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16 July 2008 : Column 105WH—continued

With regards to elections, the media and human rights, Belarus unfortunately shows many of the hallmarks of a dictatorship. I am sure that the Minister will agree that Belarus’s behaviour is even more surprising, given that many of its neighbours have had immense success modernising their economies and political systems, with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland becoming relatively prosperous members of the EU, and Ukraine progressing to becoming a partner country and, in time, a full member.

Something that clearly marks Belarus out as a dictatorship is its treatment of the media. President Lukashenko has even boasted that his Government use “serious pressure” to control the media and that he is in charge of this process. Unfortunately, such media control has continued in the run-up to the parliamentary elections which, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin pointed out, are scheduled for September 2008. He also mentioned that the Belarusian Government recently introduced a new media law that will restrict the internet and foreign broadcasters and further cut Belarus off from the outside world and objective news. In the absence of an impartial media, Lukashenko has tended to shore up his internal position by focusing on “the enemy abroad”. He complains about Polish and Lithuanian NATO bases near the Belarusian borders, and publicly urges his army to step up preparations for potential conflict. He has even raised the spectre of the Russian mafia to scare people domestically into supporting a strong state. As a result, Belarus has been listed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the 10 worst countries in which to be a journalist.

It is unfortunate, too, that over the years, a number of Opposition leaders have been imprisoned or have simply disappeared. The most high-profile leader is Alexander Kozulin, who is serving a five-year jail sentence for taking part in a pro-democracy demonstration after the most recent elections. Consequently, the recent explosion on 4 July at a celebration of Belarusian independence, at which President Lukashenko was present, could be an ominous development. The first signs are not encouraging: Radio Free Europe was reporting only yesterday that the Belarusian authorities were using the attack as a pretext to detain pro-democracy protesters and that a demonstration in Minsk asking for their release was broken up by police after violent scenes.

What should be our response to Belarus? It is undoubtedly in our interests to try to foster a more open and democratic Belarus, but that leaves a classic
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dilemma, with which the Minister will be familiar from his dealings in the middle east, of whether it is better to engage further with Belarus in the hope that by doing so we will produce an environment where Belarus can see the benefits that would flow from a normalisation of relations, although we risk sending a signal to the Belarusian regime that we approve of its behaviour. Alternatively, we could introduce increased measures, sending a clear message to the regime, but at the cost of making the people of Belarus pay for their Government’s actions.

The pragmatic solution to that dilemma is to implement actions that specifically target the regime, rather than the ordinary populace. That should take the form of travel bans and asset freezes for members of the regime, as well as giving moral and material support to the political opposition, who are trying to promote democracy in the country. To this end, we support the EU’s action, agreed in 2005, to target an extra 31 members of the Lukashenko regime identified as responsible for the flawed elections with asset freezes and travel bans. We also support the continued freeze on the implementation of the partnership and co-operation agreements between the EU and Belarus.

We believe that targeted action should be continued in the run-up to the next elections, to send a message to President Lukashenko that relations can improve only if elections are free and fair. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin stressed the need for free and fair elections, and we concur with that view. I would be interested to know whether Ministers have any further proposals for additional action that could be taken in an attempt to send that message to President Lukashenko in a way that he might understand. Because of the Belarusian Government’s behaviour, the political opposition are at a severe disadvantage. To support the political process in Belarus it is desirable to give support to political parties and civil society, such as those, for instance, who are grouped under the heading of the united democratic forces, to encourage them to continue to argue for the development of democracy and true plurality in their country.

Another method by which we can encourage Belarus to engage with the outside world is to set out the benefits of such engagement. An open and democratic Belarus already has the assurance of a better relationship with the European Union, based on the European neighbourhood policy, which is intended to promote further economic integration to improve the lot of countries bordering the EU. Belarus borders three EU states, and Ukraine has already applied to join the EU. Belarusians have seen the economic progress of the Baltic states, made possible, for instance, by access to the single market. A democratic and open Belarus would be likely to have the support of its neighbouring states for beginning a process of further integration into the European Union, which would arguably benefit Belarus as a whole. The EU could also help Belarus in the provision and sharing of technology to improve the environment. That would be particularly relevant, given the large-scale environmental degradation in the south resulting from Chernobyl fallout.

To conclude, Belarus suffered enormously in the 20th century. While many of its neighbours took advantage of their independence to build up their economies and political institutions, Belarus stubbornly remained a
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dictatorship, starved of freedom and investment. Belarus has a clear choice. It can move towards engagement with the outside world, attract investment and improve the lot of its people, or it can remain an isolated outpost of authoritarian rule. We in the UK, with our partners in the EU, need to help the Belarusian people by targeting sanctions on the Belarusian regime, and supporting the development of civil society in that country. To that end, we support the measures that are already in place under the auspices of the European Union.

