Vienna - Lithuania will seek a renewed presence in Belarus by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and will push for press freedom and other civil liberties during its yearlong chairmanship of the 56-member group, its foreign minister said Thursday.
Audronius Azubalis, speaking at the opening of Lithuania's OSCE chairmanship in the Austrian capital Vienna, expressed 'regret' that the December presidential election in member state Belarus, which ended in a crackdown on opposition leaders and the media, failed to meet OSCE commitments for a fair and free vote.
Minsk announced the end of the OSCE mission to that country after the election, which showed incumbent President Aleksander Lukashenko enjoying a resounding, if disputed, victory.
Azubalis called for reconsideration of that decision, saying that an OSCE presence in Belarus should be a 'meaningful' one.
He also outlined other priorities for the Lithuanian chairmanship, including development of an OSCE 'action plan,' hosting a conference later this year on journalists' safety, and resolving long-standing conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
'I am personally committed to supporting and defending the freedom of the media, safety of journalists, and protecting independent national human rights organizations,' he said.
Azubalis declined during a later news conference to speak about the possibility of sanctions against Belarus, which have been urged by several European states. He also declined to pass judgment on Hungary's controversial new media law, which has drawn fire from European leaders and the OSCE's own media freedom representative.
'I'm not going to comment until I go deeper into the whole situation,' he said.
Critics say the law, which sets up a government-appointed watchdog, aims to muzzle Hungarian media.
The agenda Lithuania has set for itself is a particularly challenging one because of the complexity of formulating and agreeing to an action plan. The December OSCE summit in Kazakhstan failed to adopt such a blueprint, though that was one of its key aims.
But Azubalis said that the OSCE's Kazakhstan declaration, in which member states reaffirmed their commitments to human rights and democracy, would give the chairmanship leverage to push for respect for press freedom and the rule of law.
In outlining its priorities, however, Lithuania may be putting itself on a collision course with some of its members - not just Belarus and Hungary, but Russia, too.
Recent events in Russia - the politically charged retrial of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and attacks on journalists and human rights activists - have prompted some to question Moscow's democratic credentials.
Azubalis' comments on civil society and the Soviet occupation of Lithuania could rankle Moscow. He pointedly mentioned the 1991 Soviet crackdown in Lithuania and he called for a moment of silence to remember its victims.
'Back then - in 1991 - all us were challenged. And we - all of us - acted together to bring about a change from the Cold War Europe toward a Europe whole, free and at peace with itself,' he said.
During the news conference, Azubalis emphasized his cordial relations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom he plans to meet in February in Moscow.
'At least from my understanding, there is no question that I couldn't discuss with my colleague,' he said.
He said that Lithuania would seek a continued dialogue with Belarus on the OSCE mission there.
'I would say that our goal, to create the good platform for cooperation in general and one of the participating states, Belarus, but of course we are not for a presence because of presence,' he said. 'We want to see a meaningful presence of the OSCE in Belarus.'
Lithuania is assuming the OSCE chairmanship from Kazakhstan, which was the first former Soviet country to occupy that post.