Situation in Belarus
Delivered in Plenary - 8th October 2008
When a sitting president wins all the seats in his Parliament, we can probably assume that something is amiss. Not even Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe has managed a clean sweep as President Alexander Lukashenko did last month in Belarus.
I do not dispute that Lukashenko enjoys widespread popularity in a country largely insulated from post-Soviet reality. But his iron grip on power has turned his country into an international pariah.
For the European Union it does not make sense to welcome the presence of the last European dictator on our own doorstep. Nevertheless, we should always seek to challenge and also at the same time to engage with Belarus. The recent release of political prisoners therefore presents us with an opportunity. Whether Lukashenko’s move constitutes an overture to the West remains to be seen, but we should be ready to respond with our own incentives to recognise and reward Belarus as appropriate.
We should not discount the possibility that Lukashenko is blackmailing the Kremlin, which has hitherto been vital to his stranglehold on political power. If this is indeed the case the EU should not be afraid to wield the carrot as well as the stick and therefore I welcome Foreign Minister Martinov’s imminent visit.
Belarus has much to gain from closer ties to the European Union, not least the partial alleviation of widespread poverty caused by a stagnating economy. Nevertheless the fact remains that Belarus is still not a member of the Council of Europe. Ratification of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU remains frozen. Belarus remains a country where human rights are routinely disregarded, political dissent is not tolerated and a free press is a distant pipe dream.
Once we have started dangling the carrot, we should also make sure we still have the stick in the other hand. I personally hope nevertheless that Belarus, if it does not reunite with Russia as some within the Kremlin would like, will one day enter its rightful place amongst the European family of free nations.