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The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is the first debate about Belarus in this House in recent times. Belarus may be a far away country to some Members of this House, but it is at the centre of Europe and I believe it is right that the current situation should be debated in this House today.
In another place, Michael Trend has drawn the human rights abuses in Belarus to the attention of Ministers on a number of occasions. In my contribution tonight I wish to underscore the concerns raised by the honourable gentleman, but I also wish to probe the Government on the extent to which they are willing to act to draw Belarus back into the family of European nations where it rightly belongs.
My comments tonight are made against a backdrop of deplorable human rights abuses, elections that failed to meet international standards and routine abuse of legal procedures, which undermines the rule of law. The catalogue of concerns will be known to my noble friend the Minister.
In recent months I travelled to Minsk where I met the wives of some of those who have disappeared. I shall mention the former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenko, the Belarus Supreme Soviet deputy Viktor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky and the journalist, Dmitry Zavadsky. I also visited Professor Bandazhevsky, who is in prison in Minsk. I believe his case was raised by my right honourable friend Peter Hain when he was the Minister responsible. I can report to your Lordships that Professor Bandazhevsky is living in improved conditions and I regard it as a positive sign that the authorities let a delegation from the Council of Europe and myself visit him and that we
My starting point in probing the Government's current policy towards Belarus is that there are two clear positions with which I find it easy to agree. The first is that the people of Belarus deserve our support. Social projects, academic links and charitable links are all rightly supported by our Government. I believe that that support should be expanded where possible. The second positionagain one that I supportis that nothing should be done to bolster or give any weight to the current regime, and particularly to President Lukashenko.
The difficult question for the Government, on which I wish to probe my noble friend tonight, is the extent to which they are willing to act and co-operate with the institutions of Belarus while at the same time keeping the head of those institutions firmly at arm's length. I believe there are specific examples where a more constructive approach couldand I am realistic enough to use the word "could"both show that we are serious in our belief in democracy, human rights and the rule of law and support those in the institutions of Belarus who wish to move towards the standards in which we believe.
I have four specific proposals about which I have given my noble friend notice. My first proposal concerns the British Council office in Minsk. My noble friend will be familiar with this case, as the staffed office was closed in November 2000. I believe that the withdrawal of its office was a mistake, and I believe that the mistake should be rectified. I, like Members of both Houses, have heard the justification advanced by the FCO and the British Council that Belarus has a "relative lack of importance" when compared with other countries in the region. Such a view, I believe, fails to take our commitment to human rights sufficiently seriously and undervalues the disproportionate benefit of the British Council's work. I very much hope that my noble friend will urge her department to reconsider this decision.
My second proposal concerns the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group. My noble friend will be aware of the current lamentable position in which members of the AMG have effectively been expelled through the non-renewal of their visas, and that the AMG has now stopped all useful operations. While it is true that such behaviour only damages further the relations between Belarus and the international community, we cannot ignore the fact that these relations have been poor for a number of years. I would urge that either the OSCE's secretary-general or the current chairman in office visit Minsk and talk directly with President Lukashenko with a view to re-establishing the AMG as an effective vehicle for monitoring change within Belarus. It is not too late, and any change in personnel would, in any event, be routine.
I understand that such a course of action has its pitfalls, but I would argue that the potential benefits of an effective and operational AMG outweigh any potential propaganda victory which President Lukashenko may seek to ascribe to himself.
On a separate but related matter, I believe that it is hugely important that the institutions which interact with the Belarusian authorities behave fairly and observe their own rules. I make this comment with particular reference to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
My third proposal concerns the local government elections which are due in spring of next year. It is my understanding that various opposition groups will join together in their fight for these elections. This is a welcome development and I very much hope that it will serve as a springboard for a greater co-operation between opposition groupings in their political activities at higher levels. I think that this development gives an opportunity for organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to support this political evolution through supporting programmes that enhance the democratic process. It should be noted, however, that recent opinion polls of public "confidence" in Belarus have ranked opposition parties well below other institutions. I very much hope that the opposition parties' authority grows as they coalesce and develop policies that are of relevance to people today rather than a total denial of every aspect of social and political life in Belarus.
