I was delighted to lead the first delegation from the British Group IPU to Belarus from 27th May to 1st June.
Also on our delegation were Wayne David MP (Labour), Daniel Kawczynski MP (Conservative), Kerry McCarthy MP (Labour), Mark Menzies MP (Conservative) and Steve Pound MP (Labour). None of us had been to Belarus before with the exception of Daniel Kawczynski who had visited from Poland as a child.
The visit was brilliantly organised by Anja Richter of the IPU staff with the excellent help of HE Sergei Alehnik, the Belarus Ambassador in London, and HE Fionna Gibb and her team at the British Embassy in Minsk. We are grateful to them all.
Belarus was a long way from our expectations. Minsk is an attractive city with little of the brutal Soviet architecture typical of many former cities of the USSR. We were lucky that the weather was very warm and, when the programme allowed, we were able to visit a number of the bars and restaurants along the river and enjoy the atmosphere. From our meetings, it was also plain that, while Belarus remains very much in the Russian orbit, there is a desire to be seen to be an independent nation which does not just follow the instructions of its large neighbour.
Our programme was busy and varied and throughout we were accompanied by members of the Parliamentary Working Group on co-operation with the UK. The Chairman of the Group, Dr Oleg Rummo, is an appointed member of the Council of the Republic and also a renowned transplant surgeon. This provided one of our more unusual stops as he was insistent that our programme should also include a visit to his clinic where we were able to watch in theatre as his team carried out a liver transplant.
Politically, Belarus remains essentially a one-party authoritarian regime under its President, Alexander Lukashenko, who has held office ever since the position was created in 1994. In the political part of our programme, we were welcomed by the former Prime Minster and current Chairman of the Council of the Republic, Mr Mikhail Myasnikovich, who also arranged for us to attend a session of the Council. This brought home to us the difference between our own plural Parliamentary democracy and the position in Belarus where the overwhelming majority of members are appointed and the several votes which we saw were carried unanimously.
Later in our programme, we did meet representatives of the opposition political parties including the only two Opposition MPs. They were realistic in telling us that the President would likely win any election conducted fairly but with considerably less than the 84 per cent of the vote which was recorded for him in 2015. His main opponent, Tatsiana Karatkevich of Tell the Truth, told us that she believed that the reality was that she had got about 20 per cent of the vote rather than the 4 per cent officially declared. Another candidate in the Assembly elections said that he won in the only ward visited by himself and the British Ambassador on polling day but lost in every other.
At another meeting in the Embassy, we met representatives of NGOs who perhaps provide a more effective opposition. Those speaking for the press in Belarus told us that the media was overwhelmingly state-controlled and that independent outlets practiced a lot of self-censorship. The LGBT organisations had seen some progress in obtaining official recognition but a recent setback had been the strong condemnation by the Interior Ministry of the British Embassy who had flown the rainbow flag on the International Day against Homophobia. In addition, further lack of progress on human rights was revealed by the discovery that two executions had very recently been carried out despite efforts to persuade the authorities to abandon the death penalty.
Our discussions with Members of the Government emphasised their continuing closeness to Russia but also a wish to move a little away and to improve relations with the West. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makei, told us that Belarus wanted to build closer relations with western countries and pointed to a number of areas where the country's foreign policy had diverged from that of Russia. Unlike the Chairman of the Assembly, he told us that the proposed Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was not in the interests of Belarus. However, he also recognised that any loosening of ties with Russia could only take place gradually.
The Deputy Minister of Economy, Dmitry Krutoy, was keen to promote greater trade between the UK and Belarus. The UK is already an important market for Belarusian products and our hosts were determined to show us examples of Belarus' manufacturing and IT capabilities. We visited the Belkommunmash factory which makes electric buses and Belaz, manufacturers of dump trucks and mining equipment where we were given a ride on the biggest dump truck in the world.
Belarus's strength in IT was also clear in our visit to Adani, maker of X-ray detection machines, and in our visit to the Hi Tech Park, the home of Viber and of World of Tanks. Finally we enjoyed amazing hospitality from our hosts. As well as succession of banquets, we saw a performance of the Nutcracker at the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet and visited the historic Nesvizh City Hall and Nesvizh Castle, which is a world heritage site. It was clear that there is considerable potential for tourism growth in the future.
The over-riding impression that I was left with is that Belarus is a country that has been somewhat overlooked by the UK both politically and economically. It has made less political progress than many other former Soviet states but there are signs of gradual improvement and little evidence of widespread discontent. The potential to increase trade between our countries is considerable. Our Belarus hosts were keen that our visit should be the beginning of a relationship that will grow stronger and I agree that it is in both of our interests that it should do so.