The new British Ambassador to Belarus, Jacqueline Perkins, arrived in Minsk in late August. In an interview with BelaPAN, she spoke about the prospects for the development of Belarusian-British relations, her attitude to the problems of the death penalty and homophobia, as well as expectations of the parliamentary elections in Belarus.
Jacqueline Perkins. Career diplomat, worked in the British embassies in the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait. She studied Russian at Cambridge University. Married, has two children. She was appointed to Belarus in June 2019. She arrived in Minsk on August 28. She brought two of her dogs with her – a Maltese schnauzer and a shi tzu bichon.
– I was told that the system of the British Foreign Ministry advertises vacancies for ambassadors, and employees decide where to apply. Why did you choose our country? How did you find it attractive?
– Yes, we do have this system. You have to apply, so you can choose the place where you want to work. Many years ago I was studying Russian at the university, but when I came to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they decided that I should learn Arabic. I learned it and then worked for twenty years in the Middle East, particularly in Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait. But I’ve always wanted to work in your region, so when I saw a vacancy in Minsk, I applied. Thank God, everything went well and now I work in Belarus.
– And what are your first impressions of Belarus?
– Very positive, because, in my opinion, people are very friendly, beautiful city. And it is pleasant for dogs, because there are a lot of parks here. And we have met a lot of people who also have dogs. I think I will be very happy here in Belarus for the next three or four years.
– As for the dogs, you broke the long-standing tradition of British ambassadors in Minsk, who usually had cats in their residence, and brought two dogs with you. How have your pets adapted to the new conditions?
– They feel very well. The first dog is Sparky, who is eight years old with black burns. He was born in Great Britain, then lived with us in Kuwait, now he’s here. I think he is used to moving and adapts without any problems.
Our second dog, Cassidy, who has a redhead, was found on the street in Kuwait. His paw was broken. We cured him and took him with us.
– Minsk, it seems, is not the most convenient city for keeping dogs: there are not enough special grounds for walking, they do not let dogs in public catering establishments, in shops. Have you already faced these problems?
– I did not have such experience. As I said, there are a lot of parks where you can walk with dogs. It’s true that you can’t go to restaurants with them, but in our family we prefer not to take them to restaurants, because they always beg for food. So I think it’s much calmer if they stay at home when we go to a restaurant.
– If we turn to the topic of relations between the United Kingdom and Belarus, how do you assess their current state and what are the prospects for further development?
– It seems to me that they are developing positively. After the lifting of the EU sanctions in 2016, we have opportunities to develop bilateral relations with Belarus. We were able to organize bilateral visits at the political, parliamentary and trade levels. For example, Deputy Foreign Minister Sir Alan Duncan, I think, has become the first British minister in the last 20 or even 25 years to visit Belarus. Prince Michael of Kent also came here. I met with him before leaving for Minsk. He really wants to visit Belarus again. I hope that during my work here we will be able to organize his visit.
As you know, Belarus and the United Kingdom have agreed to start a trade dialogue to discuss measures to intensify trade and economic cooperation. I want to contribute to this in every way possible. It is planned to hold this meeting before the end of the year. I do not know the exact date yet.
– Are new visits of British officials planned in the near future?
– Not in the coming months, because there is a very tense time in London now, there is a lot of work due to “brexit”. Politicians and officials are busy with this issue, they do not have time to visit other countries. But I hope that next year we will have visits.
– Do you support “brexit” or for the UK to stay in the EU?
– I will not say anything. (laughs) All I want to say is that in London they are working hard to reach an agreement with the European Union and leave the EU on October 31.
– Taking your predecessor Fionna Gibb on August 7th on the occasion of her graduation, Alexander Lukashenko said he counted on the support of the United Kingdom in the development of relations between Belarus and the United States. It so happens that after this meeting Minsk was visited twice by senior U.S. officials and a decision was taken to restore the diplomatic mission at the ambassadorial level. Did the United Kingdom somehow contribute to this?
– Of course, we are very happy about the improvement of relations between Belarus and the United States. This is a very positive event. We cannot say that we played a role in this, because it is still the bilateral relations between Minsk and Washington. But we support it, and if we can help in the future, we are ready to do it.
