Belarus: "Sanction the regime, but open doors to people", Milinkevich tells Europe

Last December's presidential elections, won by Aliaksandr Lukashenko, once dubbed "Europe's last dictator", were followed by a clampdown on protests and a wave of arrests of opposition figures, journalists and human rights activists. Should the EU stick to its offer of closer ties in return for democracy, human rights and the rule of law? Or get tougher with a regime that continuously violates basic human rights? We asked opposition leader and Sakharov prize winner Aliaksandr Milinkevich.

On Wednesday 12 January, The Parliament's 2006 Sakharov Prize Winner Milinkievich will meet with President Buzek as part of a group of representatives of Belarusian democratic opposition. He will then address a meeting of MEPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon. (You can watch this exchange live using the link below).

Mr. Milinkevich, what are the prospects for democratic change after the presidential elections and the violent crackdown on protests and wave of arrests?

The latest events touched not only Belarusian citizens, but also Europe and its leaders. After the elections the Lukashenko regime discovered that it is not as strong as it thought. That's why they decided to use provocation to fight the opposition (the opposition believes that it was the regime that ignited the riots during the election night in Minsk that led to arrests). There are still dozens of people in prisons!

But it doesn't mean that we are going to surrender. The present situation in Belarus is very similar to the situation in Poland in the early 80s under Martial Law. Poles also didn't believe that the transformation was possible. But after a few years democratic changes were attainable. It will be the same in Belarus. Although it is too hard to tell how more years the regime will last.

Carrot or stick? What should EU policy be towards Belarus? Neither isolating the regime, nor giving it economic incentives seems to be working.

At every meeting in Brussels I say that the most important thing is to have a common EU position. You can't have different views. The regime stays vigilant and will use any difference to water down the EU stand.

The other important thing is to differentiate between the Belarusian regime and Belarusians citizens. You should place sanctions on the authorities; the visa ban is one of the good proposals. But as for the rest of Belarusians - you should open the doors to Europe for them. Today the visa price for us is twice as high as for Ukrainians or Russians. There could be more youth exchange programs. It might be surprising, but the ability to travel is very important. Most Belarusians have never left the country, they don't know any alternative. If they see how different life is in the EU they will be more supportive of democratic change.

What about the opposition? Is it united enough to confront the regime and how can the EU support civil society in Belarus?

The opposition is ready to continue its efforts. There are moments of discouragement, especially after events like the recent ones, when so many people were imprisoned. But more and more people see the need for democratic change.

The EU should do everything it can to support civil society in Belarus. Without it nobody would protest against the violations of human rights. The EU should also support the independent media, today they are working in really difficult conditions.

The EP awarded you in 2006 with its Sakharov prize of Freedom of Thought. In 2004, the prize was given to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Did the awards make a difference?

I'm not that kind of person to brag about it and show off the diploma. But it has helped. And on different levels. I always say that it is not a prize for Milinkevich, it's a prize for all these million people who participated in the protests. The Sakharov prize was also widely commented on internet (where the independent media can operate). It was very important to us to be recognized as a part of Europe. The EP awarded us twice, it said that Europe remembers and watches what is happening in Belarus.

Personally the award also helped me. If the regime arrested me, it would be covered by the media around Europe. I'm more protected than ordinary citizens, for example a teacher from a small town who also fights for freedom.

REF. : 20110110STO11396


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