Will Belarus be offered to join the EU? Picture of the World's special report from London


Will Belarus be offered to join the EU? Picture of the World's special report from London

Now let's talk about cooperation, including in the parliamentary dimension. A Belarusian delegation took part in the conference of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in London this week. There is reason to talk about it but in our report, we will also tell you about the scandalous situations circulating in the media, about politicians and ordinary people of England, the views on Belarus from Albion and Belarusian features of Heathrow Airport. However, I will not go into details, let's watch our special report.

Yuri Koziyatko:
This is zubr. Sometimes it is called bison. When you speak about Belarus, what do you say first? What word comes to mind?

Nigel Roberts, lawyer, writer, publicist:
The first word coming to my mind is the stork.

Lawyer from the UK Nigel Roberts travels a lot and considers Belarus a unique country, where you can find unique peculiarities. We met with him in London, and he proudly showed us a guide to Belarus he authored.

Other Western Europeans may have various associations with Belarus: Azarenka, Domracheva, BATE; BelAZ, Belaruskali, Belshina; Lukashenko, a founder of the United Nations and the Minsk agreements on Ukraine.

But those who are into politics will remember sanctions against Belarus, which have recently been reasonably canceled.

Volodymyr Ariev, chairman of a commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: 
The lifting of sanctions is due to the fact that they see Belarus is making some steps towards democratization. And this is movement forward.

The European Union itself has difficulties in moving forward. Europe is going through a difficult time. Confrontation with Russia, refugees from the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. A week ago, terrorists of the Islamic State reported on the Internet that the next targets may be Berlin, Rome and London...

Therefore, London's famous characters - the good-natured policemen - now look like good-natured but well-armed policemen.

Panama Papers, which reveals truth about senior politicians' offshore companies, have poured fuel to the fire. Many well-known personalities - football stars and some heads of state - came under fire. By the way, the Belarus President is not on the list. Knowing the traditional bias of the West to Lukashenko, if a single cent or penny was found, this story would be exaggerated and turned into a "world-scale fire".

A shadow of a suspicious company fell on British Prime Minister David Cameron. The kingdom's MPs demanded his resignation. After a few meetings in London at 10 Downing Street, there are lots of onlookers at the entrance to the prime minister's residence.

Yuri Koziyatko:
However, the English face not only these scandal. On the banks of the Thames, people are seriously talking about the country's possible withdrawal from the European Union.

It was even decided to hold a referendum on this matter, which will take place in June 2016. More than half of British can vote for the exit from the EU, says Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform (London):
The EU is in a mess. Even its best friends and defenders have to admit that the migration crisis, or rather, the refugee crisis (people coming from Syria and other countries) makes the EU look out of control. So the EU leaders look weak and indecisive, not managing the problem effectively. And then there is an issue of immigration in Britain itself. There is a lot of hostility to immigration from EU countries. And the two separate issues of refugees from Syria and migration from the EU have been mixed together causing people to think: 'Well, these Syrians will go to Germany, they can get a German passport and then they can come to Britain and steal our jobs.' So there is massive hostility to foreigners coming to our countries and taking our jobs.

The topic of EU enlargement has apparently lost relevance. The EU is no longer waiting for new members, who are ready to start dividing the overall pie. This was confirmed by another referendum, which was held in the Netherlands in early April. The Dutch voted against Ukraine's association with the EU.

However, the deputy of the Verkhovna Rada Volodymyr Ariev, with whom we recorded an interview in London, is convinced that this a demarche of the Dutch against Brussels.

Volodymyr Ariev, chairman of a commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Ukraine): 
It was not so much against Ukraine, but against the EU. The fact is that when in 2005 the Netherlands voted against the EU Constitution, Brussels found a way around and replaced the rejected Constitution by the Lisbon Treaty. It caused quite a strong reaction from Eurosceptics. And it was Ukraine whose issue was decided at the first referendum since that time. But Ukraine was not an object. We were a bargaining chip, which is particularly offensive to us.