Local government elections are important in every country, but in Belarus they could be used both to generate confidence in the democratic process and as a vehicle for the opposition parties to show that they are serious in trying to gain the confidence of the Belarusian people.
My fourth and final proposal is perhaps the most substantial, but also the least specific. Last week, I received a copy of a letter addressed to my right honourable friend Bruce George in his capacity as the current president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. I received my copy as a member of the OSCE's ad hoc working group on Belarus. The letter is from the Helsinki Commission. It makes the usual points about the lack of legitimacy of the national assembly and the flawed election process in Belarus. Nevertheless, it does set out two clear steps that the national assembly can take to prove some independence from the current regime.
The first step concerns acting on the recommendations of the OSCE/ODIHR report following last year's presidential elections, and the second step concerns appointing a credible independent commission of inquiry into the recent disappearances. In addition, the Political Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe has issued a similar roadmap in which it proposes joint seminars on policy matters such as education and social services with a view to improving concepts of governance.
Members of the national assembly regularly attend and speak at international forums. I very much hope that they take the opportunities they have been given and assert their credentials as independent parliamentarians.
I believe that there is a new awareness among some parliamentarians that they need to increase their powers if we in the West are to regard them as fellow parliamentarians on the European stage. We should help them along this road. I shall therefore put my fourth proposal in the form of a question to my noble friend: to what extent does she believe that we can support members of the national assembly to learn and act on their role as parliamentarians in Europe?
Belarus sees itself as at the heart of Europe. Its sense of history is unlike any other country I have visited. The armies of Napoleon and Hitler marched across its plains and left a terrible legacy that plays a large part in the way Belarusians see themselves today. In a very few years, the borders of NATO and the EU will be at the border of Belarus, and this encourages the Belarusians' belief that not only are they at the heart of Europe but that they are at the fulcrum point between East and West.
This view, however, is a delusion. It is a delusion because today's communications mean that Belarus will be isolated in its economic and social development. It is a delusion because I believe that Russia itself rightly sees its future as part of the family of European nations. And it is a delusion because the standards of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and economic liberalisation will surround Belarusso that, far from being at the heart of Europe, it will be a hollow centre only of interest to those who monitor rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea.
Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on securing this debate on Belarus. Any opportunity to bring the increasingly worrying situation in that country to a wider audience is most welcome. It is essential that we speak out publicly and often to condemn tyranny and oppression wherever we find it. In another place, in July, the Minister agreed that Belarus was,
Those events are not taking place in a faraway country on the other side of the world. They are happening within the borders of Europe and almost on the border of the European Union itself, when its western neighbour, Poland, already a member of NATO, becomes a full member of the EU. Following the fall of his friend Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, President Lukashenko has assumed the unenviable status of our continent's most despotic and tyrannical leader. As Europe's last dictator, he governs through the policies of oppression and intimidation, and of injustice and corruption. Drug trafficking and crime are rife. The rule of fear and the rule of repression have vanquished the rule of law in Belarus.
Ministers have spoken of the need for "the torch of liberty" to be lit for Belarus. I agree. Our duty is to ensure that Mr Lukashenko and his comrades are not allowed to think for one day that they can escape the bright glare of that torch and continue to lead Belarus backwards. That is the message that this debate should send to Belarus today.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, mentioned, opposition politicians are harassed and have, in some cases, been subject to politically motivated legal proceedings. Ministers sacked from the government have frequently found themselves harassed or jailed. Some have "disappeared". These "disappearances" of key political opponents, unresolved and uninvestigated, are deeply perturbing. The Belarusian authorities have failed to investigate satisfactorily the disappearances of several opposition members and journalists. The former Belarusian Minister of Internal Affairs, Yury Zakharenko, a deputy of Belarus's 13th Supreme Soviet, Viktor Gonchar, and the television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky are among the "disappeared". There are also Belarusian prisoners of conscience, imprisoned for no other reason than their opposition to Mr Lukashenko.
