Imagine a country where torture and intimidation are reportedly common place. Where peaceful protesters are locked up – sent to maximum security prison colonies – and free-thinking journalists are harassed. Where a president can rig election-after-election, despite running the economy into the ground. Where most people are too scared to speak out and the death penalty remains.
It could be North Korea, or Zimbabwe, or Iran. But, actually, it’s much closer to home: Belarus, right here in Europe – where Alexander Lukashenko’s regime continues to tighten its grip on power and ride roughshod over human rights.
If it were not for the tragedy, the regime’s current crackdown would be farce. Take their response to a series of silent protests over the summer. In an effort to stay within the law, protestors didn’t use slogans, or signs, just occasional hand-clapping. How did the authorities react? They banned applause. At the Independence Day parades, the public was warned against clapping anyone other than veterans or artists. The result was resounding silence.
Moves are also underway to make it illegal to gather “for planned action or inaction”. In other words, doing nothing in a group is against the law, if you plan it in advance. Kafka would have been impressed.
Such abuses of power are a scandal wherever you find them. But they are especially chilling on European soil. 2011 makes it twenty years since the Soviet Union fell. Europeans believed that, for us, dangerous dictators would become a thing of the past, and democracy and liberty would flourish.
Yet Belarus is trapped in the past: Europe’s shameful secret, right on our doorstep. So I’m determined we speak out and up the pressure on the regime. When popular uprisings exploded across North Africa and the Middle East, the UK took a stand and took it quickly. We will show the same leadership for Belarus.
Leaders from the EU and it’s “Eastern Partners”– Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus – are gathering in Poland today (Thurs) and tomorrow (Fri) to take forward a stronger partnership between East and West. I’ll be demanding, on behalf of the UK, that the international community stands together, using our collective clout to get the Belarusian regime to give people their freedom and join the European mainstream.
Lukashenko won’t be there. He is, rightly, subject to an EU travel ban. But he and his cronies will be listening. The regime is feeling the pressure after the EU imposed a full package of sanctions earlier this year – a package the Coalition Government pushed hard for. We helped ensure an end to deals with big companies run by Lukashenko’s financiers; an embargo on weapons that could be used for internal repression; and we backed the freezing of EU talks with Belarus until we see real change.
If there is progress, our door remains open. But our resolve will not slacken. Lukashenko knows the tide is turning against him. His popularity is at its lowest for years. The young and educated are finding their voice. And just as with the Arab Spring, it is economic grievance that underpins growing discontent. This year inflation in Belarus is 60 per cent and rising. Grave economic mismanagement has sent public debt spiralling out of control. Instead of setting out a credible plan for recovery, the regime clings to the failed policies of the past. State ownership and centralised planning stifle competiveness and innovation. A weak, politicised legal system deters foreign investment. The regime denies responsibility, but its citizens won’t be fooled.
So, in Poland, the Coalition Government will show our solidarity with the Belarusian people. Along with urging European governments to hold firm, the Minister for Europe David Lidington and I will meet exiled Belarusian activists and opposition leaders. I’ll also take questions from listeners of European Radio for Belarus, and to them my message will be clear: the UK will not accept Belarus being dragged back to darker days. Europe has come too far to allow it.