I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Belarus ahead of the important parliamentary elections there in September.
I should first like to condemn the recent spate of bomb attacks in Minsk. Whether they were motivated by extreme hooliganism, terrorism or other factors, they are to be condemned, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the 50 or so people who were injured, many seriously. I hope not only that the perpetrators will soon be brought before the courts and the necessary justice dispensed, but that the police investigation will not be used as a pretext for curbing the freedoms of civic society and those religious, political and media organisations that espouse only peace.
Belarus stands at an important juncture in its history. The choice could not be more stark: the parliamentary elections in September will either provide a continuance of the status quo or an opportunity for a new dawn in which all the people of Belarus will be able to realise their full potential, and fulfil their dreams and those of their families.
For too long, political discussions inside and outside Belarus have been unhelpfully trapped in silos, too often accompanied by the outdated rhetoric of yesterday rather than the lexicon of the future and the language of hope. It is a false dichotomy to talk of Belarus choosing between east and west, for Belarus is strategically and geographically positioned to take advantage of both relationships, as it should—it is in its national interest to do so. One relationship does not have to suffer because of the desire to deepen ties with other partners. Belarus can be politically polygamous.
Although it may be convenient for some to talk in immediate, post-Soviet language, such language may rally to history, but it does not champion the future. Belarus can never cast aside its close ties with Russia—the Slavic and Russian influences on it remain strong—but no one is calling for that. Indeed, I believe that the Belarusian people would not countenance such a mistaken proposition. However, the European characteristic of Belarus is equally unmistakable and evident, and is a proud element within the make-up of Belarus, which is a fine, cultured country of brave people. Recently, a marker was placed in Polotsk to denote the geographical centre of Europe. Of course, it is not the only candidate—there are several rival claims—but it is another indicator that Belarus is part of the family of European nations. That is why I hope the country will move towards realising its true and full European potential, with the many benefits that closer co-operation will bring, not least in these difficult economic times. Belarus, like all nations, needs to minimise its risk to the vagaries of the global economy, and part of that process means seeking out new markets and opportunities, be they for large companies or small and medium-sized business. For the impressive Belarusian entrepreneurs, of which I know there are plenty, the future holds many opportunities.
What about UK-Belarusian relations? We enjoy good relations with Belarus—I would even say very good relations—in combating organised crime. Trade and investment are growing all the time, although the pace of growth is slow and could increase much further, given the right conditions. That is why Belarus's international reputation is important. I know of several UK companies that would like to expand into Minsk and other Belarusian cities, but they are worried that their reputations could be damaged in the process. Those justified, multi-million pound concerns should be taken seriously. They are a huge missed opportunity for the Belarus economy, but I do not believe that such opportunities are lost for ever. That is a matter for the Government of Belarus. Although Belarus might seek to improve its own image, the reality rather than the perception of progress matters.
When Belarus looks westward, who does my hon. Friend think will have more influence over the future direction of the country: the United States or the European Union?
My hon. Friend, as always, asks a pertinent and relevant question. Belarus's relationship with the United States is a matter for the Belarus Government, and I am talking today predominantly about the Belarus-UK relationship and its relationship with the European Union. As I set out briefly already—I hope to set it out in more detail—there are a great many opportunities for Belarus to engage at all sorts of levels with the European Union. The difference between the types of discourse that the Belarusians could have with the Americans and the EU is not an issue, because Europe and the UK agree on the things that America is concerned about.
To reiterate, although Belarus might seek to improve its image, the reality rather than the perception of progress matters. A decision for progress will capture the imagination of international investors and increase foreign direct investment. The City of London is waiting to increase business with Belarus when conditions are right.
My hon. Friend is a great champion for the City of London and an assiduous constituency MP, and I am delighted that he has brought this important issue to the House before the recess. Does he think that non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International also have a part to play in developing the international community's perception of Belarus's performance on human rights reforms and the development of democratic institutions? I think it is genuinely trying to do those things, and it needs encouragement to make progress.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I mentioned civic society in my introduction, and I shall refer specifically to NGOs later in my speech. I am grateful for that intervention and look forward to responding to that point.
The process of parliamentary elections in September 2008 is important. The word "process" is significant, because the process rather than the outcome matters to the international community. The EU and hundreds of businesses within it, including in the UK, as I said, are eagerly awaiting a democratic nod from Belarus.