The use of the security forces to crush dissent has become increasingly ruthless. Last year, the BBC reported on the allegations that a death squad working for the country's senior leadership had assassinated key political opponents. Such allegations had been made before, but this time the claim was made by two former staff members of the state prosecutor's office. They sought asylum in America and the US State Department declared their allegations credible. I trust that the British Government are also pursuing these claims.
Restrictions on freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and movement have increased, and only this week new threats to freedom of religion have emerged through the approval of a draft Bill, requiring the registration of religious communities. A week ago today, the Upper House of Parliament in Belarus gave overwhelming approval to a Bill on religion which would severely restrict the activities of smaller denominations and which stresses the dominant role of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Bill bans organised prayer by religious communities of fewer than 20 people and prohibits religions active in Belarus for less than 20 years from publishing literature or setting up missions. It introduces compulsory registration of
Additionally, the authorities have stepped up their campaign of harassment against the independent media and severely restricted the constitutional right to a free press. The case of the two journalists Mikola Markevich and Pavel Mazheiko of the independent regional newspaper Pahonya, based in Grodno, illustrates the continuing series of undemocratic measures undertaken by the Lukashenko regime. They were convicted of libelling Mr Lukashenko during last year's presidential election campaign and in June were sentenced to serve two and a half years and two years respectively in a detention camp. Pahonya has now been closed down, its journalists arrested, and other publications are under threat. Similarly, last month the journalist Viktor Ivashkevich was sentenced to two years of "restricted freedom" on the same charge of allegedly insulting President Lukashenko during last year's presidential election campaign.
What is the solution and what can we do? I believe there is a vitally important role for Russia to play. Belarus has relied and continues to rely heavily on moral, political and financial support from Russia. The relationship has been one of amicable mutual expediency. Only last September, President Putin congratulated his Belarusian counterpart on a "convincing victory". But that was one day before September 11th. In recent months, President Putin has shown himself less willing to tolerate the Belarusian dictatorship, not least at the summit between the two presidents in Moscow in August, when President Putin dismissed his counterpart's dream of an equal union between the two countries. Instead, he proposed the formation of a union state with Belarus very much a constituent part of the Russia Federation, a suggestion that Lukashenko has categorically rejected.
The improvement in Russia's relations with the West since September 11th has seen a corresponding deterioration between Russia and its neighbour. There is an opportunity here. As Belarus's closest ally and largest trading partner, Russia has more potential than any other country for exerting positive pressure on Belarus. What action are the Government taking to persuade President Putin to use his considerable influence as a force for good in Belarus? The West has had a small effect in curbing the excesses of the Belarusian authorities on an individual basis, but the mighty weight of the Russian machine would surely have a far greater effect.
Belarus may not be in the same league as Iraq, but rumours persistand perhaps the Minister is in a position to substantiate these rumours with evidencethat Minsk is involved in the arms trade, not least of all in the supply of arms to Iraq. Minsk has seen several high level Iraqi delegations in recent months, including one led by the Iraqi Minister for Military Industrialisation, officially to discuss trade
In the context of the war against terrorism and particularly in the context of government policy towards Iraq, I urge the Minister to comment on concerns about Belarus's role in international arms trading and support to terrorism. In particular, what evidence does she have to substantiate allegations that Minsk is a main source of arms delivery to dictatorships and terrorists, including Iraq, as charged by US Congressman Christopher Smith in an interview with Radio Svoboda in July?
Time may not be on President Lukashenko's side. Liberty, the rule of law and the right to own propertythe individual and collective freedoms that we take for grantedare denied to the people of Belarus.
