Catherine Ashton: Events in Belarus are an affront to our vision of democracy

Editor's Note: What follows are remarks made by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, about Belarus made in the European Parliament Strasbourg on Jan. 19. The European Parliament on Jan. 20 is expected to vote on a resolution about Belarus on Jan. 20.

Mr President, the events which followed the elections in Belarus on 19 December have come as a shock to all of us. The force used by the authorities against Belarusian citizens prompted statements of concern and condemnation across the world. I and my colleagues have met with many of those affected - among the opposition, civil society, the family of those imprisoned and the population at large. We have had the opportunity to express our sympathy and solidarity and to listen. The time has come to act.

I greatly appreciate the fact that Members of the European Parliament have already been able to contribute to our reflections on this issue, and that Commissioner Stefan Fule was able to present our current thinking to AFET last week. I am looking forward to studying the EP Resolution which emerges from your debates. I think it is important for all of us to be as focused as possible in our thinking given the urgency of the situation we are addressing.

I have spent time with a number of representatives of opposition and the wider public in Belarus, including relatives of those detained. I have also met with Foreign Minister Martynov. These conversations have left me in no doubt: the events we witnessed were an affront to our vision of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy. In addition to the unwarranted use of force, the electoral process as a whole was clearly undermined by the detention of civil society and opposition representatives. The assessment of OSCE-ODIHR supports this conclusion.

Many of those detained in the last few weeks have been released: however, a significant group, as many as 30 people, still face charges that could lead to very substantial prison sentences. As you know this group includes some presidential candidates.

Mr President, I have already condemned the repressive measures taken by the authorities in Minsk, and I have called for the immediate release of all those detained on political grounds, as well as the re-opening of the OSCE office in Minsk. I have reinforced this message in a joint statement with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I underlined in my meeting with Foreign Minister Martynov that the EU expects an immediate response from the Belarusian authorities to the demands of the international community.

In determining the next steps we take, we need to start from basic principles.

The first of these principles is that the security and safety of peaceful activists, including presidential candidates, must be in the front of our minds at all times.

The second is that Belarusians are our neighbours and partners, and their interests should be paramount. While we express our concern to the authorities, we cannot isolate the citizens.

The third is that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is at the core of EU foreign policy, and of the Eastern Partnership, and is part of a set of common values we share with our closest partners. We will work with those partners, as we have done with the United States, to maximize the strength of the message sent to Belarus by the international community.

Mr President, our assessment leads to a clear conclusion: to use our channels to pass a firm and prompt reaction. This reaction should give a clear signal of our views to the authorities in Belarus without isolating citizens and civil society.

Our reaction should be a balanced reaction: on the one hand, we have to consider targeted measures against the Belarusian authorities, and I believe, to conduct a review of sanctions. On the other hand, we need to have an intensified dialogue with, and support for, civil society and citizens. In practical terms, this means continuing with direct assistance to NGOs, the media and students, and an increased effort to enhance mobility for citizens wishing to travel to the EU.

In the short-term, reintroducing a travel ban for President Lukashenko, and extending that ban to further named individuals, is certainly an option if detainees are not released.

Regarding intensified support to civil society, I have asked the EEAS, in cooperation with the Commission, to prepare options for urgent measures which would focus on NGOs, media and students. I know that the European Parliament itself has the possibility to provide scholarships for students expelled from university, and I hope, Mr President, that this facility can be exploited. And of course we will be trying to leverage additional resources from elsewhere, including from Member States.

I mentioned earlier the issue of mobility and here I am thinking in particular of visa facilitation, in parallel with readmission specifically aimed at the interests of citizens and offering no gift to the authorities. If such agreements cannot be concluded with the authorities, I want to encourage Member States' consulates in Minsk to facilitate the delivery of visas as an ad-hoc measure in the interest of the Belarusian citizens.

Mr President, the short-term measures I have just described will of course have to be considered at the Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January. But it is not too early to reflect on some longer-term aspects of our relations with Belarus.

Firstly, I said earlier that we need to work with other international partners on this issue, and this is one reason why Belarus should continue to take part in the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership, and why we should engage strongly with Eastern Partnership countries to build consensus on this issue.

Secondly, as far as bilateral financial assistance from the ENPI is concerned, we need to have a stronger focus on the needs of the population and on civil society.

Finally, as you know we had elaborated last year a Joint Interim Plan to map out the development of EU-Belarus relations in the medium-term. I believe we have no option but to pause this process. This does not mean abandoning the Joint Interim Plan, but it implies that it would need further consultation, including with civil society, and review if necessary.

Mr President, this is the framework within which we are currently working. I am interested in hearing your views.

Thank you.


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