– At the same meeting, the head of state asked Fionna Gibb to convey to the British leadership the idea of the need to intensify relations with Belarus. According to him, this can be facilitated by Belarus’ membership in the EEU. Does Britain consider cooperation with the EEU promising?
– It seems to me that one shouldn’t mix up the bilateral relations of Great Britain with Belarus and the relations with the EEU. But, of course, if the membership of Belarus in the EEU provides opportunities for British companies to use Belarus as a platform to enter this market, it will be interesting for them. And we will support such cooperation.
– There is an opinion that after “brexit” London will have an opportunity to make decisions more freely, without regard to Brussels, which will affect the relations of Great Britain with other countries. Is that so? How will “brexit” affect the cooperation of our countries?
– The UK wants to have good relations with all countries. I think the British government wants to strengthen our role in the world after “braxitis”, and for that our government has developed a whole concept called Global Britain. Of course, after “brexit” we want to develop cooperation with the EU, maintain good relations with Brussels, but at the same time we will have more opportunities to develop relations between the UK and other countries, including Belarus. As the British ambassador to Belarus, I hope that the bilateral relations will improve after the “brexit. I will work hard to achieve this goal.
– Great Britain is the third largest trade partner of Belarus after Russia and Ukraine. However, our trade turnover depends heavily on the supply of oil products, and therefore Belarusian officials have stated the need to diversify trade. How can this be achieved?
– In my opinion, diversification is always good, and it is very useful to have a choice. For example, Belarus is known for its timber and woodworking industry, so, in my opinion, it would be logical to try to develop cooperation in these areas.
Even now, an electric bus of Belarusian manufacture is being tested in the British Nottingham. This is also a very interesting area for cooperation, because now the fight against climate change is an important and acute issue. Electric transport is one of the options to reduce emissions into the atmosphere. And I hope that Belarus and Great Britain will be able to implement this project. When I saw the photos of this bus in Nottingham, I was surprised that it was Belarusian. I did not expect that this sphere is developed in Belarus. I had very positive impressions.
– Great Britain and Russia have not had the warmest relations in recent years. How do you assess the plans of Russia and Belarus on “deep integration”? Can’t it interfere with the Belarusian-British relations?
– Of course, we are following what is happening with interest, but it is still a matter of relations between Belarus and Russia. 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, we need to develop cooperation. But at the same time Belarus can develop its relations with the West. We hope that further integration with Russia will not be a problem for the development of relations between Belarus and the West.
– Belarus is currently campaigning for elections to the House of Representatives. Are you following its course? Does Great Britain have any expectations from these elections?
– In any country we follow the elections. This is very important because Great Britain supports the development of democracy all over the world. Of course, we are also interested in elections in Belarus. Of course, we always hope that the elections will be held in accordance with democratic standards, will be transparent and honest and will really reflect the choice of the people.
– In July of this year, Vladimir Zelensky proposed to Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation in the south-east of Ukraine in the enlarged “Normandy format” – with the participation of the heads of the United States and Great Britain – and to hold such a meeting in Minsk. How does the British side feel about such a proposal?
– We support any efforts aimed at resolving the conflict in Ukraine. This is a terrible conflict that must be resolved as soon as possible. And we very much appreciate the willingness of Minsk to be a platform for peace talks. This is a very important role for Minsk.
As far as the participation of our Prime Minister in the Normandy format is concerned, there are no such plans so far, as far as I know.
– Over the past few years, the British Embassy has celebrated the International Day Against Homophobia by hanging a rainbow flag on its facade. Of course, you know the harsh reaction of the Belarusian authorities, in particular, the Interior Ministry, to this. Do you intend to continue this tradition?
– I do not know yet. I’ve been working in Minsk for only a month, I’m getting acquainted with the situation. But I must say that for me personally and the British Embassy the issue of inclusiveness, i.e. integration of all groups into society, is very important. Therefore, when we hang a rainbow flag, it means that we support this principle of inclusiveness in society all over the world, not only in Belarus.
– Do you think the problem of homophobia in Belarus is serious or not worth drawing attention to?
– I think that even if the level of homophobia in the country is very low, it still remains a problem, because any phobia against some group of people is a very negative phenomenon. I will discuss this issue with your government, representatives of vulnerable groups and civil society.
