Communist chief under fire over official meetings during 'private' Belarus trip

Vojtech Filip

The chairman of the opposition Communist Party, Vojtech Filip, is under fire from his political opponents after meeting senior Belarussian officials during a private visit to the country. Mr Filip's critics on the political right say the meetings could be interpreted as legitimising the Lukashenko regime and send confused messages in the light of official Czech government support for Belarussian dissidents. He's defended the visit, saying he did nothing wrong.

Vojtech Filip - head of the Czech Communists and a deputy chairman of the Czech lower house - visited Belarus at the beginning of this month. It was meant to be a private trip, but he's confirmed that he held talks at the ministries of energy and foreign affairs and accepted an invitation to meet his counterpart at the Belarussian parliament.

The visit, which was covered by Belarus's state-controlled media, has caused deep dismay among Mr Filip's political opponents. The Czech Republic has no official communication with the government of Alexandr Lukashenko - described by the United States as Europe's last dictator - and support for his opponents is part of official Czech foreign policy. Mr Filip had this to say when Radio Prague suggested the visit had embarrassed his country:

"I absolutely did not bring shame upon the Czech Republic. I categorically deny that. For one thing our partner is the opposition Belarussian Communist Party, which is the only organised opposition party in Belarus - the others are more like opposition groups. The Belarussian Communist Party is not part of Lukashenka's coalition. It's an opposition party, and a very critical one at that - it was in fact the Belarussian Communist Party who nominated Mr Milinkevich for the presidential elections. So I must categorically reject claims that I've embarrassed the Czech Republic. It's nonsense."

Jan Marian is an expert on Belarus at Prague's Association of International Affairs. He's not opposed to contact with Belarussian politicians, but says Mr Filip's explanation needs some clarification:

"The [Belarussian Communist Party] is not the only opposition party in Belarus. There's a conservative party, there are Christian Democrats and Social Democrat parties - opposition ones. So obviously the opposition Communists are not the only opposition political force in Belarus. The other point is that he has obviously met - and we have read it in the Belarussian official media - the deputy speaker of the Belarussian parliament. There are no opposition Communist deputies in the parliament. The parliament is completely controlled by Lukashenko and there are no opposition parties or single deputies there at all."

Vojtech Filip says he told the deputy speaker of the Belarussian parliament he respected the fact there was momentarily no official contact between the two parliaments, and explained the reason for his visit. His ministerial meetings, he says, were merely to help Czech businessmen - among them one of his neighbours - who have legitimate investments in Belarus. It's an explanation that has done little to satisfy his critics.