If Belarusians were given the opportunity to engage with the outside world, the benefits for them would be huge. They could have greater access to EU markets and easier travel, and they could begin a process that could, in time, lead to eventual EU membership. We need to help the Belarusian people to make a genuine choice. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what help, if any, we are giving to Belarusian civil society in the run-up to the elections, and what measures we are targeting on the regime to make it clear that failure to move towards an open and democratic society carries penalties, whereas reform brings with it signal advantages that would be in the interest of all the people of Belarus.

3.13 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing the debate and giving us the opportunity to examine a country that is deeply troubled but which lies, as he pointed out, close to the geographical heart of Europe, on the threshold of the European Union.

I want to express support and sympathy to those Belarusians who were injured in the explosion at the independence day concert in Minsk on 3 July, or perhaps, as the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) said, it was on 4 July. I am not quite sure which day it happened. The actions of the terrorists who planted a bomb and destroyed what was supposed to be a celebration are murderous and deplorable. I urge the Belarusian Government not to use the investigation as a political tool. We know, for example, that 16 members of opposition parties have already been detained. Interrogations and the searching of apartments of democratic activists go on, and that is extremely worrying.

I assure the hon. Member for The Wrekin that Her Majesty’s Government desire a constructive relationship with Belarus, as we do, of course, with other countries on the borders of the EU. If I have just one message, it is to encourage Belarus to see the September parliamentary elections as a good opportunity to rebuild that relationship, by demonstrating the ability to address important human rights concerns. A better relationship with the EU would bring easier travel, economic opportunities and the chance to contribute to discussions on issues that affect us all, such as the environment.

After all, as hon. Members reminded us during the debate, Belarus is very much a European country, but Europe has a very restricted relationship with Belarus. Belarus currently does not live up to the principles that Europe stands for: freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. As the hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us, 20 years ago, countries that are now respected members of the EU faced a choice between
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retreating into Soviet-style authoritarianism and welcoming freedom and democracy. Most chose the latter. Belarus did not, but the option remains open.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us that the country occupies a strategic position. When I looked it up on a map this morning, I saw that almost all the main roads from Poland, and therefore from western Europe, to Moscow pass through Belarus. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) asked about gas supplies through pipelines running through Belarus into western Europe. That is an important and worrying consideration on which, I suppose, we could have a separate debate.

One of the things that concerns us is that not only does Russia provide Belarus with cheap gas—it is extremely cheap, in comparative terms, at present, and the Belarusian economy is doing well on the back of that—but Russian hydrocarbon money is buying up Belarusian industry. We shall come on to that, because the point about the opportunities that should exist in Belarus for greater diversification of ownership, particularly of new industries and development industries, is an important one.

Mark Pritchard: The Minister has half answered my question before I have asked it, but I am happy to give him the opportunity to provide the other half of a reply. All countries should diversify risk in their economies. The issue is not between Russia or the European Union. If the conditions are right, both could provide huge opportunities for the Government and the people of Belarus, as the Minister says.

Dr. Howells: Yes, I could not agree more. The question posed by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire about what to do about the predominance of Russian gas flowing into central Europe and topping up the gas supplies that are distributed around mainland Europe is a serious one, and not just in relation to Belarus’s position as a country of passage. It could do very well out of that role if proper tolls and fees were paid. Part of its wealth in the past came from it, when cargoes of all sorts passed back and forth across that great region.

What we should do about the Russian domination of gas supplies to the European Union is a serious question. The plans to build a submerged pipeline under the Baltic sea, bypassing Poland, throw up all kinds of political issues that we could debate at another time. I hope that we will.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh reminded us that Belarus has been occupied by invading armies on a number of occasions and has liberated itself, sometimes with help. I think he was making the point that its liberty has been hard won many times. I am convinced that the will to confirm independence, sovereignty and democracy is very much alive in Belarus, and that the Belarusians draw strength from the fact that they can look across their northern and western frontiers to countries where those values flourish. That is important.

Two years ago, the European Union published a document with the wonderful EU title, “What the European Union could bring to Belarus”. I do not know who dreamed up that title. It was probably some kind of a consultancy to which we paid a lot of money. I shall not get the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) going on that, but I am sure he would agree. The paper contains examples of how the people of Belarus could
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benefit from a renewed dialogue with the EU, and says what the Belarusian Government need to do to achieve that. If Belarus takes steps towards achieving internationally recognised standards of democracy, the EU is ready to offer it a strong co-operative relationship based on mutual respect. I shall try to answer some of the hon. Lady’s questions on this aspect of the debate.

As the hon. Member for The Wrekin said, a good relationship with the EU would give foreign investors more confidence in Belarus. Belarusian products would get greater access to the EU market and Belarusian people would find it easier to travel to the EU for business, education or holidays. When I asked departmental officials how much trade and investment there is between our countries, I was quite shocked by the answer. Belarus has a population of nearly 10 million, but trade between our countries is tiny. The latest figures that I have are for 2005, when UK exports to Belarus totalled £7 million—that is nothing—and consisted mainly of chemicals, textiles and machinery.

