New UK Ambassador to Belarus Jacqueline Perkins arrived in Minsk in late August. In an interview with BelaPAN, she spoke about Belarus-UK relations, the death penalty and homophobia in the country, as well as parliamentary elections, among other things.
What are your first impressions of Belarus?
Very positive, I think people are very friendly and the city is beautiful. It’s dog-friendly, there are many parks. And we met a lot of people here who have dogs.
I have a feeling that I will be very happy here in Belarus for the next three or four years.
How do you assess current UK-Belarus relations, and what are the prospects?
I think they are developing in a positive way. After the EU lifted sanctions in 2016, we had opportunities for the development of bilateral relations with Belarus. We arranged several bilateral visits at the political, parliamentary and trade levels.
For instance, Deputy Foreign Minister Sir Alan Duncan who became the first British minister in the last 20 or even 25 years who visited Belarus. Prince Michael of Kent also came here. I met him before leaving for Minsk, he really wants to visit Belarus again. I hope that during my work here we will manage to arrange that.
As you know, Belarus and Great Britain agreed to start a trade dialogue, within the framework of which it is planned to discuss measures to intensify trade and economic cooperation. I want to promote this in every way. We are planning to hold this meeting before the end of the year. I don’t know the exact date yet.
President Alexander Lukashenko believes that Belarus’s membership in the EAEU may contribute to the relations between the states. Does Britain consider cooperation with the EAEU promising?
One should not mix bilateral relations between Great Britain and Belarus and relations with the EAEU. But, of course, if Belarus’s membership in the EAEU provides opportunities for British companies to use Belarus as a platform for entering this market, then this will be interesting for them. And we will support such cooperation.
Great Britain is the third-largest trading partner of Belarus after Russia and Ukraine. However, our turnover is highly dependent on petroleum products supply.
In this regard, Belarusian officials announced the need for trade diversification. How can this be achieved?
In my opinion, diversification is always good, and it is very useful to have a choice. Belarus is known for its forestry and woodworking industries, so it would be logical to develop cooperation in these areas.
Also, a Belarusian-made electric bus is being tested in Nottingham, the UK. This is also a very interesting area for cooperation. The fight against climate change is now an important and urgent issue. Electric transport is one of the options for reducing air emissions.
I hope that Belarus and the UK will succeed in implementing this project. When I saw photos of this bus in Nottingham, I was surprised that it was Belarusian. I did not expect that this sphere was developed in Belarus.
How do you assess the plans of Russia and Belarus for deeper integration? Will it interfere with the Belarusian-British relations?
We support the sovereignty of Belarus and believe that Belarus should not choose between Russia and the West. We understand that Belarus needs good relations with Russia and develop cooperation.
But at the same time, Belarus can develop its relations with the West. We hope that further integration with Russia won’t be a problem for the development of relations between Belarus and the West.
In Belarus, an election campaign for the House of Representatives is underway. Do you follow the progress? Does the UK have any expectations about this election?
The UK supports the development of democracy around the world. Of course, we are interested in the elections in Belarus. We always hope that the elections will be held in accordance with democratic standards, will be transparent and honest, and will genuinely reflect the choice of the people.
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Over the past few years, the British Embassy has celebrated International Day Against Homophobia by hanging a rainbow flag on its facade.
We suppose you are aware of how the Ministry of Internal Affairs reacts to this act. Do you intend to continue this tradition?
I don’t know yet. I have been working in Minsk for only a month, getting acquainted with the situation. For me personally and the British Embassy the issue of inclusion is very important, that is, the integration of all groups in society. Therefore, when we run up a rainbow flag, it means that we stand for the principle of inclusiveness around the world, and not just in Belarus.
The British Embassy is actively promoting the idea of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus. Are there any events planned on this issue in the near future?
We plan to continue with this work, but we want to discuss the format. We want to work more actively on this topic with civil society in the UK and Belarus to advance the idea of abolishing the death penalty. I personally hope that Belarus will introduce a moratorium on the death penalty.
How to make British tourists choose Belarus from all other countries?
It may be worthwhile to have an advertising campaign in the UK. Before arriving in Minsk, I spent a year in the UK and didn’t hear anything about Belarus. You need to look for information about Belarus, your country doesn’t ring a bell. Most British don’t know about travel opportunities in Belarus.
People don’t know that Belarus is a beautiful country with beautiful nature, and Minsk is a beautiful city. Last weekend I visited Nesvizh, I really liked the palace, and we were able to watch the gophers near Nesvizh, I did not expect to see them in Belarus.
Belarus introduced visa-free entry for EU citizens, including the UK. Are there any prospects that London may decide to simplify the visa regime for Belarusians?
There are no such plans right now. Our authorities are now actively working on what relations with the EU countries will be after Brexit, including migration rules. This is a big question, so no one thinks about other countries in the context of the visa regime. Therefore, visa rules for Belarusians are unlikely to change in the near future.