Belarus: Elections

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Excerpts
Thursday 22nd July 2021

(3 months ago)

Grand Committee

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to introduce this debate, which is overdue. By way of background, all my political life—in fact, all my life—I have been involved in some aspect or other of foreign affairs. I include in that a short time in a very junior position in the Foreign Office, 25 years in the European Parliament and, since I came into this House, my time as a member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, so I have a reasonable amount of experience. During that time, I have visited Belarus on a couple of occasions and Moscow on more than a couple, most recently in December 2019 using the facilities made available by this House to pay for visits to members of the Council of Europe. There, I met a number of members of the Duma and the upper house.

Belarus is, of course, the only country that is not a member of the Council of Europe. This is largely because of its refusal to suspend the death penalty but that also seems to have become rather convenient, because it has placed Belarus in a position where few queries are ever raised as to its policies et cetera. The election that took place some time ago, however, gave rise to a lot of controversy.

Let me say at the beginning that I am indebted to the Chatham House unit, which has supplied me with opinion polls and other data, as well as to Dr Mikalaj Packajeu and Dr Alan Flowers, who provided me with a briefing around the subject of this debate. I am sure everyone will notice that is not condemnatory; I am looking for a way through the woods here.

The first question is: why should we listen to Russia? I like to think I am a pragmatic person, and one good reason to listen to Russia is that it is the next-door power and it, frankly, has its own version of the Monroe doctrine. In the last few days, the United States has been gleefully celebrating its misplaced policy of 60 years in Cuba. It could have achieved what it has now much more quickly, had it been more flexible. Russia similarly regards the countries on its border as those in which they want, at least, to keep powers not hostile to them. That is one of the difficulties with Belarus.

Another factor about Belarus that we must face up to is that no fewer than 79% of the population has either a positive or a very positive attitude towards Russia. Some 58% think that Russia should stay neutral in the present dispute but—according to a poll provided by Chatham House, not an internal poll of Belarus’s people—32% of the population of Belarus support a union with Russia. Some 46% would like to be united to both the EU and Russia. But one sees from this no outright rejection of the big neighbour next door, and we need to bear that in mind when tackling this problem.

The Lukashenko regime is undoubtedly unpopular, and on a very wide basis. One of the results of this will certainly be what has happened in other former Soviet countries—an increasing brain drain. Repressive countries lose the best of their middle class, and this has been demonstrated time and again. I live in Cambridge and it is full of people from other parts of Europe who are the cream of their societies and have chosen to leave to live in what they rightly see is a free society. The first danger for Belarus is that it will lose its population by people just leaving the country.

The election in Belarus was not wholly supported in Russia. The day after, 9 August 2020, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the election circumstances “were not ideal”. For a Russian, that is a strong statement. When the main leader of the opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, met Macron, she called on Vladimir Putin

“to play a constructive role in the crisis resolution.”

This is the key: if there is to be a resolution there, we need Russia on board. At the moment, for Russia, Belarus is dependable, even if not particularly savoury. It is rather like the old American phrase, “He may be a something, but he’s our something”. We have to make it possible for the people of Belarus to change their Government. Crucial to this is whether the Russians can be persuaded to treat Lukashenko in the same way they treated Yanukovych—in other words, to give him a way out of Belarus, because he is not going to leave voluntarily.

The next thing that I think is important is that if he is replaced at the helm, it has to be with a Government who will be pragmatic in their approach to Russia. This is where the gist of my resolution comes in because the big powers, so to speak, of Europe, which are France and Germany, I hope with the assistance of Britain and the United States, must put their work behind an optimal solution. This must be accompanied by a strong message to go to the Belarusians.

I know that in June the IMF board discussed a proposal for a historic $650 billion general allocation of special drawing rights. Some of that, roughly $1 billion, is due to go to Belarus, and this will be voted on early in August. I think, following a precedent in 2019 when the IMF denied Nicolás Maduro access to $400 million of special drawing rights on the grounds that the international community did not recognise him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, the IMF should not decline, but should freeze for the time being that allocation of special drawing rights. I have signed, together with a number of other Members, a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking him to look at Britain taking that position within the IMF. In other words, in looking to change the regime in Belarus, we have to be firm as well as fair. We cannot be soft, but at the same time we must not indulge ourselves in some sort of hate fest, and we certainly have to realise that, unless we can bring Russia on board, we are very unlikely to succeed.

Lukashenko has become a very toxic ally for Moscow. He is not popular there, and I was told when I was in Moscow that the chemistry between him and Putin is absolutely awful, but at the same time, he is the only leader the Russians have—he is their only dog in this fight—so we, as responsible western nations, have to make it possible to construct a solution where we can get a regime change in Belarus that is acceptable to the Russians. I suggest we ask the Russians to help with an exit strategy for Lukashenko, and I hope the Foreign Office will work with its colleagues in Europe and Washington to form a common position which can lead us to a desired result.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, first, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who, as he said, is a UK delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as, indeed, I am. I thank him for tabling this important subject for debate today. As he said, in PACE we have debated the situation in Belarus on a number of occasions and we have received strong support for the kind of action he is calling for today and, indeed, for going further.

The presidential election held in Belarus on 9 August last year, which saw Lukashenko returned based on the so-called official result was described by independent observers, and indeed by our Foreign Secretary, as neither free nor fair. I particularly commend the United Kingdom Government for rightly describing Lukashenko’s subsequent inauguration as fraudulent. However, the protests against the regime in Belarus have resulted in an unprecedented series of arrests of innocent political prisoners and a vicious crackdown on journalists—and, in particular, against civil society activists and opposition politicians.