The influential British political scientist Grant draws a parallel between the dissatisfaction of British and Dutch citizens.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform (London):
And the Dutch believed that the deal with Ukraine on trade would lead in the long run to Ukraine's membership in the EU and therefore free movement of labor and the invasion of Ukrainian workers into the Netherlands. In fact that's not true. The deal said nothing about trade agreements and nothing about free movement but nevertheless that was the fear. I think it was a vote against the EU in general, a vote against free trade and against particularly immigration. And all over the world, in Britain, the Netherlands and in North America, in France, many people, less educated people, see globalization and free trade as very bad things and in Europe, the EU is a symbol of globalization, free trade and immigration. And they don't like it in America. People support Donald Trump because they don't like Mexican immigrants. In the UK, people support Nigel Farage, because they don't like, say, Romanian immigrants.

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." In London, where the monument stands to the author of this saying Winston Churchill, a conference under the auspices of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe was organized on April 11. The topic was "The role of national parliaments in strengthening the freedom, independence and diversity of the media."

Yuri Koziyatko:
The conference was held at the historic place, opposite the Big Ben, in Portcullis House, where deputies have reception rooms and where some committees of the British Parliament hold their meetings.

By the way, Portcullis House is the newest building of the Westminster complex. Architectural critics compare its image with either the Victorian prison or a crematorium. But the conference held here did not burn hopes for objectivity in the assessment of what is happening.

At least, invited this time were not only opponents of the Belarusian authorities but also representatives of the national parliament and the heads of the main TV channels.

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons:
Delegates and all attendees of this great event! Thank you for coming. I hope that you will find exchanges illuminating and rewarding. And if it is your first visit, I hope that it will not be the last one. I hope you will be reinforced in your resolve to make further such visits.

This is how the chairman of the UK House of Commons John Bercow welcomed the participants. Another well-known person in Belarus - PACE rapporteur Andrea Rigoni - noted that positive changes are taking place in Belarus.

Andrea Rigoni, rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe:
The last election saw a positive development, which, I hope, will continue during the forthcoming campaign.

There has been some criticism at the conference, too. Sometimes it was subjective and sometimes based on outdated facts.

Nigel Roberts, lawyer, writer, publicist:
The people who speak with the loudest voices of criticism and condemnation are the ones who know the least about your country.

Sergey Aleinik, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:
The second reason is the presence of stereotypes that were forming during a number of years when relations [with the west] were quite tough but now the tone is changing.

Let's return into the conference room, where reproaches about incomplete media freedom were addressed not only to European Partnership member states but also to Turkey and even some EU countries, like Greece and Poland. 

Europeans are seriously concerned about online monsters like Google, Facebook and Twitter but they admit that not much could be done to redress the situation.

Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe:
I got the news about Panama Papers from my contacts on Facebook. I have about... I haven't counted exactly but about 70 contacts of investigative journalists who are actually working on Panama Papers, and I got my news via those contacts. What if for some reason Facebook had decided to deprioritize, let's say, the news about Panama Papers? The potential there to influence the information we receive is absolutely huge. We have no transparency about how those algorithms work and we have no real mechanisms to control that, should it be used for some kinds of censorship. 

There were complaints against the BBC at the conference. The BBC is not under control of the British regulatory and competition authority Ofcom, which now practices restrictions against Russia Today. The Russian channel was already presented a dozen yellow cards for one-sided coverage of events. And, by the way, at the hotel where we were staying, the Russian TV channel RT was blocked, which was not in keeping with the spirit of the conference on freedom of speech.

Softening of tone in relation to Belarus is dictated by trends of European politics. Belarus today is involved in the major political events in the world. Of course, Minsk's efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine were appreciated.

Volodymyr Ariev, chairman of a commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: 
It is unlikely that any other country could cope with it better in this situation. Belarus can use this bridge for a sharp improvement of relations with Europe.   

However, one should not expect any heated political embraces. The West is well aware of the strategic interests of Belarus.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform (London):
Nobody in the EU is thinking seriously about offering membership to Belarus. We know you don't want it and that would have huge implications for your relations with Russia, which is sensitive and important. So we should be very modest when we talk about Belarus-EU relations. This is the first point. The second point is that the relations are getting better and there is a lot more dialogue, a lot more talk and a lot more meetings on how the EU can help to modernize the Belarusian economy. I think in the short term we should focus on the economics, maybe the EU can give more technical assistance and more money, loans from the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, perhaps there can be an economic treaty or agreement between us. And if Belarus wishes to join the World Trade Organization (it seems it does), the EU could help you achieve that objective. So we need to start with economics. In the long run, there could be some political structure and process whereby we could talk about political issues, too.

