Talking to foreign ambassadors is the best way to see how foreigners view Belarus, as they live and work here for a few years, as well as communicate with various groups of society. Meet Her Majesty’s Ambassador Fionna Gibb, whose 3-year post in Belarus is coming to an end this August. Her service will be remembered by lots of human rights discussions, bright statements, and opposite views about flying the rainbow flagwith the Ministry of Interior. We met Ms. Gibb to speak about her most vivid memories of Belarus, issues to discuss with the President, and the future of her own country.
Native and foreign languages
– It’s amazing how well you know Russian! Last time we met in early 2016 when you began to study it, and at the end of last year you gave an hour-long interview entirely in Russian! How did you manage to learn it so fast?
– Did I really? (laughs). I do not speak Russian very well, I understand it quite well though. It is a difficult language, there are so many different ways to say something, the verbs and the prepositions are complicated, and you have different cases. It is difficult to speak grammatically correctly, but I suppose when you have lived here for two or three years and you hear a lot of Russian, it certainly helps.
– Why did you decide to learn Russian in the first place, not Belarusian?
– There was never any discussion, it was the Russian language that was required at the Foreign Office. So, it was not really my choice. Russian is much more spoken than Belarusian in the government. It would be nice to speak Belarusian, but it would not be very practical from a work point of view.
– Do you think this is a problem for our country when the native language is replaced by another one?
– But Russian has always been spoken here, hasn’t it? History is full of migration and change. We are where we are. Russian is only one of the two official languages in Belarus, and I think that’s fine. Obviously, if there is a desire for people to learn Belarusian, then people will learn Belarusian. In any way, I am a foreign ambassador here, so it is not for me to comment on what languages you use.
– Then let me ask you about the spread of English in Belarus. From your experience, do any of our civil servants speak English at all?
– Some people at the Foreign Ministry do. I think in the Finance and Economy Ministries some people speak English as well. Maybe more people understand English than I realize, but they do not use it actively.
– From your point of view, should it be more widespread among the civil service?
– Again, I am not going to say what you should do, but I think English is an international language. When Belarus officials go to Vietnam or Argentina, I suppose the common language is going to be English, not Vietnamese or Spanish. Of course, you can choose interpreters. But if you are going to choose a language to study or develop, then I think English is really important.
Diplomat career, former and next ambassadors
– Let’s dive into your past. How did you make a choice to become a diplomat?
– I was at a job market in Glasgow. I did not enter the university there, but it was free for everyone to attend. There was a stand of the Foreign Office with men promoting information about working for them. I took some leaflets and thought it could be interesting to travel overseas, learning politics of other countries. That’s why I applied.
– Was your family supportive?
– Yes, absolutely. They could see why it would be an interesting job for me.
– So, no regrets here?
– No, no regrets. I have a good career at Foreign Office.
– Before Belarus you used to work in Iraq, Ukraine, Germany, Yemen, and even Somali. Where was your job most difficult?
– There is a lot of ways to answer this question. I mean, was it difficult because of the climate, or because of the work, or because of the people? I could say, the most difficult to live was Iraq, because it was hot, or the most difficult was Yemen because of the security issues. Each post had its own challenges, but I enjoyed all of it.
– Before coming to Belarus, did you meet your predecessor, Mr. Bruce Bucknell, who served in Minsk from 2013 to 2016?
– I did meet Bruce two or three times in London for a cup of coffee before I came here. He left me many notes about the staff, work and non-government organizations. He gave me advice which organizations were good to work with, advice about politics.
– What was the most important piece of advice he had given to you?
– I do not remember (laughs). The notes he had left me were very practical. He enjoyed his time here. I think it was more difficult for Bruce to work here, because there were still sanctions against Belarus. It was quite difficult to engage with the government. Most of the sanctions were lifted in February 2016, which was a month after I had arrived. I think Bruce was not able to do as much as we have been able to do over the last three years, simply because of the more difficult EU-Belarus relationship.
– This is the last year of your service in Belarus. What advice would you give to a new ambassador?
– That is a good question, because we are actively in contact. I have met her once.
– So, the person is known already?
– Of course, she has been learning Russian for the last year. She will be arriving in August after I leave. We met in London in February and will meet again in June as I will go to London for a few days. I would also give her the notes as I got from my predecessor.
