HC Deb 23 July 2002 vol 389 cc224-30WH 12.29 pm
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

I am grateful for this opportunity to bring the situation in Belarus back to the attention of the House. This is the third time that I have raised the subject in such a debate, but I make no apology for that. The oppressed people of Belarus rely on us to give them the voice that they are denied in their own country. In July last year and July 2000, I outlined the condition of what was, and sadly remains, the most authoritarian of European countries. Since then, the position has got worse.

I should like first to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). It is my first opportunity to welcome him to his new position. In the three debates that I have been fortunate enough to secure, he is the third Minister to reply. I regard these opportunities as important moments for Ministers to familiarise themselves with, and educate themselves on, this question. I also welcome him back to the Government, as he was a loss to them. I am sure that he will do well.

It is important for us in the free Parliaments of the world to continue to remind the authorities in Minsk that we are watching them closely and that they shall one day be called to account. Last year, the Minister for Europe spoke well of the need for the torch of liberty to be lit for Belarus. Over the years, that torch has illuminated the hidden secrets of totalitarian dictators throughout the world, been used to search out and expose the wicked deeds of tyrants and helped bring half our continent closer to the clear light of responsible government. Mr. Lukashenko and his cronies in Minsk should be in no doubt that we will continue to hold the torch of freedom for Belarus.

In the past two years, we have seen first parliamentary and then presidential elections in Belarus. Both were severely flawed. The Minister will know that the British Government said that the parliamentary elections failed to meet international standards for democratic elections"—[Official Report, 11 January 2001: Vol. 360, c. 603W.] I am sure that the Government are equally critical of last year's presidential elections, in which the united opposition forces struggled against injustice and corruption. The elections were conducted in a country where there is no proper rule of law or division of powers, no legitimate Parliament and no free access to the media for the opposition forces. Electoral law in Belarus is far from fair and, inasmuch as it exists, is evaded rather than respected by the state authorities. Above all, the atmosphere of fear created by Mr. Lukashenko persists and, in recent months, has perhaps heightened. As in all totalitarian societies, fear is essential for keeping the system going. Belarus is a police state going to the bad. It remains the worst such country in Europe, and Mr. Lukashenko continues to hold the unenviable title of our continent's most tyrannical leader.

Before examining developments since the recent elections, it is important to remind the House of concerns that have existed for some time. We should not lose sight of the depth of the problems in Belarus. In recent years both the United Nations committee against torture and Amnesty International have commented fiercely on Lukashenko's curtailment of basic liberty and freedoms, and I will cite a few past cases that are still alive. The Belarussian authorities have still failed to initiate impartial and thorough investigations into the "disappearances" of the former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko in May 1999, the former first secretary chairman of the dissolved Belarussian Parliament Viktor Gonchar and his companion Anatoly Krasovsky in September 1999, and the Russian television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky in July 2000. Amnesty International's three prisoners of conscience in Belarus—Professor Yury Bandazhevsky, Andrey Klimov and Vladmir Koudinov—remain in prison. In each case, the real reason for their imprisonment was their opposition to Mr. Lukashenko. I could mention countless other examples, but suffice it to say that our memories will go on as long as it takes.

More recently, what has happened in Belarus since the recent elections? The simple answer is that there has been an increase in state control of Belarussian society and further concentration of power in the hands of Lukashenko. His Government have failed to produce any viable plan to reform the ailing Belarussian economy, which is heading full speed towards crisis, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has said that it will curtail its activities in Belarus because the country has failed to enact economic and political reforms. The EBRD announced last year that it would review its activities following the presidential elections. It now sees no evidence of a commitment to the principles of multi-party democracy, pluralism and market economics. It probably did not help that after the presidential elections Lukashenko also unseated several senior businessmen from their positions when it suited him to do so.