I welcome the recent invitation from the Belarus Government to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to observe the elections. I hope that the OSCE will be given unfettered access to as many polling districts as it requests, that sufficient numbers of observers will be granted visas, and that they will be issued in plenty of time for the OSCE advance teams to prepare and set up. The invitation to OSCE is a positive first step on a multi-step stairway—a "process". The Government of President Lukashenko probably have more to gain from free and fair elections than possibly anyone else who would hold office or seek to be seated in Parliament. The European Commission's European neighbourhood policy shadow action plan is just one manifestation of the potential benefits of closer ties with the EU.
Democratic elections are not about discrediting Governments, they are about legitimising them. Differences of opinion should not be used as some form of diplomatic brinkmanship but seen for what they are—differences of opinion. That is why Minsk, London, Bonn, Vienna and Brussels should enter into dialogue, recognising each other's sovereignty, and undertake discussions with mutual respect. Then, I hope, they will move towards mutually beneficial co-operation. At the same time, commentators on Belarus need to understand that there are no shortcuts to democracy and that tokenism can never replace proper accountability and representative democracy. The parliamentary elections must be free and fair.
I do not wish to spend the whole debate on the parliamentary elections alone, although they are important. I wish to touch on media freedoms, which are linked to the elections. It is disappointing for all Belarus-watchers, and a retrograde step, that the Belarus Government recently tightened media freedoms, including the use of the internet, by introducing a new law on the mass media.
It is not acceptable that journalists and internet editors are being fined and harassed and having their technical equipment confiscated. Internet sites such as charter97.org are not enemies of the Belarusian state—that is a laughable idea. That site is run by Belarusians for Belarusians, and all love their country to a man and woman. I do not subscribe to the view expressed by some that parts of Belarus lack self-confidence or aspiration. Those attributes are imbued in the Belarusian psyche. Freedom of the press is not an optional democratic bolt-on but a key and fundamental freedom.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, and whoever is in outright control in a future Parliament, or perhaps in coalition, it is important that Belarus improves its human rights record. It is an international embarrassment that Belarus, at the heart of Europe, is still holding political prisoners in its jails. Those prisoners need to be released.
I recognise that there has been some progress on political prisoners. This February, five internationally recognised prisoners were released from prison, and the court case against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee was rightly suspended. Those were positive steps and could lead the way to the normalisation of EU-Belarus relations, but more needs to be done. I hope that all remaining political prisoners will be released before the September elections.
The strength of a nation is not counted by the number of political prisoners whom it detains. Belarus must recognise the fundamental freedoms that are enshrined not only in British and European laws and Parliaments but in the hearts of men and women around the world. Those universal freedoms are the desire of all men and women, wherever they live—the freedom to choose their own Government and express their voice in an unencumbered way, the freedom of religion and expression, and the freedom to have members of Parliament chosen by the people, for the people, not by diktat. Those are not just western freedoms, they are Belarusian freedoms as well.
Freedom is not a sign of weakness but, I submit, a sign of strength. Belarus knows a lot about freedom and its high cost. Many will know of the Bielski brothers, the brave partisans who fought the German army victoriously. They started off with just three or four people and escaped to the woods, then formed a large group of more than 1,000 partisans, who did a great deal of damage to the Nazis. There is a forthcoming film about the Bielski brothers, called "Defiance", starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski. I hope that it will shed some light on the suffering of not just the Jewish population, which suffered greatly, but Belarus as a whole.
When I last visited Belarus, the whole nation was celebrating the defeat of the Nazis, who wreaked widespread havoc, pain and destruction, destroying two thirds of Minsk and other parts of the country. The people of Belarus never gave up. They continued to believe in a day when people would be able to speak openly and freely without fear of being rounded up, detained and thrown into prison. They rightly dreamed of a day when they would be able to express themselves freely and openly. The story of the Jerusalem in the forest is a remarkable and exceptional one of human triumph over great suffering.
Similarly, I hope that the persecution of faith groups in Belarus, particularly the Christian Church, will end. Most people thought that the persecution of religious groups had been left behind in the 1930s and 1940s, and it is perhaps one of the worst excesses of overly sensitive Governments around the world. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches need to ensure that when they witness or hear of the persecution of other faith groups, or of smaller Christian denominations and Churches, they do not walk by on the other side. They must make formal protests and speak out for the persecuted and imprisoned and those who have trumped-up charges brought against them and are prosecuted falsely. Non-governmental organisations should also be free to go about their important work.
