office or seek to be seated in Parliament. The European Commission’s European neighbourhood policy shadow action plan is just one manifestation of the potential benefits of closer ties with the EU.

Democratic elections are not about discrediting Governments, they are about legitimising them. Differences of opinion should not be used as some form of diplomatic brinkmanship but seen for what they are—differences of opinion. That is why Minsk, London, Bonn, Vienna and Brussels should enter into dialogue, recognising each other’s sovereignty, and undertake discussions with mutual respect. Then, I hope, they will move towards mutually beneficial co-operation. At the same time, commentators on Belarus need to understand that there are no shortcuts to democracy and that tokenism can never replace proper accountability and representative democracy. The parliamentary elections must be free and fair.

I do not wish to spend the whole debate on the parliamentary elections alone, although they are important. I wish to touch on media freedoms, which are linked to the elections. It is disappointing for all Belarus-watchers, and a retrograde step, that the Belarus Government recently tightened media freedoms, including the use of the internet, by introducing a new law on the mass media.

It is not acceptable that journalists and internet editors are being fined and harassed and having their technical equipment confiscated. Internet sites such as are not enemies of the Belarusian state—that is a laughable idea. That site is run by Belarusians for Belarusians, and all love their country to a man and woman. I do not subscribe to the view expressed by some that parts of Belarus lack self-confidence or aspiration. Those attributes are imbued in the Belarusian psyche. Freedom of the press is not an optional democratic bolt-on but a key and fundamental freedom.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, and whoever is in outright control in a future Parliament, or perhaps in coalition, it is important that Belarus improves its human rights record. It is an international embarrassment that Belarus, at the heart of Europe, is still holding political prisoners in its jails. Those prisoners need to be released.

I recognise that there has been some progress on political prisoners. This February, five internationally recognised prisoners were released from prison, and the court case against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee was rightly suspended. Those were positive steps and could lead the way to the normalisation of EU-Belarus relations, but more needs to be done. I hope that all remaining political prisoners will be released before the September elections.

The strength of a nation is not counted by the number of political prisoners whom it detains. Belarus must recognise the fundamental freedoms that are enshrined not only in British and European laws and Parliaments but in the hearts of men and women around the world.
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Those universal freedoms are the desire of all men and women, wherever they live—the freedom to choose their own Government and express their voice in an unencumbered way, the freedom of religion and expression, and the freedom to have members of Parliament chosen by the people, for the people, not by diktat. Those are not just western freedoms, they are Belarusian freedoms as well.

Freedom is not a sign of weakness but, I submit, a sign of strength. Belarus knows a lot about freedom and its high cost. Many will know of the Bielski brothers, the brave partisans who fought the German army victoriously. They started off with just three or four people and escaped to the woods, then formed a large group of more than 1,000 partisans, who did a great deal of damage to the Nazis. There is a forthcoming film about the Bielski brothers, called “Defiance”, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski. I hope that it will shed some light on the suffering of not just the Jewish population, which suffered greatly, but Belarus as a whole.

When I last visited Belarus, the whole nation was celebrating the defeat of the Nazis, who wreaked widespread havoc, pain and destruction, destroying two thirds of Minsk and other parts of the country. The people of Belarus never gave up. They continued to believe in a day when people would be able to speak openly and freely without fear of being rounded up, detained and thrown into prison. They rightly dreamed of a day when they would be able to express themselves freely and openly. The story of the Jerusalem in the forest is a remarkable and exceptional one of human triumph over great suffering.

Similarly, I hope that the persecution of faith groups in Belarus, particularly the Christian Church, will end. Most people thought that the persecution of religious groups had been left behind in the 1930s and 1940s, and it is perhaps one of the worst excesses of overly sensitive Governments around the world. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches need to ensure that when they witness or hear of the persecution of other faith groups, or of smaller Christian denominations and Churches, they do not walk by on the other side. They must make formal protests and speak out for the persecuted and imprisoned and those who have trumped-up charges brought against them and are prosecuted falsely. Non-governmental organisations should also be free to go about their important work.

I know that the Government of President Lukashenko are aware of their responsibilities under the international covenant on civil and political rights, and I look forward to hearing that progress has been made on the issues that I have mentioned in the weeks leading up to the elections. I hope that those elections are free and fair and not characterised by intimidation and fraud; that in the weeks leading up to September, there will not be a crackdown on civil society, NGOs and religious groups; that there will not be registration problems for other candidates and parties; that opposition parties will be able to print campaign materials and campaign openly; and that political websites will not be closed down.