Pragmatic relations with Belarus are beneficial to many countries. The United Kingdom is among them. Belarus' trade turnover with Albion is impressive.

Sergey Aleinik, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:
In 2015, the UK was consistently ranked 3rd among Belarus' trade partners. When it comes to volumes of Belarusian export, the UK was 2nd after Russia.

Yuri Koziyatko:
That is, we sell more than we buy.

Sergey Aleinik, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:
We sell much more than we buy. We have a trade surplus of $2.8 billion.

One will not see Belarusian signposts in Piccadilly but many iconic sites in London boast "Belarusian filling."

Sergey Aleinik, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:
Belarusian metal products, for example, were used in the construction of the 5th Heathrow airport terminal. These materials were also used in the construction of a number of Olympic venues for the 2012 London Olympics.

Some well-known UK brands are also with a trace of Belarus.

Yuri Koziyatko:
And what about the brand Marks & Spencer? Marks came from Belarus.

Sergey Aleinik, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:
Yes. I jokingly call it the first Belarusian-British joint venture. Because Mr. Marks was born in Slonim. At the time he came to Britain, where he met David Spencer. And they created the world-famous brand Marks & Spencer.

But if you dig deeper into the story? Especially when it comes to cause-and-effect relationships...

Yuri Koziyatko, host of "Picture of the World":
What would bind Trafalgar Square and Belarus? At a height of 44 meters, there is a figure of Admiral Nelson. After he defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet, Napoleon thought and drew attention to Russia. And what route did he choose on the way to Moscow? He chose to go through Belarus!

Napoleon's eastern campaign ended as badly as the sea battle off Cape Trafalgar. But that is another story. However, many young Europeans know historical episodes worse than the episodes of Star Wars by George Lucas. Apparently this is why Jedi knights coexist on Trafalgar Square with the figure of the glorious admiral.

Yuri Koziyatko:
After all, Master Yoda is 900 years old. Perhaps he remembers both Admiral Nelson and Francysk Skaryna.

By the way, about Skaryna. Recently, Cambridge has passed to the National Library of Belarus a digital copy of "The First Book of Samuel", published by the first printer in 1518. UK libraries store many other rare books related to Belarus' historical heritage. For example, the Kuteinsk Gospel of 1652 - the New Testament and Psalms in old Belarusian. The London Library has two copies of the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, published in the 16th and 17th centuries.

There are also contemporary books about Belarus in England. Let's get back to Nigel Roberts, with whom we have already met. On the cover of his Belarus guide, he placed the Brest Fortress monument.

Nigel Roberts, lawyer, writer, publicist:
Belarus is a very interesting country because it has lots of associations with the Great Patriotic War and the modern Soviet Union. But there is so much more than that. In my opinion, the most important resource in your country is the people itself. Your people are very warm, generous and welcoming into their own homes. And there is resilience and inner strength about your people, which is quite rare in the modern world. I also like the natural world of Belarus, your rivers, lakes and forests.

Yuri Koziyatko:
We are standing next to the picture, where there is morning mist over the lake. What do you think about it?

Nigel Roberts, lawyer, writer, publicist:
There is depth in this picture, which speaks of the natural world, of new growth, of wildlife, of flowers and plants... I sometimes think that I must have Belarusian relatives or perhaps Belarusian antecedence because I too feel in my heart the things that you are feeling about your country.

Nigel speaks some Russian.

Nigel Roberts, lawyer, writer, publicist:
(reading from the guidebook) Khatyn... Troitskoye (repeating after Yuri Koziyatko in Russian) Predmestiye.

Yuri Koziyatko:
Thank you.

Nigel Roberts, lawyer, writer, publicist:
(answering in Russian) You're welcome!

Maybe Nigel will soon learn even the word Dziakui! ("thank you" in Belarusian)