I know that the Government of President Lukashenko are aware of their responsibilities under the international covenant on civil and political rights, and I look forward to hearing that progress has been made on the issues that I have mentioned in the weeks leading up to the elections. I hope that those elections are free and fair and not characterised by intimidation and fraud; that in the weeks leading up to September, there will not be a crackdown on civil society, NGOs and religious groups; that there will not be registration problems for other candidates and parties; that opposition parties will be able to print campaign materials and campaign openly; and that political websites will not be closed down.
I have a question for President Lukashenko. Does he want history to remember him as the leader who brought Belarus into a new era of economic prosperity and self-confidence, or does he want to be consigned to the long list of history's leaders who have put self before country? I believe that he knows history and the importance of legacy, and therefore I, like many others, am waiting to see whether he will do what we all hope—lead Belarus into a bright future.
As I said earlier, the elections in Belarus are about process, not outcome. I hope that that process will not be rigged and that it will be free and fair. Within 12 weeks, we will all find out whether that has been the case.
I congratulate Mark Pritchard on securing and introducing the debate. I know that he has raised the matter in business questions, but it is important for us to discuss it before the recess in the light of recent and forthcoming events in Belarus. The hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in political affairs in eastern Europe and Russia, and I commend him on his work as chairman of the all-party group on Russia; he introduced me to the Russian ambassador last month, which was a very interesting meeting.
I share the hon. Gentleman's condemnation of the recent distressing bomb attacks in Minsk. The reasons behind them have not been discovered. I share his fear and trepidation about the way in which the Belarusian authorities might go about conducting investigations and what the results might be, given their appalling human rights record in dealing with law and order.
In the 18 years that Alexander Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus, it has become clear that the country is the last place in Europe ruled by a dictator. The US has described it as an "outpost of tyranny". Belarus was relatively prosperous when it was part of the USSR. Unfortunately, it has been in steep decline since the end of the Soviet Union. It is important for us to remember that the Belarusian people have been the victims of the tyranny of Lukashenko's regime, which has cracked down on dissidents and managed the country in an incredibly poor way. The economy is crumbling. As has been said, Belarus is looking towards the past rather than the future.
The regime has been characterised by many human rights abuses, particularly with regard to the treatment of political opposition and dissidents. All the institutions have been subverted to the will of the President. Worryingly, over the past couple of months, even more rigid legislation has been passed to put a muzzle on the country's independent media. That is a hallmark of a state that wants to oppress its people. As a result of its human rights abuses, Belarus finds itself increasingly isolated in the international community and increasingly dependent on its relations with Russia. We must make the point that it is vital that relations with the EU are put on a better footing. I will ask the Minister about the twin-track strategy later.
I will focus on three main areas: democracy and human rights in Belarus, its relations with the EU and its relations with Russia. Before I move on to those topics, I will share a related point. Belarus is not very familiar to people in the UK. However, there are more links than are obvious at first glance. When I mentioned to my PA, Julie, that I would be speaking in a debate on Belarus, she told me that when she was growing up, two sisters had stayed with her family for six months under one of the many programmes that encourage children from Belarus to come to the UK to improve their health, which was affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Such programmes have been run by a variety of charities such as Chernobyl Children's Lifeline and Chernobyl Children's Project UK. About 4,000 children come to the UK each year for recuperative holidays, which have been proven to have a huge positive impact on their health. It is estimated that a stay of just a few weeks can extend life expectancy by as much as two years. There are, therefore, more links than are obvious.
In an Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend Willie Rennie in February, he raised the problems faced by such children in getting visas to come to this country as a result of the introduction of biometric passports. Some people had to make a 10-hour round trip to Minsk to obtain their visas. For children in a very ill state, that was a great barrier to being able to go on a holiday that would improve their health. The Minister for Europe, said on that occasion:
"I will take personal responsibility for undertaking further inquiries and then meet him".—[Hansard, 25 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 880.]
The Minister has done that and is to be commended, but I urge the Minister for the Middle East to raise the issue with the Minister for Europe because not all the problems that were identified have yet been resolved. It would be useful if the matter could be pursued.