I have a question for President Lukashenko. Does he want history to remember him as the leader who brought Belarus into a new era of economic prosperity and self-confidence, or does he want to be consigned to the long list of history’s leaders who have put self before
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country? I believe that he knows history and the importance of legacy, and therefore I, like many others, am waiting to see whether he will do what we all hope—lead Belarus into a bright future.

As I said earlier, the elections in Belarus are about process, not outcome. I hope that that process will not be rigged and that it will be free and fair. Within 12 weeks, we will all find out whether that has been the case.

2.49 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing and introducing the debate. I know that he has raised the matter in business questions, but it is important for us to discuss it before the recess in the light of recent and forthcoming events in Belarus. The hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in political affairs in eastern Europe and Russia, and I commend him on his work as chairman of the all-party group on Russia; he introduced me to the Russian ambassador last month, which was a very interesting meeting.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s condemnation of the recent distressing bomb attacks in Minsk. The reasons behind them have not been discovered. I share his fear and trepidation about the way in which the Belarusian authorities might go about conducting investigations and what the results might be, given their appalling human rights record in dealing with law and order.

In the 18 years that Alexander Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus, it has become clear that the country is the last place in Europe ruled by a dictator. The US has described it as an “outpost of tyranny”. Belarus was relatively prosperous when it was part of the USSR. Unfortunately, it has been in steep decline since the end of the Soviet Union. It is important for us to remember that the Belarusian people have been the victims of the tyranny of Lukashenko’s regime, which has cracked down on dissidents and managed the country in an incredibly poor way. The economy is crumbling. As has been said, Belarus is looking towards the past rather than the future.

The regime has been characterised by many human rights abuses, particularly with regard to the treatment of political opposition and dissidents. All the institutions have been subverted to the will of the President. Worryingly, over the past couple of months, even more rigid legislation has been passed to put a muzzle on the country’s independent media. That is a hallmark of a state that wants to oppress its people. As a result of its human rights abuses, Belarus finds itself increasingly isolated in the international community and increasingly dependent on its relations with Russia. We must make the point that it is vital that relations with the EU are put on a better footing. I will ask the Minister about the twin-track strategy later.

I will focus on three main areas: democracy and human rights in Belarus, its relations with the EU and its relations with Russia. Before I move on to those topics, I will share a related point. Belarus is not very familiar to people in the UK. However, there are more links than are obvious at first glance. When I mentioned to my PA, Julie, that I would be speaking in a debate on
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Belarus, she told me that when she was growing up, two sisters had stayed with her family for six months under one of the many programmes that encourage children from Belarus to come to the UK to improve their health, which was affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Such programmes have been run by a variety of charities such as Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline and Chernobyl Children’s Project UK. About 4,000 children come to the UK each year for recuperative holidays, which have been proven to have a huge positive impact on their health. It is estimated that a stay of just a few weeks can extend life expectancy by as much as two years. There are, therefore, more links than are obvious.

In an Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) in February, he raised the problems faced by such children in getting visas to come to this country as a result of the introduction of biometric passports. Some people had to make a 10-hour round trip to Minsk to obtain their visas. For children in a very ill state, that was a great barrier to being able to go on a holiday that would improve their health. The Minister for Europe, said on that occasion:

The Minister has done that and is to be commended, but I urge the Minister for the Middle East to raise the issue with the Minister for Europe because not all the problems that were identified have yet been resolved. It would be useful if the matter could be pursued.

The catalogue of human rights abuses in Belarus is well documented, as I have said. The political oppression and the treatment of the media are abhorrent to free and democratic societies such as ours. The Government are right to express their disgust at the human rights abuses through various EU and UN channels. I urge them to put further pressure on the regime in Belarus where possible, which I know they are keen to do. That must involve pressure to release political prisoners, to investigate the disappearance of political opponents and to hold free and fair elections. Restrictions on the country’s media must be lifted. I welcome the Government’s statements and actions on these matters to date, but I press the Minister to say what further action the Government will consider to get the message through to Belarus. What further pressure can we bring to bear so that the regime will understand that its abuses of human rights are unacceptable?

It would be interesting to know how many political opponents of the Belarusian regime have been given asylum in the UK over recent years and if any have applied for asylum and been refused. If the Minister does not have the figures here, perhaps he could write to hon. Members present.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin mentioned the forthcoming elections. There was no international monitoring of last year’s local elections. If we are to have confidence that the elections are free and fair, it is vital that international monitors are granted access. Does the Minister expect there to be monitoring of the forthcoming elections or are there still significant obstacles to that?

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The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): There will be election monitors, some of whom will be British. I understand that the Belarusian Government have agreed to that.

Jo Swinson: That is welcome news indeed. Perhaps it is another sign of the slight thawing of relations that has been noticed recently between Belarus and EU countries. I hope it will provide a glimmer of hope for the future.