Lukashenko has also fallen out with his one former international ally. the Russian leader President Putin. Assaults on human rights and freedoms in Belarus are becoming even more blatant and the situation continues to deteriorate. I shall give examples of that. For some years, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has played an important role in voicing the concerns of the free world in Minsk. After many months of worsening relations between the Belarus Government and the OSCE, the authorities have refused to extend the visa of the acting head of the OSCE's advisory and monitoring group in Belarus, Andrew Carpenter. No reason has been given for de facto expulsion of Mr. Carpenter, which means in effect that the sterling work that the OSCE has done in Belarus has come to an end. The expulsion was condemned at a recent OSCE parliamentary assembly meeting in Berlin and the Council of Europe has also registered its support for the OSCE position. It was right that the delegation from the Belarus Parliament—which was elected two years ago but which we do not recognise as legitimate—was not allowed to sit in the OSCE parliamentary assembly.

The case of two journalists of the independent regional newspaper, Pahonya, in Grodno who were convicted of libelling Mr Lukashenko during last year's presidential campaign has also caused much concern. The two men, Mikola Markevich and Pavel Mazheiko, were sentenced to serve up to two and a half and two years respectively in a detention camp. Amnesty International has said about the case: The sentencing of these journalists yet again revealed Belarus' inability to brook dissent and allow its small independent journalist community to give voice to widely shared concerns about the fate of a series of high-profile 'disappearances' in the country". What remains of press freedom in Belarus is in a precarious position. Pahonya has now been shut down. Other journalists have been arrested and other publications are under threat. Lukashenko's reign of terror extends across all the provinces of Belarus.

Another case should give us great cause for concern. Mr Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil party, is an old friend of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, of which I have the honour to be a governor. He has travelled widely in his campaign to put the case for the democrats of Belarus; indeed, hon. Members of all parties met him in the House only a few years ago. He too is in a position of potential personal danger. On 12 July he was summoned to the prosecutor's office and informed that a criminal case had been opened against him. The Belarus Ministry of Justice has begun a broad examination of activities of the United Civil party; the authorities demanded that they be given 5,000 documents within two days. Their intentions are clear: to get rid of the UCP and others who effectively block the Belarussian Government's attempts to achieve international legitimacy. Other political parties, independent trade unions and non-governmental organisations have also been targeted and subjected to harassment. Ordinary people as well as political leaders and journalists have been subject to criminal and administrative persecution for taking part in demonstrations: for instance, there were severe beatings of peaceful demonstrators who demanded social protection for workers and pensioners in April.

There is also a threat to freedom of religion in Belarus. The Belarus Assembly recently approved a draft bill to introduce compulsory registration of religious communities as well as other restrictions on religious freedoms in the country—which has great resonance for those of us who followed the assaults on religious freedom under the Soviet Union. In the past few weeks, we have once again heard the voice of the Keston Institute, which I am ashamed to say I have not thought about much in the past 10 years. It still exists, and has pointed out the threat that this law poses to Protestant churches and non-traditional religious movements in Belarus.

Lukashenko' s behaviour on the international scene continues to give as much concern as his tyranny at home. There have been many reports recently about the part that Belarus plays in international arms trading. Only last week, United States Congressman Christopher Smith, who was in Berlin for the OSCE parliamentary assembly, commented on his fears about the extent and nature of Lukashenko's arms dealing. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, Mr. Smith said: The facts I saw, both confidential and not confidential ones, evidence that Minsk is a main source of arms delivery to dictatorships and terrorists, including Iraq, for which the potential targets are the USA and British military aircrafts, patrolling the air zone. It is a special question. There is an agreement at a high level that Lukashenko supports terrorists. We should understand that that view is widely held in Washington. This country has a clear interest in not allowing Belarus to operate as a European arsenal of terrorism.

It is also clear that we should keep a close eye on the deteriorating relationship between Lukashenko and President Putin of Russia. Since 11 September last year, much has changed in the relationship between Russia and the west. A consequence of the improving relationship has been a falling out between the authorities in Moscow and Minsk. A few weeks ago, several parties of the Russian state Duma, including the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, urged President Putin to press Belarus to investigate all its cases of disappearance. The leader of the Union of Right Forces, Boris Nemtsov, said that Putin is concerned about the number of people who have gone missing in Belarus. That is a great change. Last year, Putin was not prepared to use his influence for good in the Belarussian presidential elections. Now, he pours scorn on Lukashenko's wild plans for a union of equals between Belarus and Russia.