– What will be the most important piece of advice?
– My main piece of advice will be to keep pushing the team of the Embassy (laughs). To be engaged, to be ambitious, and to keep driving the agenda forward on political dialogue and economic relations. Our defence relationships are very soft… so, to keep these topics very active, to be visible, to show that the UK is present here. That will be the main piece of advice.
Cultural similarities and distinctions
– Last year the Embassy held a very successful GREAT British festival in Minsk, and this year you are holding it again. Why is it important to bring British culture to Belarus?
– I think the festival is a great way to show that the UK is here, we are serious about our relationship with Belarus. We want to show what the UK has to offer and encourage interest in the UK through different areas of the festival, whether education and learning English, or the charity work that we are doing.
– How will the festival differ from the last year experience? Will there be any surprises?
– To be honest, it will be much the same as last year. There will be music on stage, there will be food and drink.
– Are any celebrities coming?
– We have a modest budget (laughs). Therefore, we cannot afford any celebrities. I do not think that Sian Evans (last-year’s headliner) was very well-known here. This year we have one or two groups coming from the UK. We cannot afford Paul McCartney, yet the performers at the festival are young and talented.
– Despite both Belarus and the UK being European countries, our cultures and mentalities are not similar. I cannot but ask you about the rainbow flag you hung out again. This year the statement of the Ministry of Interior seemed more prepared than last year’s. I wonder if you have ever tried to get an appointment with Mr. Shunevich to discuss it?
– No, Mr. Shunevich is a very busy man, so I am not going to take his time to discuss this issue. Belarus has signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are all rights, including those of the LGBT community. That is why we fly the flag: we are not promoting LGBT, we are promoting awareness of the community and equal rights for the community. They do suffer discrimination in Belarus, but I am not saying that the UK is any better. This community suffers discrimination all over the world.
“We are not promoting LGBT, we are promoting equal rights for the community”
We see that the Ministry of Interior issued a statement, which at the end of it suggested that the LGBT community are responsible for lots of child abuse. I am not quite sure what the Ministry meant by that, but it is absolutely not true to say that the LGBT community are responsible for child sexual abuse. It is happening in Belarus, it is happening in every village and every town of the UK, which is terrible, very regrettable. Child abuse in Belarus is the same size of a problem in comparison to the population, as in the UK. I know this because the UK Police has had a discussion with the Ministry of Interior and officials about online grooming of children. The Ministry here have said to our UK Police colleagues that there is the same percentage of the population involved illegally in online grooming of children here as in the UK. This means there are all sorts of adult men, not necessarily members of the LGBT community, who are grooming children online and sexually abusing children in Belarus, as in my country. Do not say that it is the LGBT community being responsible for this. Yes, they may be members of LGBT community, but they will be the minority. There are plenty of heterosexual adult men in this country, who are sexually abusing children. I disagree with the Ministry’s statement, in particular on that moment. However, I am not going to enter into a debate with the Ministry about it. They have their position. Maybe they will evolve over the time, maybe society’s attitude in Belarus would become less conservative.
– Today, I read that almost 50% of the Russian population agree on granting LGBT community equal rights. To my mind, the situation in Belarus is quite the same, especially among the youth. However, such a strong decision is impossible without the political will, which is complicated because the dialogue between the officials and foreign embassies on the matter seems impossible.
– No, of course it is not impossible. We and the other EU-member states have a very good dialogue here. We also have visitors from our capitals coming to Belarus, or from Belarus to European states. We have open and honest political dialogue, and it does include the theme of human rights whether it is unfair suppression of independent non-state media, or pressure on the LGBT community, or not allowing people to protest peacefully. Mostly we have these conversations through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because it is our main natural partner at the government department.
Today, I have just come from the event where the UNICEF together with the representatives of the Ministries of Interior, Justice and Education, the Prosecutor General’s Office, Supreme Court and the National Centre of Legislation all gathered to discuss restorative justice. This is a two-day conference and we are funding it. Its purpose is to try to support Belarus as it looks at different ways of dealing with young people’s rights, because it is not usually the best solution to send a young person to prison for, let’s say, shoplifting, stealing someone’s handbag, or graffiting on the street. There are some crimes when you need to go to an institution: if you raped somebody or stabbed somebody, you are a danger and need to spend some time in prison with psychological support, and hopefully, when you come out you would not do it again. There are other levels of crime when you do not need to send a young person to prison. Belarusian authorities are very open to these discussions. There are some human rights, which are more difficult for the government to talk about, like freedom of media, or death penalty, but we still raise it.