Finally, I pay tribute to the bravery of all those inside Belarus who bring the situation in their country to the attention of the outside world and who work for freedom and justice. They deserve our support. While I have listened to the rationale for the closure of the British Council in Minsk, I nevertheless deeply regret the fact that that decision was taken.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I should like to add to the congratulations that have already been expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and particularly to say how much I welcome the constructive suggestions that he has made, on which I hope the Minister will comment. I hope that she will comment more generally on whether the work of the OSCE can continue under present circumstances. I should like to know what she thinks has been achieved by the Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus and what programme of work, if any, was agreed for next year at the Human Dimension meeting held last month. Have the Government any ideas, for instance, for the conference on religious freedom mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, which is to consider among other things what has been called by the Keston Institute,
This is a country where already all the minority religions are severely restricted and which has the only case in the Soviet Union outside central Asia of a religious building being destroyed to prevent people worshipping in it. That was a church belonging to the Autocephalous Orthodox Church which has repeatedly been denied registration and is described by the authorities as a "non-existent religious group" even though it has 70 parishes. What are we going to do at the OSCE conference next month as regards religious freedom?
When the Government of Belarus decided not to extend the visa of the acting head of the AMG, Mr Andrew Carpenter, in June, the chairman of the OSCE Permanent Council, Ambassador Pimentel, made a public statement calling on them to co-operate. He said that Belarus had complained about past events and talked about changing the mandate but had made no specific proposals. The OSCE did not then close the mission because it still thought that it was possible to reach agreement. However, when the visa of the AMG's human rights officer, Meagan Fitzgerald, came up for renewal last month, it, too, was not renewed. I understand that that leaves only one OSCE official in Minsk, a citizen of Moldova who does not need a visa.
Is there any point in maintaining a nominal AMG when the OSCE's advice is rejected or ignored and when the monitoring is perhaps undertaken just as well by courageous members of the opposition who need to be encouraged, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, suggested? Was this discussed at the Human Dimension meeting and, if they are still minded to keep the skeleton mission going, how do they justify that decision? I am not sure that under these circumstances a visit by the chairman in office will be effective although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that it would at least be worth trying.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Mr Freimut Duve, has also expressed concern about the sentences passed on two journalists mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for having insulted President Lukashenko doing the September 2001 election campaign. Mikola Markevich and Paval Mezheika of the newspaper, Pahonya, were sentenced to two-and-a-half years' hard labour. Mr Duve said that it was absolutely unacceptable that journalists should be prosecuted in a criminal court for what they write, but this was not the first nor the last time that the law has been used to silence critics of the regime. The most recent case was that of Viktar Ivashkevich, editor-in-chief of the independent paper Rabochy, who was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for libelling President Lukashenko as recently as 16th September.
Apart from the pressure on the OSCE to leave, the Belarus authorities are doing their best to obstruct the work of Radio Free Europe's Belarusian service. The head of the service has tried several times to meet Foreign Ministry officials but they have refused to discuss accreditation of some of its journalists and have threatened to cancel the credentials of all those working for the service because of some mildly critical broadcasts that the service has made.
The Chairman of the Belarusan Peoples' Front, Vintsuk Viachorka, representing all the opposition parties in Belarus, in a speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last week, asked them to set up an independent inquiry to examine disappearances in Belarus. Obviously, he does not have the same faith in the ability or competence of the Parliamentary Assembly to do this job as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, does. I believe that if this is going to be an effective investigation it must be conducted by outsiders.
Of course, they would not be able to take evidence in the country, but there are witnesses living abroad. At least their statements could be recorded formally in the hope that at a future date a more comprehensive investigation could be undertaken. What does the Minister think of that proposal?
Mr Viachorka demanded the release of political prisoners and the repeal of the laws criminalising "defamation" and "insult" of the President and government officials. He called for reform of the electoral system and procedures on which clear recommendations have been made by the OSCE. Was that matter discussed at the Human Dimension meeting? Can anything be done about it if the recommendations are ignored?
