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Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next plans to visit Belarus to discuss (a) bilateral relations and (b) broader global issues. (308365)

I currently have no plans to visit Belarus. These issues are discussed regularly at official level. My predecessor, the then Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) met the Belarasian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky when he visited the UK in November 2008.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment he has made of the state of relations between Belarus and the UK; and if he will make a statement. (308366)

Our interest is to see Belarus contribute to the long term stability of the region in which it is situated. We believe this would best be achieved through further political and economic reform, and to that end we seek to encourage a stronger relationship between Belarus and the EU, which would include closer alignment to European standards and values. We recognise, at the same time, that Belarus has a close co-operative relationship with the Russian Federation. In line with other EU member states, we continue to base our political relationship on the need for the respect for basic human rights and political freedoms, and regularly raise issues of concern.

On the economic side, bilateral trade and investment are very small. We have welcomed Belarus’s engagement with international organisations, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as the basis for much needed economic reform. At a human level, the UK has a memorandum of understanding in place with Belarus on respite visits for children suffering from the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and we offer a small number of scholarships each year through the Chevening Programme which allows Belarusian citizens the opportunity to study at UK higher educational institutions.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Belarus. (308367)

The political situation in Belarus remains very restrictive. We are concerned by the lack of recognition by the authorities that the existence of an opposition is a vital part of a properly functioning democracy. Presidential elections in 2006 were described by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission as

“severely flawed due to the arbitrary use of state power and restrictions on basic rights”

and no opposition politician obtained a seat in Parliament at the last parliamentary elections in September 2008.

Local elections are due in spring 2010, and presidential elections are due before February 2011. I welcome the Belarusian decision to discuss electoral reforms with the OSCE. This is a step in the right direction. We and the international community will be watching developments carefully in the run up to these elections.