On 22 July 2021, Lord Balfe (Conservative) is due to ask the following question for short debate:

Lord Balfe to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the possibility of joining forces with the governments of (1) France, (2) Germany, and (3) the United States of America to persuade the government of Russia that it is in its interest to push for new elections in Belarus.

Belarus presidential election, August 2020

Presidential elections were held in Belarus on 9 August 2020. According to the Belarusian Central Election Commission, incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko received 80.1% of the vote on a turnout of 84.28%. He was sworn in on 23 September 2020. Mr Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since 1994.

However, the result is highly contested, BBC News reported that the election was “widely believed to have been rigged”. The result has led to protests and civil unrest in the country amid allegations of human rights abuses by the government. The opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is currently living in exile. The following articles provide further coverage of the election and its immediate aftermath:

On 18 September 2020, 17 member countries of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) invoked the ‘Moscow mechanism’ in order to investigate alleged human rights violations in Belarus around the election. The Moscow mechanism allows participating states to “establish ad hoc missions of independent experts to assist in the resolution of a specific human dimension problem”. The 17 countries included France, the United States and the United Kingdom. The OSCE has 57 participating states in North America, Europe and Asia, and is “the world’s largest regional security organization”. Both Belarus and the Russian Federation are members of the OSCE.

The OSCE Moscow mechanism rapporteur, Wolfgang Benedek, presented his report to the OSCE Permanent Council on 5 November 2020. The report stated that “allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed”. It made a number of recommendations to Belarus, including: that the election result should be cancelled “due to irregularities at all stages of the process”; that new “genuine presidential elections” should be organised based on international standards; and that Belarus should “invite international observation by OSCE/ODIHR [OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] on time, in line with OSCE/ODHIR commitments as well as other international and domestic observers”. The UK Government has said it welcomed the report.

Ryanair flight FR4978

On 23 May 2021, Belarus was accused of hijacking Ryanair flight FR4978, which was flying over Belarus on its way from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. Media reports said that Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to force the airplane to land, stating there was a bomb threat. When passengers disembarked, Roman Protasevich was detained by police, along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Mr Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, a media operation with a Telegram channel (an online messaging platform). BBC News has reported that Nexta “played a key role for the opposition” during the election and that it had “continued to do so in its aftermath, particularly with the government imposing news blackouts”. On 25 June 2021, the BBC reported that Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega were being held under house arrest.

In a statement by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Ms von der Leyen said the European Council had described the incident as an attack on democracy, an attack on freedom of expression and an attack on European sovereignty. Ms Von der leyen said that the European Council had decided to impose additional sanctions.

Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Dominic Raab, described the incident as reported as a “shocking assault on civil aviation and on international law”. He said it was egregious and extraordinary. The Government set out some of its actions in response to the incident in answer to a written question on 12 July 2021.

BelTA, Belarus’s national news agency, reported comments made by the press secretary of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in response to the international reaction to the incident. The press secretary said that aviation safety rules were an “absolute priority” and “there is no doubt that the actions of our appropriate authorities […] fully complied with the established international rules”.

In response to the arrest of Roman Protasevich, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described it as the “domestic affair of Belarus”. They accused Western powers of “double standards” over other instances of planes being diverted which they said hadn’t provoked similar responses.

On 8 June 2021, the EU delegation to Belarus, the diplomatic missions of EU member states, the embassies of the UK, the US, Switzerland and Japan issued joint comments following a meeting with the Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. The diplomats called on Belarus to “immediately halt the persecution of all persons engaged in the pro-democracy movement, independent media and civil society” and “start a credible and inclusive political process resulting in free and fair elections under the OSCE/ODIHR’s observation”.

Russian relations with Belarus

On 21 August 2020, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makei. A press release noted that the two ministers spoke about “various initiatives advanced by Western countries with regard to the Belarusian government’s further steps”. It stated that the way to address Belarus’s existing problems was its “internal affair and do not warrant any external interference, let alone any ‘instructions’ about with whom and how they should conduct a dialogue”. The ministers stated that external actors needed to respect Belarus’ sovereignty and independence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi on 14 September 2020. BBC News reported that Russia agreed to give Belarus a $1.5 billion loan. The BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, wrote that “some have speculated that Mr Putin will push for deeper economic and political ties with Minsk as the price of his support”. The BBC also reported that Russia wanted to keep Belarus in its “orbit”.

Russia and Belarus are part of a Union State which was established under a treaty signed in December 1999.

UK Government response

The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Dominic Raab, described the presidential elections as “neither free nor fair”. In a statement to the House of Commons on 24 September 2020, he said that the election was “characterised by the imprisonment of opposition candidates and the arrests of hundreds of their supporters”. The secretary of state said that he had directed the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s sanction team to prepare Magnitsky sanctions “for those responsible for the serious human rights violations”. He said the UK was coordinating with the US and Canada “to prepare appropriate listings as a matter of urgency”.

Mr Raab said that the UK had worked with other countries in its response:

For our part, the UK has worked with our key international partners, first, to promote a peaceful resolution, but also to condemn the actions of the Belarusian authorities and to hold those responsible to account. I discussed the situation and our response with foreign ministers from France and Germany at Chevening on 10 September. I also discussed the issue and the situation with the Lithuanian Foreign Minister when he visited London last week. I have also just returned from Washington, where I agreed with [then] Vice-President Pence and [then] Secretary of State Pompeo to co-ordinate the UK and US response.

In response to questions about Russia, Mr Raab said that he thought there was “nuance” in the relationship between President Putin and President Lukashenko. He said one of the challenges the UK had in holding “Lukashenko to account, is to try to avoid the inevitability of Belarus slipping further and further into Moscow’s embrace”. Mr Raab also argued that Russia had “always regarded Belarus as a client state” and that “we are watching that very carefully, along with our international partners”.

In September 2020, the Media Freedom Coalition’s Executive Group issued a statement expressing its concern about attacks on media freedom in association with the August presidential election in Belarus. Signatories included Germany, the US and the UK. The Media Freedom Coalition was established in July 2019 and is a partnership of countries advocating for media freedom and the safety of journalists.

On 23 February 2021, Lord Ahmad, Minister of State in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said in answer to an oral question in the House of Lords on Belarus that the UK was working very closely with its EU partners, including at the Human Rights Council and the OSCE. Mr Ahmad also said that the UK would continue to “engage directly with the likes of France and Germany on this matter”.

A written question answered by the Government on 15 June 2021 set out the steps it was taking to support the operation of political opposition in Belarus. This included funding to support civil society and media freedom in Belarus and the imposition of over 90 sanctions designations.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Human Rights and Democracy Report 2020, published in July 2021, listed Belarus as a human rights priority country. Referring to the OSCE Moscow mechanism report, it stated that:

In 2021, the UK will continue to raise its concerns on the human rights situation both directly with the Belarusian Government and in multilateral fora, including the OSCE and the UN. We shall also continue supporting work to implement the recommendations of the OSCE Moscow Mechanism report.

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Cover image by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.