– You are doing a very important job. I heard many of your statements about domestic violence, journalists’ disappearances and human rights. However, there is an impression it is more about speeches, and real results are still yet to come. From your perspective, what needs to be done more of?
– Well, it is mostly the EU Embassies and the American Embassy that raise human rights questions. Other embassies may have other priorities, like economic relations, for example. I do not agree that it is all about speeches. Having workshops like today on juvenile restorative justice is important, it helps the thinking develop and evolve here in Belarus. I am not really sure what we can do more of. We are but diplomats. It is a dialogue, it is communication, it is a process – you cannot expect changes to come overnight.
“Foreign diplomats cannot come in and just change things”
I do not know what the country was like ten years ago, but you talk to older Belarusians involved in human rights and they would say that compared to five years ago things are different now here in terms of dialogue and certain subjects allowed for discussion. Maybe there is not a lot of change, but the openness to dialogue is different than it was five years ago. Even the most critical of human rights organizations here in Belarus, like Viasna, would probably recognize that the space for dialogue is opening more if compared to the past. I think you must manage your expectations (laughs). Foreign diplomats cannot come in and just change things. We are representatives of our countries and are here to promote relations between the states.
Topics to discuss with the President
– Last week your colleague Mr. Peter Dettmar had a meeting with President Lukashenka as his term as the German Ambassador to Belarus had come to its end. Are you willing to have a meeting with the President before leaving?
– It is not if I am willing, it is if the President invites me (smiles). When an ambassador leaves, it is normal to pay a call on the President or Foreign Ministry, as you do when you arrive. I would certainly expect to see a representative from the Foreign Ministry when I go. Whether I see the President is very much a decision for the President, I have absolutely no idea. Peter Dettmar was a very special ambassador. He has been here twice: he served in Belarus in 2010 for a few months and later came back as the Ambassador. Germany has done a lot here. It is an important partner for Belarus. I think President very much values Peter’s personal contribution. I saw Peter two nights ago and when I commended him, he was very gratified that his work was so recognized.
– Let’s imagine that the President invited you for a meeting. What issues would you discuss with him?
– I will talk about how our relations have developed over the last four years. We have had ministerial exchanges in both directions, your Prime Minister is about to go to London. A lot has happened in terms of bilateral exchange. The President has met Prince Michael of Kent and Alan Duncan, our Deputy Foreign Minister. If we have another minister coming for the European Games, I hope the President would have time to meet him, because the Minsk Games is a very busy time for everybody. I would highlight the developing relationship, and also commend my successor to the President.
– Without mentioning any problems?
– I think I will play it by ear. If I was to have such a meeting, I do not think it would be appropriate to raise the death penalty with the President, if he was to grant me such a meeting, but I think I will decide at the time. If it happens, then I will think about it.
The future of the UK and Belarus
– The whole world is aware of the complicated Brexit situation the UK is facing. I am not going to ask any personal questions on the matter, but in general, what country are you getting back to and how do you think it is going to change over few years?
– I have no idea! Brexit has been a very difficult topic in the UK, and it still is, because it is not yet clear what is going to happen. I mean literally. The Prime Minister is bringing her withdrawal agreement to Parliament again to vote on in two weeks’ time. I cannot speculate about the process. I think the Government’s policy is to deliver Brexit, so Brexit will happen. We will move on, and we will carry on, but I do not think the country will be any different. I think people would be relieved when it is all finally decided.
Brexit will bring new opportunities for the UK: new trade deals, new partnerships. People wanted to take back control of decisions and borders. That is what Brexit will deliver, that is the plan. Britain will continue to be a confident international player taking a leading role in a number of international issues. The current focus of the Foreign Secretary is media freedom around the world, and we are co-hosting a big conference in July in London on media freedom. The UK will continue to take a leading role on these issues, we will stand up, be counted and drive things forward. We are a global player and we will remain a global player. We have a first-class diplomatic service, we have first-class civil servants, we are committed to drive forward change, and that will remain.
– Are you afraid the country might lose some positions in European family?
