Thatcher's PR man to buff Belarus image

ByStephen Fidler in London

Margaret Thatcher's favourite public relations man, Tim Bell, signed a contract this week to improve the image of the government of Belarus, described by the White House as a "repressive dictatorship on the doorstep of the European Union".

Lord Bell confirmed on Thursday he signed the contract with the government of President Alexander Lukashenko at the weekend, but declined to disclose details.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, has called Belarus "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe". Mr Lukashenko and his ministers are barred from travelling to the US and the EU.

Mr Lukashenko secured 82 per cent of the vote in presidential elections in 2006, a year when the White House described his government as having "a track record of fraudulent elections; state-orchestrated 'disappearances' of opponents; imprisonment of peaceful, democratic political figures on spurious charges; and repressive tactics to intimidate civil society". Lord Bell said the role of Bell Pottinger, his company, would be to improve the reputation of Belarus and to correct misinformation.

It was claimed, for instance, the government was anti-Semitic but Belarus had a thriving Jewish community and improving relations with Israel. Mr Lukashenko was condemned by Israel and the US last year after accusing Jews of turning the city of Bobruisk into a pigsty.

"Everybody is entitled to an advocate," Lord Bell said by telephone. "I don't see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values about what it should or shouldn't do."

Lord Bell said the government had already released some political prisoners, and more were likely to follow.

Apart from Lady Thatcher, whom he advised in three election campaigns, Lord Bell represents Boris Berezovsky, the Russian tycoon, and has also advised high- profile clients such as Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black and Boris Yeltsin.



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