By Dita Asiedu
Since the fall of Communism sixteen years ago, the Czech Republic has felt a sense of responsibility to help promote democracy in countries where basic human rights are frequently violated. The Czech government openly criticises the Castro regime, calls for an independent Tibet, and actively supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. But what are Czechs doing to help promote democracy in Belarus, where the press is censored, any form of political dissent is a punishable offence, and the use of Russian is more common than the native Belarusian?
Citizens of the eastern European country are casting their ballots in presidential elections this week but the vote is widely considered just a formality as President Alexander Lukashenko is expected to win a third term in office. Dita Asiedu spoke to member of the Belarusian community in Prague and editor of the Belarusian Review George Stankevich to see how the Czech Republic is viewing the political situation in his home country:
"President Havel [former Czech President Vaclav Havel] really does support our efforts to bring democracy to Belarus. Several senators and Minister Svoboda too [foreign minister Cyril Svoboda], as well as mainly the female journalists who write excellent articles in Lidove Noviny [a Czech newspaper] and Respekt [a Czech weekly magazine] occasionally has good articles on the subject."
Overall, would you say that the ordinary Czech citizen knows what's going on in Belarus?
"No. I'm not certain that they are interested at all."
About three years ago, our foreign minister Cyril Svoboda was accused of causing unrest in Belarus...
"That's a farce."
What happened exactly?
"The Czech Embassy decided to distribute a UN report on human rights violations in Belarus. It was perfectly legal but the regime in Belarus used it as a pretext to start attacking the Czech Embassy."
But would that have made any difference at all? At around that same time, Prague hosted a conference on Belarus. It seems like ordinary citizens in Belarus know very little about the opposition, that there is one...
"It was a good thing because the election campaign, which was more or less initiated by Lukashenko ahead of time so that the opposition had no time to organise theirs, sort of backfired on him because the opposition candidates used it to his displeasure quite well. That information got around and more and more people came to meet the opposition candidates. They came in thousands and the word spread. So, what the embassy did was a step in the right direction and it was appreciated of course.
But as George Stankevich mentioned earlier, ordinary Czechs have little interest in Belarus. Czech journalist and human rights activist Petruska Sustrova told Radio Prague there are three main reasons why:
"If we compare the situation here to that in Poland or the Baltic states, we have to realise that they have historic ties to Belarus, ties that are more deeply rooted. Belarus is much further away from us. I must also point out that in Communist Czechoslovakia many of us viewed Belarus as part of the Soviet Union and not a different nation with different people. Back then there was hardly any information on the various nationalities that made up the Soviet Union, whose history was suppressed. In Poland, this was not the case because some people there had relatives in Belarus, who shared their experiences.
"And today, Czechs are also not interested in what's going on beyond their country's eastern borders - the media and Czech society are much more attracted to the western states and life-styles simply because of their developed democracies and much richer economies."