As Shadow Foreign Minister (Europe & Americas), I wrote for the i on the worrying situation in Belarus. Read my article here.
“Over the past two weeks the world has watched as tens of thousands of brave Belarusians have taken to the streets of towns and cities across their nation to protest against their government and decry the election that was stolen from them, believed to be rigged.
The response has been grimly predictable from a state often described as Europe’s last dictatorship. President Lukashenko has been in office for 26 years and, faced with thousands of protestors calling for their democratic rights, he responded with violence. Security forces have beaten demonstrators and detained thousands, including journalists covering the election. Internet access in much of Belarus was temporarily suspended, stifling communications and disrupting protests. Amnesty International has said there is mounting evidence of “a campaign of widespread torture” against detained protestors.
Despite this, Belarusians have shown extraordinary courage. Since the initial crackdown there has been an explosion of public support for democracy. Videos shared widely on social media have shown President Alexander Lukashenko being jeered by factory workers in scenes unthinkable just weeks ago. Tens of thousands of Belarusians have returned to the streets on a daily basis. The opposition candidate in the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has continued calls for action from exile in neighbouring Lithuania.
So far President Lukashenko has dug in, showing no willingness to address the concerns of protestors or consider new elections. Chillingly, he said there would be no new elections until “you kill me”, and has appealed to Russia, Belarus’s chief ally, for assistance in facing down the calls for reform and democracy.
The bravery of the protesters is a cause for hope but the situation is fragile. Belarusians have the right to decide their own future and to select their own government in free and fair elections. The UK, working with international partners, should do all it can to support that goal. Belarus is a litmus test of this Conservative government’s willingness to stand up for democratic rights.
It is good that the UK government has rejected the results of the election and now supports targeted sanctions, which have been agreed at EU level, against those responsible for the fraud and violence. But for the last few years, the UK government has made a series of misguided attempts to engage the Lukashenko regime to develop commercial interests, sending the wrong diplomatic signals and getting nothing in return.
It supported the lifting of sanctions in 2016, sent the first UK minister to visit Minsk in 2017, supported an investment jamboree in the City of London in 2019, and only last summer sought to initiate a trade dialogue, despite the consistently repressive nature of the regime and the recent history of broken promises of reform. Now, Britain should be trying to leverage its position as the second largest investor in Belarus for positive political influence.
The UK government has also called for an investigation into the Belarus election by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental group of 57 countries. The OSCE plays a crucial role in monitoring elections and has documented frequent democratic shortcomings in the past in Belarus. It is therefore troubling that, four days before Belarus’s election, the Government quietly withdrew its page on election monitoring from the Foreign Office’s website and that a key NGO, the British East West Centre, funded by the Government to run observation missions, says that election monitoring is “under threat”.
The Government cannot credibly call for an enlarged role for the OSCE while also not directly supporting it. Rather, Britain should be a leading advocate for democracy and human rights. It should be at the forefront of activities like election monitoring which help shine a light on electoral fraud and malpractice. It should be exploring options to support Belarusian civil society, for example through academic scholarships or funding for independent media.
Finally, Britain should be working with our international allies to build a coordinated approach based on clear principles. The UK has both a moral obligation but also a political one: it is a joint-signatory of the Budapest Memorandum, signed after the end of the Cold War, which committed all parties to respect the sovereignty and independence of Belarus, giving the UK a special responsibility in this instance, even if others have not stuck to their obligations since.”