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Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 13 January 2009

I met the Prime Minister of Belarus in London on 17 November. I urged the Government to make tangible human rights progress in a number of areas, including greater freedom of the media, engagement with civil society and political opponents of the regime.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. She will know that, since 1994, that country has been run by an autocratic Soviet-style president, who keeps himself in office by locking up political opponents and rigging elections—[Interruption.]nothing like this country whatsoever. Given that we are talking about a European country—a country in the centre of Europe—surely the UK and EU can do more to support the movements for change and the opposition in Belarus, and to bring about a peaceable, transforming, democratic revolution in that country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I know that he plays an important role in human rights issues. I reaffirm to the House that, although the EU, with the UK’s support, has opened up some opportunities, there is a six-month window: come March this year, Foreign Ministers will take a decision on whether some of the opening up and reduction of restrictions should continue. Although some small progress has been made in the past few months in relation to the media and political prisoners, a lot more could be done. It is up to those who run Belarus to make the effort. We shall continue to press, as we have for many years through our mission in Belarus, to support those who want more democratic engagement and freedom of expression.

During last September’s elections in Belarus, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe provided a team of observers, who concluded in their subsequent report that despite some minor improvements,

“Further substantial efforts are required if Belarus is to conduct genuinely democratic elections in line with OSCE commitments.”

Does the Minister have any real evidence of progress made by the authorities in Belarus since then—progress that might give us greater confidence that the country is at last moving towards a more pluralistic, democratic model in which we can have some confidence?

The OSCE election monitors made a number of recommendations, as the hon. Gentleman points out. In my previous answer, I referred to some small progress; for example, there have been no further political prisoners, and the opposition press has been given some limited circulation in Minsk. However, undoubtedly, in the next few months, we would like to see some opportunity for the OSCE recommendations to be fulfilled on the ground, including in relation to freedom of the press, the engagement of the opposition parties, and the ability for people to make their views known, including through demonstrations. Also, we would like an end to use of the law to harass those with different political views from those of the people who run the country. We will continue to press on all those fronts.

To what extent do the Government hold Russia responsible for the state of human rights in Belarus? Is it not interesting that while Ukraine struggles for freedom and democracy, and has its gas supplies cut off, Belarus has free and easy gas supplies from Russia without any agreement whatever?

We should remember that while there is, clearly, a long-standing relationship between Belarus and Russia, it is Belarus that has approached the European Union and the Council of Europe, indicating a desire and a wish to have, in future, a good partnership with the west. The country recently received an International Monetary Fund loan, because it faces huge difficulties with its economy. The future is about holding those in Belarus to account, in terms of what we would expect in a good partnership with the European Union. At the same time, we should recognise that Belarus initiated contact with the EU and the west. If that means that we can improve human rights, trade, and so forth, that is a good thing.