Mr Viachorka described examples of physical attacks on, and harassment of, opposition politicians. Alaksiej Karol, a Social Democrat, was attacked and beaten unconscious on 15th September. On 29th September a number of Christian Democrats were detained for demonstrating against integration with Russia. That latter case is ironic when Lukashenko himself has blasted the proposals made by President Putin in August for the union, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights gave a detailed critique of human rights' violations in Belarus at the Human Dimension meeting. They showed that the rule of law does not exist, with the judicial system serving as an appendix of the repressive apparatus of the regime, and as an instrument for fighting dissent.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity of being able to speak briefly in the gap. One cannot escape the fact that 70 per cent of the fallout from Chernobyl fell on Belarus. Separate to political discussions, there is another dialogue that is on-going which is person to person. There are many British-based charities that make a major contribution out in Belarus and they deserve recognition.
I should like to refer briefly to two of those which are Cardiff based. One is run by Val Cousins; it is called Leaves of Hope. She takes very deprived young people, including young offenders, from Cardiff to work in the young people's institutions in Minsk. I quote from an e-mail from our own ambassador there:
I have had also personal experience of going out with students through the Belarus Action for Children Cardiff Undergraduate Programme, set up by undergraduates from Cardiff University. I am a trustee designate of that programme. Those youngsters go out and work for two weeks in Novinki orphanage. Having met the director of the orphanage, it was evident that those students have brought about major changes in the way that these severely handicapped children are looked after by their carers.
Sticks are no longer in evidence as a mode of discipline and the carers are demonstrating a bonding with the children. The students work for two weeks at a time and there is a queue of students wanting to go out theremore than can be accommodated. The students have been welcomed by the medical school in Minsk. The rector there has gone out of his way to embrace their visit and has provided them with accommodation. The students have been able to influence the undergraduate curriculum in Minsk: now there is the inclusion of mental handicap within teaching and the medical school .
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, this is one of those short debates in which all speakers agree with each other in regretting the current situation in Belarus, while recognising the limited influence which Her Majesty's Government, on their own, have over it.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred to Belarus as the hollow centre of Europe. During the past few years, I have increasingly thought of it as the black hole. I go to many meetings to discuss EU enlargement
I am conscious that Belarus maintains its closest foreign relations with Iraq, Libya, Syria and Irannot a particularly hopeful collection of partners. I am also conscious that the spill-over to the neighbours and the problems of Belarus in terms of people smuggling, trafficking in women and drugs, disease and other criminal networks is a tremendous problem for its neighbours and will become a problem for the EU within three years, as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia join the EU.
We have heard of allegations of weapons supplies from Belarus to Iraq and I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what evidence the Government have about that. We have also heard a great deal about domestic politics and the disappearances which, happily, seems to have ceased in the past year or two. However, intimidation of the press and the opposition clearly continues strongly.
Yet it will become the EU's external boundary. It will also become the territory across which links between Russia and Kaliningrad have to be maintained. I am conscious that in recent weeks we have been having tough negotiations with the Russians about how those links between Russia and Kaliningrad will be maintained. If they are going across Belarus, there are large questions about how secure they will be and how one can prevent criminal gangs from being involved in such traffic.
Until two years ago, I was chair of Sub-Committee F of your Lordships' EU Committee and I recall that we examined the future eastern boundary of the EU. We were roundly informed by the Finns and others that one cannot effectively manage an external boundary unless one co-operates extensively and in depth with the state on the other side. At that time, the Lithuanians told us, the Belarusian authorities had not got round to marking an agreed boundary with them. So there was a great deal to do and perhaps the Minister will tell us whether progress has been made, in co-operation with the Belarusian authorities, on how we are to manage that difficult boundary.
We were also made aware that for the eastern regions of Poland in particular, cross-border trade is important for both sides in terms of economic development. We know that much of that is semi-legal, but it is an important part of maintaining contacts across the border. If there comes to be no alternative but to closing the border, we shall be doing something dreadful to those on the other side of it.
