Nick Clegg: Europe is running out of patience

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Euroradio: Welcome to the studio of the  European Radio for Belarus. The first question is about the Eastern Partnership summit that is taking place today. Belarus Foreign Minister Martynau was invited but he didn’t come. Will Europe continue to try to engage Belarusian authorities into the dialogue while the latter are ignoring you?

Nick Clegg: Well, I think it is clear that president Lukashenka and his regime have simply no place in the modern European family of nations, and that’s why there is a very clear travel ban on president Lukashenka himself, why the number of targeted sanctions have been introduced at the members of Lukashenka’s regime, and I think this summit is an important summit because it is one of the first times when lots of European leaders and politicians like myself are coming together and saying: “Look, this can’t carry on! Enough is enough.” I don’t think we’ve been talking loudly enough about how the abuses in Belarus have continued, and if necessary, we will take further steps. On the other hand, if there is genuine reform in Belarus, and if prisoners are released, and if opposition leaders are released, and if the abuse of human rights of the Belarusian people is ended… then, of course, we stand ready to engage with Belarus. But engagement is a two-way street. Engagement requires action on both sides, and at the moment all the signs are that in Belarus the regime is going backwards, not forwards.

Euroradio: You are talking about sanctions and further steps. Is London ready to support really harsh economic sanctions if the situation in Belarus doesn’t change? There is an opinion out there that Europe doesn’t have any choice, it has to talk to Mr. Lukashenka, because harsh economic sanctions would affect the European business.

Nick Clegg: I think that the debate about economic sanctions is very difficult one. For a start, you need to ask yourself: “Is it really harming the people who you are trying to put pressure on, namely the leaders and the regime? Or is it harming the ordinary Belarusians who you don’t want to damage?” That’s always the difficult balance with sanctions. But is this something we’re going to debate,  is this something we’re going to look at, is this something we can constantly keep under review and if necessary,  take further actions? Of course! Otherwise, these summits are just empty words. I think that the Belarusian regime must understand that the patience is now really wearing out in European capitals. Not just in London, but elsewhere as well.

Euroradio: What about the release of the political prisoners? Polish media reported that 2 billion euros were promised to Mr. Lukashenka and Belarusian officials in exchange for the release of the political prisoners. Is that true?

Nick Clegg: There’s no European plan - of course, not-  to pay money for the release of Belarusian prisoners. Of course, not. There is a much wider debate, which is that Belarus because of its broken economy is increasingly dependent on IMF loans and other forms of assistance for its simple day-to-day economic survival, and of course, we need to look at that in the IMF, in the European Union and elsewhere. But president Lukashenka himself said that he was going to release these prisoners before the end of October. If he fails even to do that, then, I think, people will see that he doesn’t mean what he says, and he doesn’t fulfill his promises.

Euroradio: But would it be enough just to release political prisoners?

Nick Clegg: No, of course not.

Euroradio: And if not, what would you consider a real liberalization in Belarus? Because we’ve seen it all…

Nick Clegg: Proper, open political culture, in which people can express their views without being thrown into prison, where opposition leaders can agitate and campaign without being tortured in prison, which is what many people think is happening. I’ve just met with a group of dissidents and opposition activists and some of the stories they told me are just horrific. They are very concerned. We’ve just expressed our concern through the United Kingdom’s embassy in Minsk  on two particular political activists – one of them was a former presidential candidate and who may – this is the report, this is the allegation – may be suffering terrible abuse in where they are being detained, in a way that may threaten their lives. That, of course, is something that at the moment we can’t verify because we don’t know exactly what’s going on. But if these allegations are true, it is absolutely appalling.

Euroradio: Is London ready to take some practical steps to help those people? I understand that you’re talking about Zmitser Dashkevich and Andrei Sannikau. Are you going to do any concrete things?

Nick Clegg: Right. We already do a number of concrete things. We already provide help, provide assistance, provide advice to civil society groups and to groups that are trying to simply express themselves freely within Belarus. We have been pushing for more specific and tighter sanctions which have been agreed recently. We’ve been given support, as I said in the speech this afternoon, to some civil society groups in the United Kingdom who, for instance, have been exposing the activities of some British banks who were supporting the Belarusian regime and that has now come to an end. So, those are three examples of things that we’re doing. Of course, we can do more. Of course, we should consider more, but we are not sitting on our hands.

Euroradio: Do you consider the policy of increasing assistance to NGOs and political parties in Belarus and, at the same time, limiting the contacts with the officials to be an effective one?

Nick Clegg: That’s what happening in the practice.

Euroradio: So, is it effective?

Nick Clegg: Well, we cannot as outsiders reorganize Belarus. That’s, at the end of the day, in the hands of Belarusian people. What we can do is express our outrage with what the Lukashenka regime is doing, make it very clear that what he’s doing is utterly unacceptable and to make sure through sanctions and other actions that he feels real pressure in order to change. That is what we can do. But how countries change is a complex business. They can’t be fixed from outside. The outside world has to be clear, the European Union has to work in tandem with the United States so they bring pressure to bear on Belarus. Of course, there are other players involved. It’s very important what Russia is doing, what the Russian government decides as well.