– The British Embassy actively promotes the idea of abolition of the death penalty in Belarus. Are any activities planned on this topic in the near future?
– We plan to continue this work, but we want to discuss the format, because many seminars and conferences have already been held. We want to work more actively on this topic with civil society in both the UK and Belarus to promote the idea of abolishing the death penalty. I personally hope that Belarus will impose a moratorium on the death penalty.
– Belarusian officials usually say on the issue of abolition of the death penalty that the people in a referendum in 1996 decided to retain this penalty. What can you object to this argument?
– I think that the government should take responsibility for some issues. When the UK decided to abolish the death penalty, public opinion did not support this idea. If citizens were to be asked, the majority of Britons would then vote in favour of the death penalty. Now, I think the situation has changed. I believe that the death penalty is a very difficult issue, but the government must show political will.
– Former Prime Minister Teresa Mae, who visited Warsaw in December 2017, said that Great Britain was financially committed to supporting Poland in its fight against Russian disinformation, and in particular would support the Polish television channel Belsat. How relevant do you think the problem of “Russian disinformation” is now? Does London today support the Belsat TV channel or any other mass media working for the Belarusian audience?
– In my opinion, the problem of misinformation is now a big headache for everybody, because today there are many channels of information transmission, such as social networks. It is very easy to spread disinformation, and many people read it, watch it, listen and think it is true information. Our experience with Salisbury, for example, was a dangerous event, in my opinion.
As for Belsat, I don’t know about any concrete plans. We support freedom of the media, freedom of speech around the world, and therefore we stand in solidarity with any media that adheres to these principles. I do not know exactly about the financial support of Belsat. At least, the embassy in Minsk does not do it. Maybe something is done directly through London.
– How do you assess the cooperation between Belarus and Great Britain in the humanitarian spheres – education, culture, science, tourism? Is there anything to work on here that can be improved?
– I think we have a good situation here. For example, just a month ago, here at the embassy, we welcomed the new participants of our Chevening program, which gives students from other countries the opportunity to go to study in the UK. This year it so happens that all six of our scholarship holders in Belarus are girls.
This program is a good opportunity for students from different countries to study in the UK. I consider education the most important cooperation between the countries, because it helps to better understand each other, which is very important.
The number of participants depends on the amount of funding we receive. We have also received support from the Belarusian People’s Bank for this program and we are very grateful to them for it. I will be asking our government every year to allocate more funds to Chevening.
Every year we receive a different number of applications, but the average number of applications is about 15 people per place. It is also important to explain that the number of selected participants also depends on their choice of university. At Chevening, we have a fixed amount of money to pay the tuition fees. The number of participants selected depends on which programmes they choose. For example, a conditional program at Oxford is more expensive than at Cardiff University. And if the first person on the list chooses Oxford, the financial options for those who follow him or her are reduced. So, for example, two years ago we had eight scholarship holders, and this year we had six.
As for culture, for example, last Friday, September 27, the Royal Symphony Orchestra from London gave a concert at the Palace of the Republic, which arrived in Belarus for the Bashmet Festival. It was a beautiful evening, the big hall was full, and the orchestra received an ovation. The musicians were very pleased and regretted only that they arrived in Minsk for just one day. They said they wanted to return to Minsk for a longer term. I hope it works out.
I also think that we need to attract more British tourists here. Not many people in the UK know that Belarus is a beautiful country with beautiful nature, while Minsk is a beautiful city. Last weekend I went to Nesvizh, I liked the palace very much, and also we were able to look at gophers near Nesvizh, which I did not expect to see in Belarus.
– And how can we lure British tourists to choose Belarus from all countries?
– Maybe we should conduct an advertising campaign in the UK. Before coming to Minsk, I spent a year in the UK, and there I have not heard anything about Belarus. Most Britons do not know about tourist opportunities in Belarus.
– Visa facilitation attracts tourists, and Belarus has made visa-free entry for EU citizens, including the UK. Are there any prospects that London will decide to simplify the visa regime for Belarusians?
– There are no such plans now. Our authorities are now actively working on the relations with the EU countries after the “brexit,” including with regard to migration rules. This is a big issue, so no one is thinking about other countries in the context of the visa regime. So, the visa rules for Belarusians are unlikely to change in the near future.
First published in Russian on Naviny.by