What is to be done? We recognise that Britain on its own can do little. However, Britain as a member of the EU, of NATO, of the OSCE and of the Council of Europe can do rather more. We must work with Poland and Lithuania, which have direct and local contacts with Belarusian communities on the other side. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, remarked, there is at last
We are conscious that we are not talking about Belarus alone: the problems of Moldova and of the Ukraine are ones which the EU must actively take on. They are already having a bad effect on members of the EU. I have recently returned from Greece and was hearing much from Greek friends about the extent to which people traffickingthe trafficking of prostitutes and othersfrom those three countries is beginning to wash across the Balkans and into Greece with all kinds of adverse domestic social consequences.
There is a certain amount that can be achieved by way of cultural links. I hope that we shall hear a little from the Minister on the subject. We have heard about the office of the British Council. Clearly, it ought to be a priority to get the British Council in Minsk going again. We recognise that the council has its own authorities, but this is the sort of organisation in which it is worth investing. Other cultural exchanges ought to be encouraged wherever possible and, if necessary, subsidised, as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. This seems to me to be a classic case in which the Foreign Office should be attempting to provide a larger number of Chevening Scholarships, which would enable bright young Belarusians to come to Britain. That would help to build up a cadre of people when, at last, Lukashenko goes.
This is a very important issue to the EU in the context of enlargement. It is also an important issue to NATO, if we are to find ourselves with what other noble Lords have described as a "rogue state" on our borders. We are bound to discuss such issues with Russia in the joint NATO/Russia council. Therefore, as the EU already has a rather effective northern dimension, it now needs to think about an eastern dimension to its foreign policy.
The northern dimension that the Finns and Swedes have very usefully led has focused on the problems of Kaliningrad and how we manage relations with Russia, the problems of pollution of the Baltic, the problems of disease spilling over from Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, and, indeed, of criminal networks spilling over from St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad and the associated regions of Russia into the northern element of the Union. Similarly, we are threatened by insecurities spilling over from Belarus, the Ukraine, and Moldova as the EU expands. We must do something to attempt to export our security to them rather than importing their insecurity to us.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for raising the issue of Belarus. I share his aspiration that we must try to draw Belarus back into the family of European nations. In a world where so many other countries are making progress, democratically and economically,
Neither does Lukashenko shirk at electoral malpractice to increase his influence. In l996 he extended his term of office through an internationally condemned referendum. He revised the constitution awarding himself even greater powers over the judiciary. Parliament was replaced with a weaker bicameral national assembly. He also lengthened his term in office by an extra two years until 2001, and parliamentary elections in October 2000 were criticised for not being free, fair and transparent.
The Belarus constitution does not allow for more than two terms. However, it is thought that Lukashenko is planning another referendum that would allow him to rule until 2015. With the state's almost total control over the media, a "yes" vote is thought virtually certain.
Lukashenko's human rights record is deeply worrying. I echo the condemnation of the regime's oppression made by my noble friend Lord Moynihan. The UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, has said that the human rights situation is getting far worse there. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned in chilling detail the disappearances. I share his concerns in that respect. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has asked Belarus to provide information, but, I understand, so far to no avail.
Mikhail Chigir, a former prime minister, went into opposition in 1997. He has told the Daily Telegraph that he has been hounded by the local KGB ever since. In 1999, his son was arrested on trumped-up charges and is now serving seven years in a labour camp. He went on to say,
In February 1997, the EU suspended high-level contacts with Belarus because of its poor record on constitutional and human rights issues. The EU has stated that dialogue and assistance will be available if Belarus begins reform.