Euroradio: Aren’t you afraid that if you lead a too harsh policy towards Belarus, it will push Belarus to Russia?

Nick Clegg: Well, that’s one argument that people say against taking action and that’s the debate that everybody has. Some people say: “No-no-no, you know, we must engage and not take action, because that will push Belarus into Russia’s arms.”  Other people, including the dissidents and activists that I’ve met this afternoon, say: “You know, you’ve got to be unambiguous.” My personal view is that the level of abuse of human rights by president Lukashenka is now completely unacceptable and that it would be inconsistent for us in the United Kingdom or the European Union to say in one country in North Africa in the Arab spring “we got  to take action,” and I’m talking about sanctions now, not military action of course, and not do so in Belarus, which is in any event pushed into the hands of Russia. I’m not sure if it would change anything much. That’s my personal view but this is the kind of debates that we are going to have within the European Union in the months and weeks ahead.

Euroradio: Coming back to those forces working inside Belarus, do you agree with the statement the President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite made on the Belarusian opposition?

Nick Clegg: What was the statement?

Euroradio: That the Belarusian opposition or at least some members of the opposition is not interested in their liberty and democracy in the country and that they just care about the money.

Nick Clegg: I am not going to provide a running commentary on the nature of the different opposition groups within Belarus. I don’t think that’s the role of outside politicians or other countries. We must play our role to try and  create the conditions in which change can take place in Belarus. We cannot do it for the Belarusian people. We can make our opposition to President Lukashenka known,  and we can take action in the way that we have discussed.  But I really don’t think it helps to start providing a running commentary on opposition groups that, of course, are operating in an incredibly difficult environment where they have absolutely no oxygen of free expression , free speech to be able to express themselves properly, in the first place.

Euroradio: We have some questions that our listeners wanted to ask you. The visa issue is very popular among Belarusians today, and  there is a question from a Belarusian in Scotland: “The new UK visa regime for Belarusians is draconian. Will I be able to host my non-English-speaking non-connected –to-Internet parents in Scotland at the time that suits us without me being gravely ill? Why do we Belarusians have to suffer for the deed or non-deed of our government? Or is it the greediness or/and neglect on behalf of the UK border agency?”

Nick Clegg: Well, visa policies is something that we have to constantly keep under review. Of course, we do. And we need to make sure the way we take actions in preventing the travel of members of the regime, we don’t apply the same standards to ordinary Belarusians who want to travel. At the same time, like any country, we have to keep a control of who comes in and who comes out of our country. We ask people to pay something for that. We don’t actually ask them to pay the full costs of processing their visas, so we do subsidize that. And, of course as the position in Belarus changes, we will continue to keep this under review.

Euroradio: And for Belarusians today it’s really hard to pay this visa fee.

Nick Clegg: It’s about 70 GBP, and the costs of processing is about 140 GBP or so. Yes, you are right, we are very open about this. We are asking people who want to come to the United Kingdom to cover some but not all of the administrative costs that the UK’s Border Agency has to meet for processing. That is a pretty standard approach in most other parts of the world – if you go to Canada, Australia or the United States. There is always this arrangement where the people who want to travel to a country have to pay some but not all of the administrative costs.

Euroradio: But some countries in Europe decided not to take this fee from Belarusians, because 70GBP is almost the average salary.

Nick Clegg: I accept it is controversial. I agree that of course we need to constantly keep this under review. These aren’t easy decisions. But equally I hope people will also accept that it is not wrong in principle to ask that if someone wants to make a considerable move from Belarus to Scotland which will cost a lot more than 70GBP that normally would be reasonable to ask them to make that particular contribution for some or about a half of the administrative costs of handling their visa.

Euroradio: At the end of the interview, I would like to ask some personal question from our listeners. What is your favourite book?

Nick Clegg: A favourite book? I think probably my favourite novel – I always read a novel all the time and I like great literature – is the book by South African writer  J. M. Coetzee called Life and Time of Michael K. Its a very sparse and quite depressing book, but it is beautifully, fantastically written. 

Euroradio: What is your hobby?

 Nick Clegg: To be honest, if I am not working, all I want to do is spend time with my family. I have three little children – nine, seven and two years old. So my hobby is to do whatever they want to do: kick a football, play in a park with them. That’s what I prefer to do.

 Euroradio: The very last question. Why did you decide to be a politician? And when?

  Nick Clegg: Like everybody who goes into politics I think the only good reason to go into politics is if you think that you could change things for the better. There is no point in going into politics just to keep things the way they are. And I always wanted to see change in the world around me. Actually that’s the motivation that most people have when going into politics whatever their party or their persuasion. Though I am relatively young for what I am doing - I actually entered into politics quite late,  I was not particularly interested in party politics as a student or a schoolboy. I think it was very much in my 20s and 30s not least because of the huge change in this part of the world I became very excited about the capacity for people to change things very dramatically as we saw of course with the fall of the Berlin Wall and everything that has happened since.