On the media, it filled me with dismay to read that in 2005 the state-owned monopoly printers terminated the contract of the last remaining independent newspaper, and that just last month new laws were introduced requiring all websites in Belarus to be registered with the Government. Journalists can be subject to tough penalties, such as being put in prison for two years, if they reproduce foreign media reports that discredit Belarus. That is unacceptable, as is the persecution of religious groups that we have heard about, particularly the appalling treatment of Christians. Those things must be roundly condemned.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made a useful intervention to point out the important role of organisations such as Amnesty International. I declare an interest as a member of that group. That such organisations can get into countries such as Belarus and report accurately on what is happening is vital for those of us in the international community who want to put pressure on such regimes. I commend and applaud the work of such organisations. I urge hon. Members from all parties to take an interest in the reports that they produce.

The EU has adopted a twin-track approach in its relations with Belarus. High-level contact has been suspended, but the door has been left open so that if reforms take place there can be greater co-operation. Sanctions have been imposed, lifted, and imposed again. With the recent crackdown on political opponents and the introduction of restrictive legislation, it is right that sanctions have been put in place. Does the Minister think that the current strategy is working or are there alternative strategies that could be used? How effective does he think the sanctions are? I note that the answer to a parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) in November 2007 stated that no Belarusian assets were frozen in the UK in line with the EU sanctions. Has the position changed since then or is it still the case that no such assets fall into that category?

I am particularly interested in the perceived thawing of relations signalled by the setting up of a European Commission office in Minsk and the acceptance of election monitors for the forthcoming elections. Is there hope that this warming of relations could become more permanent? What should Europe’s response be to ensure that happens as we walk the line between wanting to encourage reform while not condoning the human rights abuses in Belarus?

I turn to relations between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenko’s primary foreign policy objective has been good relations with Russia, but clearly they came under considerable stress during the Putin presidency, particularly owing to the many disputes over gas and oil supplies and their impact on the Belarusian economy. Will the Minister tell us what talks the UK or EU are having
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with Belarus to avoid future disruption to energy supplies owing to pipeline disputes? Obviously, with the increasing dependence on other parts of the world for energy supplies, Belarus and Ukraine are in pivotal positions as major transit routes for oil and gas supplies. Does he think that a greater number of pipeline routes would decrease the likelihood and seriousness of any future disputes, and will the Government actively pursue alternative supply routes? Can he provide us with further information about the Government’s actions in that area?

Interest in the thawing relations with the EU is counterbalanced by a look through the history of Russian relations. At one point Russia said that Belarus should be part of the Russian Federation, but at other times suggested that the two countries could be joined together in a united state. At what stage is that proposal, and does the Minister believe that the warmer overtures to the EU represent a policy shift by Lukashenko and a move away from the idea floated of a united Belarusian and Russian state?

On that note, we are fortunate enough to have more time than usual for the Minister to reply to the debate, following the contribution from the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), and I look forward to his response.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): There might be plenty of time, although I do not think that the Minister wants to fill it, but we will wait and see with interest.

3.2 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this important debate and on enriching it with some of his own personal experiences in dealing with this important European country.

As we have heard, Belarus’s history reflects much of that of central and eastern Europe, as it has variously been part of the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Russian and Soviet empires, before eventually attaining independence in 1991. As we also heard, it did not escape the ravages of the 20th century, having been fought over by Poland, the Soviets and Nazi Germany. In fact it has the dubious distinction in the second world war of being attacked by both the Soviets, under Stalin’s agreement with Hitler to divide Poland, and then by Hitler’s Nazis, so Belarus was fought over more than once during that great world conflagration. The appalling destruction and murder that resulted meant that the country lost more than a quarter of its population, including many members of its Polish and Jewish minorities.

Unfortunately, the end of the second world war was not the end of the suffering of the Belarusian people. Stalin launched a period of Russification, and then Sovietisation, of which Nikita Khrushchev declared:

As well as the inefficiencies of the Soviet economy, one of the last legacies that the Soviet Union bequeathed to Belarus was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which affects much of the southern part of the country to this day. Given its 20th century history, it was hoped that
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Belarus could enjoy the outbreak of freedom and prosperity enjoyed by so much of central and eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin wall. However, Belarus, under President Lukashenko, seems to swim stubbornly against the tide of history, and has been described by President George W. Bush’s Administration as the “last dictatorship in Europe”.

President Lukashenko, who has been President of Belarus for most of its history since independence, is an autocrat presiding over one of the only countries in Europe that the non-governmental organisation, Freedom House, still categorises as “not free”. The last presidential election, in 2006, was described by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe as having

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