Surely those developments present the west with an opportunity. Belarus has hitherto relied heavily on moral and financial support from Russia. There is some evidence that the continual notice that we in the west give to individual cases in Belarus pays off, in that the authorities tread with greater care. How much more of an effect could President Putin have if he really decided to help sort out the disgrace that is the Government of his neighbour, Belarus?

We must also keep sight of the fact that Belarus will quite soon be the European Union's neighbour, given the EU's ever widening border. Drug traffickers and other serious criminals are allowed to operate in Belarus. The EU has a clear interest here, too.

Finally, I want to pay a personal tribute to the brave people who keep the torch of freedom alight in Belarus. The debate always returns to human rights. Those who work for human rights internationally, especially in oppressed countries, most deserve our support. International parliamentary bodies and groups such as Amnesty International continue to play an important and robust part in the fight against injustice. Our embassy staff in Belarus should also be commended, as should the OSCE mission. Charter'97 does much to bring news from Belarus to the attention of the outside world, as does Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. However, our greatest concern must always be for individuals. At this time, I am thinking chiefly of Mr. Lebedko.

If I have one delicate word of criticism for our own Government, it is that I still regret the closure of the British Council in Minsk. At the time of the closure, Members from both sides of the House were very critical of the Government for sending the wrong signal to the Government and democrats in Belarus. If the Minister can say anything today that might bring some hope that the Government will reconsider their decision, it would be very welcome.

The United States and European Governments, and many international bodies and observers, have rightly condemned Lukashenko's behaviour. I look to our Government today to raise their voice again in defence of the human rights of the people of Belarus. Liberty, the rule of law and the right to own property are at the heart of individual and collective freedom. These are denied to the people of Belarus at the moment. I urge the Government to take the opportunity to add their voice—the voice of a free and strong people—to the general condemnation of Lukashenko and to do all that they can in particular cases to advance the cause of liberty in Belarus.

12.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I thank the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) for his warm words on my appointment: I am looking forward to carrying out my new responsibilities. I congratulate him on keeping issues about Belarus in the public eye. It is indeed a police state going to the bad, as the hon. Gentleman described it, and it needs to know that Members of Parliament in the UK will keep the torch of liberty burning for the people of Belarus.

It is almost exactly two years ago since the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Belarus for a summer Adjournment debate. He raised it again last July, and now brings this important issue before the House once again. When we debated Belarus two years ago, the country was due to hold parliamentary elections. The then Minister of State noted that the flawed referendum of November 1996 had set the country on an anti-democratic path, from which it has not deviated. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) hoped that the parliamentary elections of 2000 would be used to take a step towards democracy. In last year's debate, he noted that those hopes were not fulfilled, but looked forward again to the presidential elections due last September. I regret that I am unable to bring news of any improvement in Belarus. Rather, the democracy and human rights position there has deteriorated.

Most opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary elections of October 2000. The conduct of those elections did not comply with international standards. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the European Union all declined to send official observers to the elections, and have not recognised the election as legitimate.

Presidential elections were held on 9 September last year, and the Belarussian electoral commission declared President Lukashenko the winner with 75 per cent. of the vote, but the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights reported that the election process had failed to meet OSCE standards. After two years and two flawed elections, President Lukashenko' s re-election regrettably appears only to have confirmed him in his anti-democratic path.

Most seriously, no progress has been made in investigating the disappearances of political opponents or the oppression of political opponents. I shall mention, as did the hon. Member for Windsor: the former Interior Minister, Yury Zakharenko, the Belarus Supreme Soviet Deputy, Viktor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky and the journalist Dmitry Zavadsky. We are also worried about the prisoners of conscience to whom the hon. Member for Windsor referred: Professor Bandazhevsky, Andrey Klimov and Vladmir Koudinov. We in this country are concerned about them all. Some remain missing and no progress on these cases has been made, despite frequent expressions of concern from the international community.