The catalogue of human rights abuses in Belarus is well documented, as I have said. The political oppression and the treatment of the media are abhorrent to free and democratic societies such as ours. The Government are right to express their disgust at the human rights abuses through various EU and UN channels. I urge them to put further pressure on the regime in Belarus where possible, which I know they are keen to do. That must involve pressure to release political prisoners, to investigate the disappearance of political opponents and to hold free and fair elections. Restrictions on the country's media must be lifted. I welcome the Government's statements and actions on these matters to date, but I press the Minister to say what further action the Government will consider to get the message through to Belarus. What further pressure can we bring to bear so that the regime will understand that its abuses of human rights are unacceptable?
It would be interesting to know how many political opponents of the Belarusian regime have been given asylum in the UK over recent years and if any have applied for asylum and been refused. If the Minister does not have the figures here, perhaps he could write to hon. Members present.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin mentioned the forthcoming elections. There was no international monitoring of last year's local elections. If we are to have confidence that the elections are free and fair, it is vital that international monitors are granted access. Does the Minister expect there to be monitoring of the forthcoming elections or are there still significant obstacles to that?
That is welcome news indeed. Perhaps it is another sign of the slight thawing of relations that has been noticed recently between Belarus and EU countries. I hope it will provide a glimmer of hope for the future.
On the media, it filled me with dismay to read that in 2005 the state-owned monopoly printers terminated the contract of the last remaining independent newspaper, and that just last month new laws were introduced requiring all websites in Belarus to be registered with the Government. Journalists can be subject to tough penalties, such as being put in prison for two years, if they reproduce foreign media reports that discredit Belarus. That is unacceptable, as is the persecution of religious groups that we have heard about, particularly the appalling treatment of Christians. Those things must be roundly condemned.
Bob Spink made a useful intervention to point out the important role of organisations such as Amnesty International. I declare an interest as a member of that group. That such organisations can get into countries such as Belarus and report accurately on what is happening is vital for those of us in the international community who want to put pressure on such regimes. I commend and applaud the work of such organisations. I urge hon. Members from all parties to take an interest in the reports that they produce.
The EU has adopted a twin-track approach in its relations with Belarus. High-level contact has been suspended, but the door has been left open so that if reforms take place there can be greater co-operation. Sanctions have been imposed, lifted, and imposed again. With the recent crackdown on political opponents and the introduction of restrictive legislation, it is right that sanctions have been put in place. Does the Minister think that the current strategy is working or are there alternative strategies that could be used? How effective does he think the sanctions are? I note that the answer to a parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Moore in November 2007 stated that no Belarusian assets were frozen in the UK in line with the EU sanctions. Has the position changed since then or is it still the case that no such assets fall into that category?
I am particularly interested in the perceived thawing of relations signalled by the setting up of a European Commission office in Minsk and the acceptance of election monitors for the forthcoming elections. Is there hope that this warming of relations could become more permanent? What should Europe's response be to ensure that happens as we walk the line between wanting to encourage reform while not condoning the human rights abuses in Belarus?
I turn to relations between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenko's primary foreign policy objective has been good relations with Russia, but clearly they came under considerable stress during the Putin presidency, particularly owing to the many disputes over gas and oil supplies and their impact on the Belarusian economy. Will the Minister tell us what talks the UK or EU are having with Belarus to avoid future disruption to energy supplies owing to pipeline disputes? Obviously, with the increasing dependence on other parts of the world for energy supplies, Belarus and Ukraine are in pivotal positions as major transit routes for oil and gas supplies. Does he think that a greater number of pipeline routes would decrease the likelihood and seriousness of any future disputes, and will the Government actively pursue alternative supply routes? Can he provide us with further information about the Government's actions in that area?
Interest in the thawing relations with the EU is counterbalanced by a look through the history of Russian relations. At one point Russia said that Belarus should be part of the Russian Federation, but at other times suggested that the two countries could be joined together in a united state. At what stage is that proposal, and does the Minister believe that the warmer overtures to the EU represent a policy shift by Lukashenko and a move away from the idea floated of a united Belarusian and Russian state?
On that note, we are fortunate enough to have more time than usual for the Minister to reply to the debate, following the contribution from Mr. Francois, and I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard on securing this important debate and on enriching it with some of his own personal experiences in dealing with this important European country.
