Belarus: Elections

Viscount Waverley Excerpts
Thursday 22nd July 2021

(3 months ago)

Grand Committee

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
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.

Lord Lexden Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lexden) (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, whose name is next on the list, has withdrawn from the debate, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.