Belarusian opposition politicians have made a remarkable plea for Britain to ratchet up pressure on the regime of dictator Alexander Lukashenko following a highly unusual meeting at the Foreign Office.
The visit – which took place over the past two days - is likely to be seen as a major diplomatic provocation by the regime in Minsk which has imprisoned hundreds of pro-democracy activists following last year’s disputed presidential elections.
One of the politicians, Ales Mikhalevich, was arrested at Warsaw airport on his way to London at the request of the Belarusian authorities who have issued a warrant through Interpol. He was later released after an intervention from the Polish foreign ministry and allowed to continue his journey to Britain.
Mr Mikhalevich was one of a number of presidential candidates who dared to run against Mr Lukashenko in last year’s elections and promptly found themselves thrown into prison after large scale protests against voting irregularities were brutally suppressed. He claims he was tortured by the country’s secret police who still use their Soviet moniker the KGB. He has since fled to the Czech Republic where he has been given asylum.
In an indication that Britain is intending to take a more confrontational stance against the quasi-Stalinist regime in Minsk, Foreign Office officials arranged for a delegation of major opposition figures to be flown to London. Diplomatic sources told The Independent that they were prepared for a hostile reaction from Minsk but felt the gesture was necessary.
This morning the group met Europe Minister David Lidington – the first time a cabinet member has held meetings with Belarusian dissidents on UK soil since pro-democracy protests late last year were brutally suppressed with mass arrests, torture, show trials and imprisonments.
A new All Parliamentary Committee on Belarus has also been set up to lobby in favour of Britain taking a stronger line in encouraging Minsk to introduce democratic reforms.
Among those present in the delegation were Mr Mikhalevich, Anatoly Lebedko, a long standing critic of Mr Lukashenko and Alexei Yanukevich, the head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front Party. Britain’s ambassador to Minsk, Rosemary Thomas, also attended the meetings as did representatives from the Belarusian Christian Democracy party.
The Independent spoke to Mr Lebedko and Mr Yanukevich after the meeting. Both said they were pleased that Britain had invited them but they expressed frustration that neither London nor Europe was doing enough to confront Mr Lukashenko.
“Think of Belarus as an experimental laboratory where models of authoritarian rule and politics are being refined,” said Mr Yanukevich. “It is a direct challenge to European values. But if Europe can’t fight a dictator on its own doorstep how can it talk about extending those values to countries further away?”
Belarus’ beleaguered opposition movement has often expressed frustration at Europe’s unwillingness to confront a neighbour that is often described as the continent’s last dictatorship.
While restive Arab states such as Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have dominated the political agenda for much of the year, Belarus has largely slipped under the radar. Despite mass arrests, show trials and widespread allegations of torture, Europe has done little more than add new names to its list of Belarusian officials that are banned from travelling to the West.
But there are signs that Westminster is beginning to take a firmer interest in what is happening in Europe’s most authoritarian state.
“I’ve had interest from both front benches,” said Pamela Nash, the Labour MP who has started the up the Belarus committee alongside Labour peer Lord Dubs. “People have been coming up to me and asking what’s happening in Belarus.”
Mike Harris, from Index on Censorship, which has campaigned heavily on Belarus, said: “Unlike some all party parliamentary groups, which are often just front organisations for groups lobbying on behalf of distasteful regimes, this group has been set up to promote democracy and human rights in country that desperately needs support and attention.”
But opinion within Belarusian opposition circles over how the West should respond to Mr Lukashenko is divided. Those living in exile and out of the reach of the KGB, tend to lobby for a stronger response including economic sanctions. Neither Mr Lebedko, nor Mr Yanukevich said they currently supported a trade embargoes but they called on Europe to refrain from sending any assistance to Minsk until two conditions are met.
“The first is the unconditional release of all political prisoners and the second is free and fair elections that meet international standards,” explained Mr Lebedko. The head of the United Civil Party, who was prosecuted for taking part in pro-democracy protests earlier this year, also called on Europe to become less dependent on Russian oil and gas piped through Belarus.
“Last year Belarus supplied Europe with $7bn in refined oil products and a further $1bn in crude oil,” he said.
On Tuesday night, parliamentarians also heard testimony from a number of Belarusian dissidents including Alla Sannikova who has been banned from contacting her son who currently languishes in a KGB run prison. Andrei Sannikov stood against Mr Lukashenko in last year’s disputed presidential elections and was widely perceived to be the most popular candidate. Earlier this year he was sentenced to five years hard labour for organising “mass riots”. Human rights groups including Amnesty International describe him as a prisoners of conscience who did nothing more than attend a mass rally in late December calling for new elections.
“In my country I don’t know what door will open to free my son,” she told MPs visibly shaking under the strain. “I don’t know where I can talk to be heard and ask for help. That is why I come here to ask you for help. Please help us.”
She added: “All mothers and fathers, all families in Belarus who are suffering from repression, are very grateful for everything you are doing. But at the moment the only help we have had is words and dictators don’t listen to words. Words are not enough in this case.”