As we have heard, Belarus's history reflects much of that of central and eastern Europe, as it has variously been part of the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Russian and Soviet empires, before eventually attaining independence in 1991. As we also heard, it did not escape the ravages of the 20th century, having been fought over by Poland, the Soviets and Nazi Germany. In fact it has the dubious distinction in the second world war of being attacked by both the Soviets, under Stalin's agreement with Hitler to divide Poland, and then by Hitler's Nazis, so Belarus was fought over more than once during that great world conflagration. The appalling destruction and murder that resulted meant that the country lost more than a quarter of its population, including many members of its Polish and Jewish minorities.
Unfortunately, the end of the second world war was not the end of the suffering of the Belarusian people. Stalin launched a period of Russification, and then Sovietisation, of which Nikita Khrushchev declared:
"The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism".
As well as the inefficiencies of the Soviet economy, one of the last legacies that the Soviet Union bequeathed to Belarus was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which affects much of the southern part of the country to this day. Given its 20th century history, it was hoped that Belarus could enjoy the outbreak of freedom and prosperity enjoyed by so much of central and eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin wall. However, Belarus, under President Lukashenko, seems to swim stubbornly against the tide of history, and has been described by President George W. Bush's Administration as the "last dictatorship in Europe".
President Lukashenko, who has been President of Belarus for most of its history since independence, is an autocrat presiding over one of the only countries in Europe that the non-governmental organisation, Freedom House, still categorises as "not free". The last presidential election, in 2006, was described by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe as having
"failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections".
With regards to elections, the media and human rights, Belarus unfortunately shows many of the hallmarks of a dictatorship. I am sure that the Minister will agree that Belarus's behaviour is even more surprising, given that many of its neighbours have had immense success modernising their economies and political systems, with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland becoming relatively prosperous members of the EU, and Ukraine progressing to becoming a partner country and, in time, a full member.
Something that clearly marks Belarus out as a dictatorship is its treatment of the media. President Lukashenko has even boasted that his Government use "serious pressure" to control the media and that he is in charge of this process. Unfortunately, such media control has continued in the run-up to the parliamentary elections which, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin pointed out, are scheduled for September 2008. He also mentioned that the Belarusian Government recently introduced a new media law that will restrict the internet and foreign broadcasters and further cut Belarus off from the outside world and objective news. In the absence of an impartial media, Lukashenko has tended to shore up his internal position by focusing on "the enemy abroad". He complains about Polish and Lithuanian NATO bases near the Belarusian borders, and publicly urges his army to step up preparations for potential conflict. He has even raised the spectre of the Russian mafia to scare people domestically into supporting a strong state. As a result, Belarus has been listed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the 10 worst countries in which to be a journalist.
It is unfortunate, too, that over the years, a number of Opposition leaders have been imprisoned or have simply disappeared. The most high-profile leader is Alexander Kozulin, who is serving a five-year jail sentence for taking part in a pro-democracy demonstration after the most recent elections. Consequently, the recent explosion on
What should be our response to Belarus? It is undoubtedly in our interests to try to foster a more open and democratic Belarus, but that leaves a classic dilemma, with which the Minister will be familiar from his dealings in the middle east, of whether it is better to engage further with Belarus in the hope that by doing so we will produce an environment where Belarus can see the benefits that would flow from a normalisation of relations, although we risk sending a signal to the Belarusian regime that we approve of its behaviour. Alternatively, we could introduce increased measures, sending a clear message to the regime, but at the cost of making the people of Belarus pay for their Government's actions.
The pragmatic solution to that dilemma is to implement actions that specifically target the regime, rather than the ordinary populace. That should take the form of travel bans and asset freezes for members of the regime, as well as giving moral and material support to the political opposition, who are trying to promote democracy in the country. To this end, we support the EU's action, agreed in 2005, to target an extra 31 members of the Lukashenko regime identified as responsible for the flawed elections with asset freezes and travel bans. We also support the continued freeze on the implementation of the partnership and co-operation agreements between the EU and Belarus.
We believe that targeted action should be continued in the run-up to the next elections, to send a message to President Lukashenko that relations can improve only if elections are free and fair. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin stressed the need for free and fair elections, and we concur with that view. I would be interested to know whether Ministers have any further proposals for additional action that could be taken in an attempt to send that message to President Lukashenko in a way that he might understand. Because of the Belarusian Government's behaviour, the political opposition are at a severe disadvantage. To support the political process in Belarus it is desirable to give support to political parties and civil society, such as those, for instance, who are grouped under the heading of the united democratic forces, to encourage them to continue to argue for the development of democracy and true plurality in their country.