– No, I do not see that at all. Britain is very much part of Europe, not part of the EU in future, and the exact nature of our relationship in terms of trade will be decided by the kind of withdrawal agreement, but we are a European country, we feel very European, and I do not believe that should change.
– What do you think Belarus should do to feel more included in this European family?
– Maybe tackle some of the human rights issues. That would be a good first step. Belarus knows that more steps need to be taken to remove some of the criticisms that the EU has. For example, the continuing application of the death penalty. We are going on and on, and I think authorities are tired of listening to us discussing that problem all over again, but it would be really a good move, if they introduced the moratorium. That only means stopping executions, that does not mean abolishing. I know you need a referendum to abolish, but you could have a moratorium, that would be a really positive step.
“Belarus knows that more steps need to be taken to remove some of the criticisms that the EU has”
Then, allowing people to publicly protest without making it as difficult as possible by saying you could only protest in Bangalor park and you need to pay 5,000 dollars to do so. Not harassing the press, no “BelTA case” against TUT.BY or the recent raid of Belsat offices. No putting ridiculous fines on peaceful protestors in Brest, who maybe have got some legitimate worries about the car battery plant. I mean let them, treat them seriously, listen to them, engage with them! Do not give them 5,000 dollars’ fines. The richness of this society is in the young people, it is in these civil society organizations. Let these civil society groups flourish, encourage them, and do not be afraid of some of them. I think Belarus could do more in this direction.
– Will you miss anything about Belarus?
– I will miss a lot. I think it is a very nice place to live, apart from all of those difficult human rights issues we talk about. I like the society, I like how people behave to each other, generally speaking. I like the kind of respect people show to each other. It is a very respectful society, very welcoming society for a foreigner, very modest. People’s general behavior is so much better than in the UK (laughs). I think mostly people work very hard, they are very talented. I am going to miss all of that. I will miss beautiful places I have been to. I will plan to come back to Belarus privately. Maybe in three or four years’ time I will come back, rent a dacha and teach English privately free of charge. I do not really need the money. Give me ten eggs and I will give you an English class! (laughs).
– Do you think things are going to be OK here in Belarus?
– Yes, I think Belarus will take its own time. But what I have learnt about Belarus is that the authorities have very tight control of things, and there are some positives of that in some way. I compare to lack of security in my country. I would not walk around London at two o’clock in the morning and feel safe. I would not take the underground in London at one o’clock in the morning and feel particularly safe on a Friday night with lots of drunk people around who would be taking drugs and be out of control. I would always be watching in London, always be careful about my handbag. I think here the level of crime is very low, I think that partly because of the fear of the police probably. I think that is a good thing.
So, things will be OK. I think the regime could afford to loosen the control a little bit and let the civil society flourish, because civil society can support delivery of services like it does in our country. I would like to see President Lukashenka travelling to European capitals. I know he has been to New York for the UN General Assembly, he has been to Rome to meet the Pope, but I cannot think of any other European capital that he has been to. I think it is really important to travel abroad.
– Jogging / horse-riding?
– Seaside / mountaintop?
– A book / a movie?
– A book.
– Instagram / Facebook?
– A week in Minsk / a day in London?
– A week in Minsk.
– Your favorite vegetarian food?
– Goat cheese.
– What impressed your mother about Belarus most?
– Its cleanliness!
– Complete the sentence: “In Belarus there is a lack of…”
– If you were to meet any historical figure who is not alive, who would it be?
– Leonardo da Vinci.
– What would you discuss with him?
– His brain! It is amazing.
– How would you like to see yourself in five years?
– Not working (laughs). Doing something different, not this job. I do not want to be a diplomat any more in five years’ time. I want to work part-time doing something completely different. Maybe working with children or with animals, something with ecology. Probably in the UK, but not necessarily. Because I would work part-time, I would have more time to see friends and more time to travel.
– How would like to see yourself in 25 years?
– In 25-year time I will be fully retired, living somewhere like in a very good British film called “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, which is about people who retired and do not want to live in the UK. They buy or rent an empty hotel in India and they all go and live there together. It is a lovely old palace-like type of building. They all have their own rooms. With some of my friends we joke about having our own “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. Buying a lovely big building somewhere, having your own privacy, but having some common area, in a beautiful location not necessarily in the UK. Maybe that will happen in 25 years.