Indeed, the lengths to which the dictator will go to clamp down on opposition activities reached a new height on 23 May with the hijacking by the regime of Ryanair flight FR4978 to detain an opposition activist, Roman Protasevič, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. It was an unprecedented, astonishing state hijack, widely condemned by the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and almost everyone—with the notable exception of Russia, which considered it an “internal matter” for Belarus.

What can we do, here and now, to respond to these acts of repression and barbarism? First, as individuals we can protest. But even more usefully, as parliamentarians we can give some hope to individual prisoners—as I am doing, along with others here in Westminster and around Europe, by adopting one of them.

Ten months ago, the prisoner I adopted, an arborist called Stepan Latypov, was arrested on a trumped-up charge because one of the chemicals that he uses for his work as an arborist can be combined with others to make explosives. He was brought to court limping, with bruises and a bandaged hand resulting from the way he had been treated. He was threatened that if he did not admit his guilt, his relatives would be persecuted. He then attempted suicide. Meanwhile, pressure is exerted on him by refusing visitors, controlling correspondence, round-the-clock surveillance and limiting access to showers and other facilities.

The delay in bringing Stepan to trial puts more pressure on him; however, it also looks as if they are playing for time. The fact that he and other prisoners know that we are monitoring their situation gives them some hope and, I hope, lets the regime know that we are watching. Specifically, will the Minister arrange for our ambassador in Minsk to request a visit by an official from the embassy to Stepan in prison, to report back on his condition and whether and when he is to be charged? I hope he will deal with that in his reply.

As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, we need to go further collectively to help all the prisoners, journalists and opposition activists. We also need to get new, fully democratic elections in Belarus, as was in fact demanded by another of our colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in his report to the parliamentary assembly.

Along with other Peers, including the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and Members of Parliament I have written to the Chancellor, urging stronger financial sanctions on the Lukashenko regime. We should be using our position on the IMF board to veto the billion dollars due to be allocated to Belarus. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe said, the IMF previously denied funds to the Maduro regime in Venezuela, so there is clear precedent for taking such action.

In spite of Brexit, London remains one of the key financial centres, so our Government should look at further ways that we can bring pressure on Lukashenko to move quickly to accept the inevitable, because it is inevitable that he will have to go. I support the proposal in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that we should join with the French, the Germans and the United States to pressure Russia to accept that there must be new elections in Belarus. But we also need to take our own action, individually and collectively here in the United Kingdom, to put pressure on the Lukashenko regime. I hope that we will get a positive response from the Minister on that action too.

Viscount Waverley Portrait Viscount Waverley (CB)
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My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. We have just been debating in Grand Committee matters relating to the democratic state of India—a country of 1.4 billion people and a far cry from what brings us together now.

I intend to broaden the debate. I fear that President Putin will not be persuaded by the question before us. Free and fair elections in Belarus would be followed by an increasing call for free and fair elections in Russia, presenting existential threats to the personal survival of both leaders. While it is to be applauded, therefore, I fear that the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is mission impossible in the short-term. However, he has presented us with a helpful opportunity for a road map in the longer term. The challenge was articulated in an interesting recent piece in the Financial Times, which said:

“Nationalist autocrats need enemies abroad to justify political repression at home, and the Russian president has long found his in the west.”

If perceived wisdom is correct, Moscow is targeting de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia. The situation in Belarus has now become, therefore, a test of autocracy over democracy, tyranny over decency, and self-preservation. The Kremlin’s gameplay of taking control of Belarusian security institutions—the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the armed forces—is, in addition to the aim of ensuring that Lukashenko retains power, demobilising the protest movement through mass repression.

Messaging from Minsk or Moscow about constitutional changes and new elections will only ever be on Moscow’s terms. Any proposed constitutional changes will only ever be paving the way for greater economic integration with Russia, with the omnipresent risk of invasion—either under cover of darkness, or, more radically, in order to discourage all such countries from moving geopolitically westward.

How, therefore, can we support the people of Belarus while managing the relationship with President Putin’s Russia—recognising that the ploy of disruption is Kremlin gameplay, but still responding to it with a tough approach on ground and sea, not just with words? The recent Black Sea right of passage exercise is clearly a starter for things to come, as part of a grand strategy. We must be prepared to stand up for what we believe in, beating the drum with parallel savvy engineering and diplomacy. The principle of critical dialogue must on all accounts be maintained. We must be consistent, and address the fundamental lack of trust on both sides.

President Macron and Chancellor Merkel—with her somewhat conflicting messaging—suggest that a culture of automatically blaming Russia for everything is wide of the mark, and a consequence of the current relationship. They are making heavy weather of it. News today that the United States and Germany have reached a truce over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has sent shock waves through energy security concerns. This could conceivably put Ukraine back on a journey into the Russian fold, notwithstanding a surety from Berlin to impose sanctions on Russia if Moscow threatens Ukraine on energy security. If I were President Putin, I would see this as a potential chink in the armour, with the West undermining its position.

I do not profess an immediate solution to the desperate Belarusian issue, other than to publicly urge President Putin to support ideals built on decency and accountability, which could be turned into a quick win for Russia and lead to a more constructive relationship throughout.

Global leaders must learn from history. The time has come to understand what has happened to put us in the situation in which we now find ourselves, based on the many examples that exist—Myanmar being just one current example—and to devise whatever channels that, with strict conditionality, could be best made to work, including, if necessary, a surety of freedom from prosecution in return for free elections.

The international community should then enact a “citizens first” global charter with a courts-based system to adjudicate when leaders clearly demonstrate failure to uphold their responsibilities to their people. We must not give up on this, but the time has come for like-minded actors to up their game and to be more smart—but not Machiavellian—about it. A fundamental reset is required. Now is the time for a new world order, supported by actions, not words. Let Belarus be the test. Failure will spell trouble.