Another method by which we can encourage Belarus to engage with the outside world is to set out the benefits of such engagement. An open and democratic Belarus already has the assurance of a better relationship with the European Union, based on the European neighbourhood policy, which is intended to promote further economic integration to improve the lot of countries bordering the EU. Belarus borders three EU states, and Ukraine has already applied to join the EU. Belarusians have seen the economic progress of the Baltic states, made possible, for instance, by access to the single market. A democratic and open Belarus would be likely to have the support of its neighbouring states for beginning a process of further integration into the European Union, which would arguably benefit Belarus as a whole. The EU could also help Belarus in the provision and sharing of technology to improve the environment. That would be particularly relevant, given the large-scale environmental degradation in the south resulting from Chernobyl fallout.
To conclude, Belarus suffered enormously in the 20th century. While many of its neighbours took advantage of their independence to build up their economies and political institutions, Belarus stubbornly remained a dictatorship, starved of freedom and investment. Belarus has a clear choice. It can move towards engagement with the outside world, attract investment and improve the lot of its people, or it can remain an isolated outpost of authoritarian rule. We in the UK, with our partners in the EU, need to help the Belarusian people by targeting sanctions on the Belarusian regime, and supporting the development of civil society in that country. To that end, we support the measures that are already in place under the auspices of the European Union.
If Belarusians were given the opportunity to engage with the outside world, the benefits for them would be huge. They could have greater access to EU markets and easier travel, and they could begin a process that could, in time, lead to eventual EU membership. We need to help the Belarusian people to make a genuine choice. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what help, if any, we are giving to Belarusian civil society in the run-up to the elections, and what measures we are targeting on the regime to make it clear that failure to move towards an open and democratic society carries penalties, whereas reform brings with it signal advantages that would be in the interest of all the people of Belarus.
I thank Mark Pritchard for securing the debate and giving us the opportunity to examine a country that is deeply troubled but which lies, as he pointed out, close to the geographical heart of Europe, on the threshold of the European Union.
I want to express support and sympathy to those Belarusians who were injured in the explosion at the independence day concert in Minsk on
I assure the hon. Member for The Wrekin that Her Majesty's Government desire a constructive relationship with Belarus, as we do, of course, with other countries on the borders of the EU. If I have just one message, it is to encourage Belarus to see the September parliamentary elections as a good opportunity to rebuild that relationship, by demonstrating the ability to address important human rights concerns. A better relationship with the EU would bring easier travel, economic opportunities and the chance to contribute to discussions on issues that affect us all, such as the environment.
After all, as hon. Members reminded us during the debate, Belarus is very much a European country, but Europe has a very restricted relationship with Belarus. Belarus currently does not live up to the principles that Europe stands for: freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. As the hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us, 20 years ago, countries that are now respected members of the EU faced a choice between retreating into Soviet-style authoritarianism and welcoming freedom and democracy. Most chose the latter. Belarus did not, but the option remains open.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us that the country occupies a strategic position. When I looked it up on a map this morning, I saw that almost all the main roads from Poland, and therefore from western Europe, to Moscow pass through Belarus. Jo Swinson asked about gas supplies through pipelines running through Belarus into western Europe. That is an important and worrying consideration on which, I suppose, we could have a separate debate.
One of the things that concerns us is that not only does Russia provide Belarus with cheap gas—it is extremely cheap, in comparative terms, at present, and the Belarusian economy is doing well on the back of that—but Russian hydrocarbon money is buying up Belarusian industry. We shall come on to that, because the point about the opportunities that should exist in Belarus for greater diversification of ownership, particularly of new industries and development industries, is an important one.
The Minister has half answered my question before I have asked it, but I am happy to give him the opportunity to provide the other half of a reply. All countries should diversify risk in their economies. The issue is not between Russia or the European Union. If the conditions are right, both could provide huge opportunities for the Government and the people of Belarus, as the Minister says.