Belarus's legislature, the National Assembly, is the product of the flawed and internationally unrecognised elections of 2000. It is now considering an illiberal law, requiring the registration of religious communities. The proposed Bill would outlaw religious groups active in Belarus for fewer than 20 years or with fewer than 20 Belarus citizens. One might have anticipated that Lukashenko was the sort of person who would have sought to ban the 12 apostles. The Bill clearly sets out Lukashenko's vision for Belarus—to turn back the clock to at least 1982.

On the economy, Lukashenko has reiterated his opposition to structural reform and earlier this year assumed powers to interfere in business activities. Attempts to reach agreement with the International Monetary Fund have consistently failed. The directors of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development reported in March that economic conditions in Belarus were such as to preclude fulfilment of the technical conditions for new lending.

The people of Belarus are being impoverished by their President. Further evidence of the path followed by Lukashenko is found in his relationship with the OSCE, which has deteriorated in the past two years. In 1997, the OSCE permanent council established an advisory and monitoring group, which was set up in Minsk in 1998. However, following the departure of the group's head official, the Belarussian authorities have refused to grant a visa for a replacement and have refused to extend the visas of other senior AMG personnel.

The hon. Member for Windsor noted the latest turn of events. The senior OSCE expatriate—Andrew Carpenter, a Briton—was told on 3 June that his visa was not to be extended and that he had until midnight to leave the country. Such behaviour by the Belarussian authorities is unacceptable and gratuitously damages relationships with other countries, such as ours.

What can we do about it? Our actions 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 own hands; we cannot run Belarus for him. He has been in power since 1994, and he has four years of his current term left to run. The UK and other EU member states have made our position very clear. The measures taken by the EU in 1997 remain in place. They restrict ministerial contacts 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. NATO's partnership for peace agreement, signed in 1995, remains undeveloped. Aid to Belarus by international financial institutions is restricted, going only to support small and medium-sized enterprises and the private sector, with a view to strengthening civil society. I should here point out that we have no quarrel with the people of Belarus, as the hon. Member for Windsor said. We wish to alleviate the problems they face because of the misguided policies of their leader. Giving money to Lukashenko is a waste and unless we can get help directly to the people of Belarus it is frankly better to keep the cheque book shut.

Belarus may not be changing, but the region around it is. Belarus's western neighbour, Poland, is now a member of NATO and should soon join the EU. 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, which it has stated its desire to join one day.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently launched a wider Europe initiative which aims to encourage the EU to set out a policy for its relationship 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 upon 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.

To the east, Russia has established a new relationship with NATO. It also has a key role in the future of Belarus, not least because of Lukashenko's interest in a Russia-Belarus union. As the hon. Gentleman said, the plan seems to have been thrown into doubt following last month's meeting in St. Petersburg between Presidents Putin and Lukashenko. At the meeting, President Putin seemed lukewarm, to say the least, about the concept, and the prospect of uniting Belarus's unreformed economy with that of Russia, which is much further advanced, cannot be attractive.

We understand President Putin's wish to develop a close relationship with neighbouring states with which Russia has traditionally close ties. An undemocratic and economically dependent Belarus is a less interesting proposition, even if it is on Russia's doorstep and any union would be on its terms. The hon. Gentleman is right that we hope that the pressure for reform in Belarus will come from the east as much as the west, and we would welcome any decision by Russia to use its influence to encourage positive changes in Belarus.

The hon. Gentleman referred to reports about arms supplies and links to Iraq. We are concerned about the reports and are watching the situation carefully. President Lukashenko needs a clear warning that close relationships with Iraq would not just lead to him being frowned upon by the international community, but to it expressing its views even more strongly than that.

I repeat my congratulation to the hon. Member for Windsor on securing this debate. I also repeat the concern that the UK shares with the people of Belarus about the way in which their President is running the country into the ground. Lukashenko is leading his country backwards economically and politically, and that is unsustainable. We shall ensure that the pressure for reform, or the torch of liberty as the hon. Gentleman described it, continues at least to flicker in Belarus and is supported by parliamentarians in this country. The day will come when Belarus returns to the democratic path and the European mainstream.