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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008, 20:10 GMT
Thatcher adviser mulls Belarus role
Chris Mason
BBC News, Brussels

Alexander Lukashenko with Russian President Vladimir Putin (December 1997)
Belarus has been involved in a diplomatic spat with the US
Advertising and public-relations executive Lord Bell, best known for his advisory role in Margaret Thatcher's three successful UK general election campaigns, has confirmed he has met and is hoping to advise a man described by the US as "Europe's last dictator".

Lord Bell helped set up advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi and was regarded as an instrumental figure in the Conservatives' general election victories under Lady Thatcher.

He advised her on interview techniques, what to wear - even her hairstyle.

Now he is hoping to secure a new client - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lord Bell told me: "I went to see him, at his request. He's asked me to put a proposal together about how his image could be improved."

If President Lukashenko really wants to improve his image, actions would speak louder than words
Mike Blakemore
Amnesty International

Alexander Lukashenko has been President of Belarus since 1994 - and it is no understatement to say that international diplomatic niceties have not been a top priority for him.

And there is no shortage of countries that will strongly criticise his regime. Take US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who described Belarus as the "last true dictatorship" of central Europe.

The UK - together with the rest of the European Union, and the US - has imposed a visa ban on Mr Lukashenko and other top Belarussian officials.

Last week, the American Ambassador to Belarus was asked to leave the country.

Political enemies

Alexander Lukashenko's government has a reputation for jailing its political enemies or forcing them into exile. Others have simply disappeared.

Russian television even reported recently that traffic police in Minsk used civilian vehicles, with their owners still inside, to block roads in order to catch speeding drivers.

This is a country some distance from the European mainstream.

Map of Belarus

So why would a highly respected public-relations executive want to get involved with Belarus?

Lord Bell is not keen to say too much before any possible deal to work for President Lukashenko.

But I understand he strongly believes that Belarus suffers because of what he sees as the double standards of many Western governments.

Why, for example, is Russia a member of the G8 club of industrialised nations and there is little criticism of Kazakhstan's human-rights record?

Cynics point to their abundant oil and gas reserves - and Belarus' distinct lack of either.

Lord Bell acknowledges Belarus's leader "isn't perfect" and admits he has already been criticised for even contemplating working for him.

But he detects signs the country may be changing. And perhaps it is.

'Communism with a cappuccino'

I travelled to Belarus as a tourist a few years ago. The capital, Minsk, could not have felt, or indeed looked, more different from neighbouring Lithuania's capital Vilnius.

There were no tourist stalls or Western hotel chains anywhere.

In fact, in the imposing Soviet-era tower block of a hotel where we stayed, the few Western visitors they had were all put on the 16th floor. The rest of the place appeared empty.

Many were certain the hotel was bugged.

Lord Bell with exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovksy in London
Lord Bell has acted as PR adviser to a series of clients

And yet amongst the city's young people there was a palpable urge to embrace Western culture - whether drinking European brands of beer or dancing to albeit somewhat dated European pop music.

Little wonder the Lonely Planet travel guide describes Minsk as "communism with a cappuccino".

Perhaps, now that Belarus borders three countries that are fully paid up members of the European family - Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - there is a feeling in Minsk that it is time for relations with the West to thaw.

The European Commission will soon be opening an office there and there are further incentives for President Lukashenko to consider.

"We are ready to re-engage with you, and move towards a normalisation of our relations, provided that additional serious steps are taken in Belarus towards democratisation," says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's External Relations Commissioner.

But for the country's critics, a new image can only be a start.

Mike Blakemore, from human-rights group Amnesty International, tells me: "If President Lukashenko really wants to improve his image, actions would speak louder than words - however well they might be spun.

"He should stop harassing and locking up opponents... release prisoners of conscience and join countries such as Belarus's near neighbour Uzbekistan, that have abolished the death penalty."

Profile: Alexander Lukashenko
09 Jan 07 |  Europe
Timeline: Belarus
05 Mar 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Belarus
05 Mar 08 |  Country profiles

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