Yes, I could not agree more. The question posed by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire about what to do about the predominance of Russian gas flowing into central Europe and topping up the gas supplies that are distributed around mainland Europe is a serious one, and not just in relation to Belarus's position as a country of passage. It could do very well out of that role if proper tolls and fees were paid. Part of its wealth in the past came from it, when cargoes of all sorts passed back and forth across that great region.
What we should do about the Russian domination of gas supplies to the European Union is a serious question. The plans to build a submerged pipeline under the Baltic sea, bypassing Poland, throw up all kinds of political issues that we could debate at another time. I hope that we will.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh reminded us that Belarus has been occupied by invading armies on a number of occasions and has liberated itself, sometimes with help. I think he was making the point that its liberty has been hard won many times. I am convinced that the will to confirm independence, sovereignty and democracy is very much alive in Belarus, and that the Belarusians draw strength from the fact that they can look across their northern and western frontiers to countries where those values flourish. That is important.
Two years ago, the European Union published a document with the wonderful EU title, "What the European Union could bring to Belarus". I do not know who dreamed up that title. It was probably some kind of a consultancy to which we paid a lot of money. I shall not get Bob Spink going on that, but I am sure he would agree. The paper contains examples of how the people of Belarus could benefit from a renewed dialogue with the EU, and says what the Belarusian Government need to do to achieve that. If Belarus takes steps towards achieving internationally recognised standards of democracy, the EU is ready to offer it a strong co-operative relationship based on mutual respect. I shall try to answer some of the hon. Lady's questions on this aspect of the debate.
As the hon. Member for The Wrekin said, a good relationship with the EU would give foreign investors more confidence in Belarus. Belarusian products would get greater access to the EU market and Belarusian people would find it easier to travel to the EU for business, education or holidays. When I asked departmental officials how much trade and investment there is between our countries, I was quite shocked by the answer. Belarus has a population of nearly 10 million, but trade between our countries is tiny. The latest figures that I have are for 2005, when UK exports to Belarus totalled £7 million—that is nothing—and consisted mainly of chemicals, textiles and machinery.
Imports from Belarus, however, totalled £276 million, so we are an important market for that country. It sent us mostly oil and oil products. To reinforce the hon. Gentleman's point, that is a bad sign. I am sure that that money is very useful to Belarus—£276 million in hard currency is not to be sniffed at—but it would be wonderful if it came from other products. It is a sign that there is great potential in Belarus to produce other things and diversify, but that is not happening. That is why the hon. Gentleman's comments on diversification and investment were so important.
The established collective position of the EU is that Belarus should begin to make demonstrable and irreversible progress on certain issues that are listed in the document, "What the European Union could bring to Belarus". Those issues include free and fair elections, freedom of the media, and non-governmental organisations being allowed to work without restrictions. Other issues are the release of political prisoners, an independent judicial system, the end of arbitrary detention and arrest, and respect for the rights of minorities. Belarus would also be expected to allow people to join trade unions, allow people to run their own businesses, abolish the death penalty and accept the support and advice of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
We want to have the kind of relationship with Belarus that we have with other eastern neighbours, such as Ukraine and Moldova, which have taken significant steps towards democracy in the past few years. One of the EU's great achievements is the impact that it is able to have on its neighbours in that respect. Only last week, a delegation from the EU visited Belarus to discuss the forthcoming elections, and I was pleased to hear that the Belarusian authorities were ready to talk to the delegation. That is a good sign, and I very much hope that dialogue will continue. We will try to ensure that it does. The authorities can be in no doubt that the EU has much to offer Belarus, and it is their choice whether to accept that help.
All hon. Members who have spoken discussed human rights. To become a respected member of the international community, the Belarusian Government must respect the human rights of their people. Life in Belarus can be difficult for people who speak out against the authorities and for human rights. Their possessions could be confiscated or their businesses closed down. They face arrest, detention, interrogation and even physical abuse. We want Belarus to be a close friend and a good neighbour to the EU, but that cannot happen while those who are brave enough to question the Belarusian Government face such severe treatment for doing so.
I take this opportunity to offer our support to Belarus's three current political prisoners, Alexander Kozulin, Andrei Kim and Sergei Parsyukevich, and I call for their immediate release. I am sure all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate would echo those sentiments.
