By Jerome Taylor
A public relations firm headed by a prominent donor to the Tory party is leading a lobbying drive to encourage foreign companies to invest in Belarus as the country's dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, initiates a state-wide crackdown on pro-democracy activists.
Grayling, a lobby group run by Lord Chadlington, a close political ally of David Cameron, is the only global communications firm operating inside Belarus, often described as Europe's last dictatorship.
The firm opened an office in Minsk in 2009 and helps foreign companies navigate "government and regulator relations; foreign direct investment consulting; stakeholder mapping and market entry communications strategy".
The revelation will be a source of embarrassment for the Prime Minister as the British Government has been critical of the deteriorating human rights situation inside Belarus. Following last December's disputed presidential elections hundreds of political activists have been arrested. Almost all the politicians who dared to stand against Mr Lukashenko are facing jail time on what human rights groups and foreign governments say are politically motivated charges.
Grayling is one of three lobby firms owned by Huntsworth Group, where Lord Chadlington, the brother of the Tory MP John Gummer, is chief executive.
The 68-year-old working peer is a major donor to the Conservatives. Electoral Commission records show that donations from the peer and the Huntsworth Group totalled more than ?77,000 between 2005 and 2010. His Oxfordshire estate borders the Camerons' home in Witney, where he is president of the constituency party. He was also a vocal supporter of the Prime Minister's campaign to become party leader.
There have been growing calls from pro-democracy activists for the European Union to impose trade sanctions on Belarus, which has been run by Mr Lukashenko as a quasi-Soviet state since independence.
Some MEPs have called on businesses to disinvest from the country, which has only recently begun opening up to large-scale foreign trade. Up to 80 per cent of industry is still under state control.
Grayling's webpage on Belarus makes no mention of the human rights crisis inside the country but Michael Murphy, the company's chief executive, insisted that it had never taken on work directly for the government.
"Our approach to Belarus is no different to the many other emerging and transitional markets where we have offices, such as Russia and China," he said. "We would always advise clients on the political situation and outlook in any market. Grayling has worked in many parts of the world, including those which have systems of government very different than, for instance, the EU: we don't condone or condemn them, but do promote in-country that we believe that respect for the rights of individuals to live and work in an environment of safety and opportunity produces the most sustainable and successful economies."
Lord Chadlington is not the only prominent Tory donor to have financial connections to Belarus. In 2008 Bell Pottinger, the PR firm run by advertising guru Lord Bell, signed a 12-month contract to handle media relations on behalf of the Government and Mr Lukashenko.
A Bell Pottinger spokesperson told The Independent that the firm had done no work in Belarus since August 2009.
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