Imports from Belarus, however, totalled £276 million, so we are an important market for that country. It sent us mostly oil and oil products. To reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point, that is a bad sign. I am sure that that money is very useful to Belarus—£276 million in hard currency is not to be sniffed at—but it would be wonderful if it came from other products. It is a sign that there is great potential in Belarus to produce other things and diversify, but that is not happening. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s comments on diversification and investment were so important.

The established collective position of the EU is that Belarus should begin to make demonstrable and irreversible progress on certain issues that are listed in the document, “What the European Union could bring to Belarus”. Those issues include free and fair elections, freedom of the media, and non-governmental organisations being allowed to work without restrictions. Other issues are the release of political prisoners, an independent judicial system, the end of arbitrary detention and arrest, and respect for the rights of minorities. Belarus would also be expected to allow people to join trade unions, allow people to run their own businesses, abolish the death penalty and accept the support and advice of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

We want to have the kind of relationship with Belarus that we have with other eastern neighbours, such as Ukraine and Moldova, which have taken significant steps towards democracy in the past few years. One of the EU’s great achievements is the impact that it is able to have on its neighbours in that respect. Only last week, a delegation from the EU visited Belarus to discuss the forthcoming elections, and I was pleased to hear that the Belarusian authorities were ready to talk to the delegation. That is a good sign, and I very much hope that dialogue will continue. We will try to ensure that it does. The authorities can be in no doubt that the EU has much to offer Belarus, and it is their choice whether to accept that help.

All hon. Members who have spoken discussed human rights. To become a respected member of the international community, the Belarusian Government must respect the human rights of their people. Life in Belarus can be difficult for people who speak out against the authorities and for human rights. Their possessions could be confiscated
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or their businesses closed down. They face arrest, detention, interrogation and even physical abuse. We want Belarus to be a close friend and a good neighbour to the EU, but that cannot happen while those who are brave enough to question the Belarusian Government face such severe treatment for doing so.

I take this opportunity to offer our support to Belarus’s three current political prisoners, Alexander Kozulin, Andrei Kim and Sergei Parsyukevich, and I call for their immediate release. I am sure all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate would echo those sentiments.

The UK is using bilateral programme funds to support civil society, particularly in the fields of human rights and independent media. Freedom of expression—through the media, for example—is fundamentally important to any democratic society. We hope that the new mass media law that the Government passed in June will not be used as a tool to oppress non-state media and foreign journalists. We welcome the progressive aspects of the law, which simplifies the registration process and takes international practice into account, but the law contains several worrying new provisions, including one that bans the financing of a mass media outlet from abroad or from any other so-called anonymous source. That is a potential threat to the development of independent journalists in Belarus.

Let me address the hon. Lady’s point about visas and children from Chernobyl. My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has taken a special interest in the Belarusian children who have been affected by the Chernobyl fallout and who come to the UK and other countries for the respite care that is arranged by numerous charities. The distribution of their visas is a huge operation. To give an idea of the scale involved, in 2007, the British embassy in Minsk issued about 3,600 free visas to children who were sponsored by Chernobyl charities. I am proud that the UK is able to help, and that when those children return to Belarus, they take back happy memories of their time here.

When we introduced biometric visas for Belarus, we planned to open a seasonal collection facility in Gomel Oblast specifically for children who were coming to the UK for respite care. I looked on a map to find it, and I can show hon. Members —I am never quite sure how one uses visual aids in a debate, Mr. Hancock—where Chernobyl is. The wind was blown from the south-west and covered an area including towns and villages close to Gomel. We wanted to set up a biometric centre there specifically for those children, but the Belarusian Government blocked that proposal.

In response, we developed a bespoke mobile project, which is unique in the world, and the embassy and UK Border Agency devoted considerable resources to its planning and implementation. We send a team with a mobile biometric data collection machine to the cities of Mogilev and Gomel in the areas of Belarus from where 85 per cent. of the children outside Minsk come. The project seems to have been a great success. So far 843 children have given their details, with more to come. At the end of the peak season for applications, we will review the project and see whether we need to make any changes for next year. I hope that will ease any concerns.

As the hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us, the debate comes at an important time, as Belarus prepares for parliamentary elections in September. Belarus
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does not have a strong democratic tradition. It has a tradition of fighting for freedom and democracy, but that has been stifled for many years by repressive regimes. The OSCE described the 2006 presidential elections as

The EU said of local elections in 2007 that

We have been encouraged by statements from Belarus that the elections will be democratic. President Lukashenko himself said:

From this place, I call on him to uphold those declarations. I am pleased that Belarus has invited election observers from the OSCE to monitor the elections. That is a good sign, but we have also seen worrying signs. We are concerned about the pressure that the authorities are putting on the opposition. The regime is using administrative powers to discourage opposition members from standing in the elections, and some opposition members have lost their jobs because of their decision. Others have found their tax records scrutinised to find errors that disbar them from standing. There are restrictions on meetings, demonstrations and assemblies, and people have been arrested for distributing leaflets. Opposition organisations have been refused permission to register with the authorities, and those activities do not live up to the “open and democratic” promise made by President Lukashenko.

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