The UK is using bilateral programme funds to support civil society, particularly in the fields of human rights and independent media. Freedom of expression—through the media, for example—is fundamentally important to any democratic society. We hope that the new mass media law that the Government passed in June will not be used as a tool to oppress non-state media and foreign journalists. We welcome the progressive aspects of the law, which simplifies the registration process and takes international practice into account, but the law contains several worrying new provisions, including one that bans the financing of a mass media outlet from abroad or from any other so-called anonymous source. That is a potential threat to the development of independent journalists in Belarus.
Let me address the hon. Lady's point about visas and children from Chernobyl. My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has taken a special interest in the Belarusian children who have been affected by the Chernobyl fallout and who come to the UK and other countries for the respite care that is arranged by numerous charities. The distribution of their visas is a huge operation. To give an idea of the scale involved, in 2007, the British embassy in Minsk issued about 3,600 free visas to children who were sponsored by Chernobyl charities. I am proud that the UK is able to help, and that when those children return to Belarus, they take back happy memories of their time here.
When we introduced biometric visas for Belarus, we planned to open a seasonal collection facility in Gomel Oblast specifically for children who were coming to the UK for respite care. I looked on a map to find it, and I can show hon. Members —I am never quite sure how one uses visual aids in a debate, Mr. Hancock—where Chernobyl is. The wind was blown from the south-west and covered an area including towns and villages close to Gomel. We wanted to set up a biometric centre there specifically for those children, but the Belarusian Government blocked that proposal.
In response, we developed a bespoke mobile project, which is unique in the world, and the embassy and UK Border Agency devoted considerable resources to its planning and implementation. We send a team with a mobile biometric data collection machine to the cities of Mogilev and Gomel in the areas of Belarus from where 85 per cent. of the children outside Minsk come. The project seems to have been a great success. So far 843 children have given their details, with more to come. At the end of the peak season for applications, we will review the project and see whether we need to make any changes for next year. I hope that will ease any concerns.
As the hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us, the debate comes at an important time, as Belarus prepares for parliamentary elections in September. Belarus does not have a strong democratic tradition. It has a tradition of fighting for freedom and democracy, but that has been stifled for many years by repressive regimes. The OSCE described the 2006 presidential elections as
"severely flawed due to the arbitrary use of state power and restrictions on basic rights".
The EU said of local elections in 2007 that
"rights to freedom of opinion, of association and of assembly, as well as the rights of the opposition, were seriously impaired".
We have been encouraged by statements from Belarus that the elections will be democratic. President Lukashenko himself said:
"The election campaign should be as open and democratic as possible and absolutely transparent."
From this place, I call on him to uphold those declarations. I am pleased that Belarus has invited election observers from the OSCE to monitor the elections. That is a good sign, but we have also seen worrying signs. We are concerned about the pressure that the authorities are putting on the opposition. The regime is using administrative powers to discourage opposition members from standing in the elections, and some opposition members have lost their jobs because of their decision. Others have found their tax records scrutinised to find errors that disbar them from standing. There are restrictions on meetings, demonstrations and assemblies, and people have been arrested for distributing leaflets. Opposition organisations have been refused permission to register with the authorities, and those activities do not live up to the "open and democratic" promise made by President Lukashenko.
The Belarusian economy has been performing relatively well. According to the World Bank, average income per head last year was about $4,000. The country has a highly skilled and capable work force; Belarus does not need aid, it needs foreign investment, as the hon. Member for The Wrekin told us. If Belarus is to maintain its economic independence, it needs to take steps to liberalise its economy and open up to European and wider international investment. The EU is Belarus's second largest trading partner after Russia, although trade has declined since the EU withdrew the generalised system of preferences in 2007 because of the mistreatment of workers. Again, the EU stands ready to help Belarus, including through a re-energised programme under the European neighbourhood policy.
I shall finish by describing what the United Kingdom intends to do in Belarus as the elections approach. We will provide election observers, at the request of the OSCE. We will watch the election process carefully, making sure that the authorities treat opposition parties fairly. We will continue our long-standing support of democratic organisations, we will support efforts in the EU to promote democracy in Belarus, and we will ensure that the EU is ready to react to the elections in September.
I know that the hon. Gentleman will follow our activity closely over the next six months, and I hope that in the autumn we will be able to talk about Belarus again and congratulate it on a well-run election. I encourage the Belarusian authorities to live up to the spirit of the public statements that they have made about the election, and to take the advice of the OSCE mission. If, and only if, that happens, can the EU engage with Belarus as a fellow European country.