More recently, Foreign Ministers agreed to commence establishing a new relationship"the special status of neighbours"with Belarus once EU enlargement occurs. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no let-up on pressure from the EU and that good relations with Belarus are conditional on an improvement in Lukashenko's human rights record? My noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Lord,
Relations between Belarus and Russia remain turbulent, despite an agreement on economic union signed in 1996. Analysts in Belarus believe that Lukashenko wants a union that would allow him to stand in Russian presidential elections. A Russian politician described that as,
In the most recent joint talks in August, President Putin surprised and infuriated Lukashenko with two proposals that would leave Lukashenko with little clout if the countries were joined. The union with Belarus is widely supported by the Russian public, but regional analysts see Putin's proposals as a tactic to strategically outplay Lukashenko by having produced an offer that the latter had to refuse. Putin is not prepared to cede power to the smaller country's leader. However, he saves face by still providing options, all the while knowing that they will not be accepted. Sure enough, Lukashenko rejected the offer as "offensive and unacceptable".
However, Belarus has more to gain from the union than Russia. They are unequal partners with 10 million and 145 million inhabitants respectively, and Belarus has only 3 per cent of Russia's GDP. Indeed, in 1998 the Belarus economy was rescued by the agreement reached between Putin and Lukashenko on the introduction of a single currency. The Belarus rouble had plummeted by half and, in desperation, food rationing was imposed.
Although, as my noble friend Lord Moynihan said, Russia has a very important role to play, with the progress that Putin has made with his western counterparts it would not be much of a surprise if he distanced himself from Lukashenko or lost patience, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said, because of Lukashenko's human rights record. I much look forward to hearing the Minister's wind-up speech and to hearing how her department reads this fascinating scenario.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for initiating this debate. As has been stated by all noble Lords, there are fundamental problems in Belarus, especially in the areas of political and human rights. On the back of a manipulated referendum and undemocratic presidential elections, there is real doubt as to whether next spring's local elections will be open and fair. In Belarus, the freedoms of the media, the judiciary and religion are threatened.
As the noble Lord, Lord Astor, mentioned, there is also the growing suspicion that the president is aiming for a third term in office and will again seek to manipulate the constitution to achieve that. The Belarusian people deserve better. We need to continue our efforts to encourage the re-establishment of democracy and the rule of law.
Of primary concern is the continued repression of those expressing views critical of the Lukashenko regime, an issue raised by all noble Lords. The convictions of staff members of the independent weekly Pagonya have attracted the attention of many international human rights groups. Most recently the European Union has condemned the sentencing of journalist Victor Ivashkevich and has urged the authorities to review the verdict. In addition, no progress has been made in investigating the disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky. The British embassy in Minsk has been involved in all those cases, sending representatives to monitor the trials.
With respect to the members of the opposition who have disappeared, the official investigations produced no information about their fate or whereabouts, nor were the investigations conducted in a transparent manner. Independent newspapers continue to be subject to direct censorship, seizure of equipment, criminal prosecution and outright closure. Meanwhile television and radio are generally subject to even more state control.
We are also concerned about the adoption of amendments to the country's religious law. That point was made by the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Avebury. This is an extremely illiberal piece of legislation, intended to prop up the Russian Orthodox. The losers are the Belarusians themselves. Many religious groups, notably the Protestant and Jewish communities, will find it almost impossible to continue functioning.
My noble friend Lord Ponsonby asked about support for members of the national assembly of Belarus. The United Kingdom, with our EU partners, does not recognise the legitimacy of the regime in place since President Lukashenko manipulated the November 1996 referendum. Nor do we recognise the validity of the parliamentary elections held in October 2001.
Relations with the European Union have been frozen as a result. We have no formal links with the national assembly but we respect the fact that individual British parliamentarians have contacts on a personal basis. To resume their place in the European democratic mainstream the Belarusian Government must demonstrate their commitment to European human rights and democratic norms. We still await positive signals from Belarus in that respect. Any contact with the national assembly would undermine the arguments of those who understand that progress can come about only through genuine reform of the political system.
Next year sees local elections in the country. As part of our stated aim to encourage and to promote democracy and civil society, we welcome the greater co-operation between political groups and NGOs. I can assure my noble friend that, with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, we are supporting a project aimed at building civil society capacity for participation in the local elections. We are also ready to look at any other initiatives that will lead to building support for good governance.
