- With EU states nearing agreement on relaxing Belarus sanctions on Monday (13 October), the man that Minsk hired to help do the job - British public relations magnate Lord Timothy Bell - tells EUobserver about unmaking the image of a dictator.
“The whole world is absolutely overwhelmed by an off-the-cuff remark by Condoleezza Rice, who as far as I know has neither met him nor been there,” Lord Bell said, on the US secretary of state’s 2006 bon mot – “the last dictatorship in Europe” – to describe Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
Lukashenko talks to media during the latest elections, but selling him in Brussels is about more than placing newspaper stories (Photo: president.gov.by)
“When I go there, I mix perfectly happily with ordinary people. I see a country that has a perfectly nice atmosphere about it, people are very relaxed, people I talk to in hotels, bars and restaurants don’t keep looking over their shoulder. But it’s being described in the media in the way Ceausescu’s Romania was described.”
The Belarussian government hired the British peer – who once advised former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and today also represents anti-Kremlin exile Boris Berezovsky – in July to help persuade the EU to drop a visa ban list on Belarus top brass.
Lord Bell admits he has not made an effort to see what life is like outside central Minsk or to get to know the opposition. He also has not met with members of the nomenklatura such as Belarus KGB head Stepan Sukhorenko, implicated in some of the government’s worst acts of repression.
He says he is “not a spokesman for the country,” but is happy to report that “I have found them [Belarus authorities] to be very hospitable, very pleasant to be with. The media description of Belarus and its administration has absolutely no relation with reality in my experience.”
Lord Bell also made light of Belarus recent parliamentary elections, in which no opposition members got in amid OSCE allegations of vote-rigging, creating a stumbling block for the EU sanctions move. “I don’t think you measure the success of an election by the number of opposition candidates that are elected,” he said.
The former advertising executive said he steered President Lukashenko to give two recent high-profile interviews to the Financial Times and Germany’s FAZ, while praising the president’s decision to be photographed at ballot boxes with his young son.
Not just about placing articles
But he said that the main part of the Belarus work of his firm – the London-based Bell Pottinger Group – is to tell Minsk and its Brussels embassy how EU decision-making works and to channel messages about Belarus to key players inside the EU institutions.
The Bell Pottinger Group’s Brussels subsidiary, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs Brussels, is based in the Bastion Tower on the edge of the EU quarter. The office has just three full-time staff, but also works with subcontractors, such as Brussels PR veteran Dirk Hudig, as well as playing host to the group’s visiting British personnel.
“It’s nothing to do with placing articles in newspapers. It’s about trying to ensure an accurate flow of information to the [European] Parliament, the [European] Commission and other key European figures,” Lord Bell explained.
“We assist him [President Lukashenko] in understanding how it [the EU decision-making process] works and where
we’ve got useful intelligence about any particular country that’s very positive or very negative.”
Lord Bell said he sees no conflict of interest in advising an anti-Kremlin figure such as Mr Berezovsky in London, while at the same time working for President Lukashenko, a former Kremlin ally who wants to maintain strong Russia ties while mending fences with the EU.
He described Belarus’ foreign relations approach as an “an extremely delicate situation,” however.
“They want to attract inward investment, want Belarussian people to travel freely, they would like the visa sanctions removed from their senior people so they can gain experience of other capitals,” Lord Bell said. “[But] he [President Lukashenko] doesn’t want to make a choice between his friends in the east and his friends in the West.”