Monday, 21 March 2005

Belarus under scrutiny again

Contributed by Editor

"The EU wishes to have in Belarus a neighbour that respects democratic values, rule of law and human rights," said European Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. "I sincerely hope that we can further increase our cooperation with Belarus in the future by offering it all the benefits of our Neighbourhood Policy. But, for that to be possible, the government of Belarus must first clearly demonstrate its commitment to the European values of democracy, human rights and rule of law," said Ferrero-Waldner.

Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, was repeating EU policy at a Commission-sponsored workshop intended to profile EU support for Belarus civil society in Vilnius. Since 1997, the EU has restricted ministerial contact between the EU and Belarus, and suspended aid apart from assistance for projects which support humanitarian causes or democratisation.

Last November, the EU introduced a visa ban against the officials directly responsible for the fraudulent polls and those responsible for the subsequent repression of demonstrators. European Foreign Ministers also told the European Commission to step up spending on civil society and the democratisation process in the country.

"Belarus is today a country that becomes ever more isolated in Europe. And this is also true for relations with the EU. This is really a path that the Belarus president has chosen and thereby causing suffering for the Belarus population. That is why it is all the more important that the isolation policy against Belarus is directed against those in power in the country and not against the Belarus people," said Swedish Green MEP Jonas Sjostedt.

The Commission is now increasing assistance to Belarus from around ?10 million annually to ?12 million in 2005 and in 2006. Over ?5 million will be available in 2005 alone to support civil society in areas such as strengthening NGO capacity, promoting awareness of and respect for human rights and democracy, promoting cultural diversity and the fights against poverty and intolerance. The money, however, passes through the Belarus government, thereby excluding many civil society organisations that have been de-registered for political reasons.

"In spite of the Council of Ministers' resolution of November 2004 and the detailed EU action plan for promoting democracy in Belarus, the European Commission insists on using the existing mechanism for support to civil society in Belarus," said Conservative Arpad Duka-Zolyomi. "Some Member States and the expelled Belorussian community, want to see the creation of a special fund, with more flexible structures, to support non-registered NGOs, which are the most active and important in Belarus but receive no support under the current EU mechanisms." Duka-Zolyomi calls on the Commission to increase support for genuine civil society organisations such as the Belarus Association of Journalists, laureate of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize.

The European Commission is currently reviewing how it channels funds so as to better assist civil society in Belarus. "The main question is the ability of the relevant organisations to absorb the funds. The Commission is ready to examine all possible ways of supporting Belorussian civil society financially so that the funds can be used efficiently," said Estonian Siim Kallas, Vice-President of the European Commission . "The seriously flawed conduct of the parliamentary elections and the referendum in October 2004, show how far Belarus is lagging behind in terms of democratic development. It is deeply worrying for us all that democratisation, respect for fundamental freedoms and respect for the rule of law are deteriorating rather than improving, as the regime continues to tighten its grip on democratic forces, the independent media and opposition forces."

"The EU's goal is to have close relations with all of our neighbours, including Belarus. We want to see Belarus as a democratic, stable and prosperous country, fully benefiting from our Neighbourhood Policy. Unfortunately, its government's policies prevent it from taking its rightful place in the family of European nations," said Kallas.