Belarus may not be changing, but the region around it is. The noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Moynihan, spoke about the European Union and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, also spoke of a policy looking east. Belarus's western neighbour, Poland, is now a member of NATO and should soon join the European Union. Belarus's north-western neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, are candidates to join both NATO and the EU. To the south, Ukraine has just declared its intention to join NATO and is seeking to intensify its relations with the EU as it has stated its desire to join one day. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs recently launched a "wider Europe" initiative that aims to encourage the EU to set up a policy for its relationships with Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus after EU enlargement. Such a policy could be the basis for the fruitful development of relations between the EU and its three new eastern neighbours. We envisage enhanced agreement in a range of areas, conditional on further reforms in the countries concerned. The Danish presidency is taking forward detailed work on these elements. On present form Belarus looks likely to miss out on the opportunities that that would offer. But the clear option of a more beneficial relationship with the EU will soon be on the table. Belarus will need to decide how to respond.
On the OSCE, my noble friend rightly referred to the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group. Other noble Lords talked about the OSCE. President Lukashenko's refusal to allow the group's political officers to remain in Minsk gives cause for great concern.
Closure of the OSCE would set a bad precedent to Lukashenko. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby suggested that it would be helpful to have the chairman of the OSCE travel to Belarus. I would suggest that the chairman of the OSCE and Belarusian representatives in Vienna initially enter into constructive dialogue with a view to re-establishing the AMG as an effective vehicle for monitoring changes within Belarus. I hope that the Belarusian authorities will give their ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna both the instructions and the authority to facilitate such dialogue.
As to the British Council, the closure in October 2001 of its office in Minsk was a decision by its board as part of a global re-evaluation of its resources and its responsibilities. I can understand the concerns expressed by noble Lords today. I shall take those concerns back to the British Council. But it has made decisions in a number of areas which have had an impact on its strategy and its policy. This is an area where perhaps it will not re-evaluate, but I shall take the concerns back.
The noble Lords, Lord Moynihan, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Astor, raised the issue of arms sales to Iraq. We are monitoring reports about alleged arms sales and technical assistance to Baghdad, but there is no more that I can say on that subject at this time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, mentioned the work of NGOs. She also made reference to the Chernobyl children. Many Belarusian children suffered from the Chernobyl disaster. More than 70 per cent of the radioactive fall-out fell on Belarus. UK charities are closely engaged and invite Belarusian children to the UK for visits. I agree with the noble Baroness that we need to recognise the good work that has been done. I thank the noble Baroness for bringing the work of the Leaves of Hope Charity to the attention of the House today.
The noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Astor, and other noble Lords talked about the role of Russia. I agree that Russia has a key role to play. As noble Lords have mentioned, the relationship with President Putin has deteriorated. Bilateral talks were held in Moscow on 14th August. President Putin outlined two options for the future of the Russia/Belarus relationship as an integral or federal state based on the European Union model.
My noble friend Lord Ponsonby asked specifically about our current policy and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked me to confirm our position on assistance to Belarus. Our action to deal with Belarus must necessarily be taken in concert with our EU and other partners. We are all exerting pressure for change but, in the end, the solution lies in Lukashenko's handswe cannot run Belarus for him. He has been in power since 1994 and has four years of his current term left to run.
The UK and other EU member states have made our position clear. The measures taken by the EU in 1997 remain in place. They restrict ministerial contact with Belarus; suspend aid, except for humanitarian reasons or to support civil society; and suspend ratification of the EU-Belarus partnership and co-operation agreement. EU member states will not support Belarus's membership of the Council of Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's "Partnership for Peace" agreement, signed in 1995, remains undeveloped. Aid to Belarus by international
The situation is bleak, but we must work towards a time when Belarus will return to the path of democracy; when human rights are once again upheld; and when freedom of speech and expression is returned to its people.
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