In international politics we have been focusing on disturbing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Sudan as well as many other parts of the world. We do however have a country at the heart of Europe, (as of course the continent goes as far as the Urals in Russia) which is struggling to achieve democracy and where there are serious human rights abuses. That country is Belarus.
I feel very strongly that we should offer support to the Belarus Popular Front (BPF) led by Liavon Barščeŭski, which has for a long time been fighting for the development of democratic independence for Belarus in the face of what has been called ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’. Indeed, in 2005 the United States Secretary of State described Belarus as the ‘last outpost of tyranny’ in Europe.
Since coming to power in 1994, three years after independence from the Soviet Union, President Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly altered the constitutional rules governing his powers and the maximum length of his Presidential term, in a series of rigged referendums and elections which have been condemned as undemocratic by Western observers. Insulting the President, even in jest, carries a prison sentence and people are arrested on the street for wearing red and white, the colours of the BPF.
Opposition politicians have disappeared or been imprisoned; in the last Presidential Election, which was held in March 2006, candidates standing against Lukashenko were detained and beaten. The election took place amidst widespread harassment of opposition supporters and overwhelming media bias, with the opposition unable to access state-owned media. The 2006 election only took place after President Lukashenko had abolished the constitutional rule which previously limited the number of Presidential terms to two. He duly went on to win his third term by an alleged margin of over 80%.
The regime under Lukashenko is characterised by Stalinist nostalgia, accompanied by close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia – some might even describe Belarus as a ‘semi-colony’. Land-locked Belarus is dependent on energy supplies from Russia and was more or less held to ransom by Moscow in 2006, via a threatened withholding of gas supplies until a near doubling in price was accepted by Minsk.
The BPF is against the strengthening of ties with Russia and seeks to develop better relations with other Central European States of the Baltic and Black Sea regions – states which have a similar history and have faced similar economic and political problems – in the hope of a better integration with the rest of Europe.
I am looking into the possibility of organising a meeting with Mr Barščeŭski and a delegation of Conservatives to discuss ways in which we can extend our support to him and his party.
I think it is very important that we support the BPF, because Britain has helped former USSR countries on their path to democracy and I feel it is our duty to continue to do so in the case of Belarus, where human rights violations are still prevalent. Margaret Thatcher’s steadfast resolve in her dealings with the Soviets contributed in part to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Our generation has to show solidarity with the people of Belarus so that they too can find freedom and democracy.