Belarus: EU External Relations Commissioner 'Concerned' About Vote

By Ahto Lobjakas

The EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told RFE/RL in an interview today that the EU sees "quite a lot" of flaws and difficulties in the run-up to the presidential election in Belarus on March 19. However, she said the EU will announce its final verdict only after the polls have closed.

RFE/RL: Considering your statement issued in Brussels earlier today [calling the arrests of prominent opposition figures and other campaign violations "unacceptable"] is there any chance at all that the elections on Sunday can be free and fair?

Ferrero-Waldner: Of course, we see and we are very concerned that there are quite a lot of difficulties, and flaws, and difficult moments. But, I think, we have to really judge the elections after the election day. And the OSCE/ODIHR [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, respectively] [observation] mission will, of course, have to make a statement on Monday [about] the whole process -- the process that started before, and then, of course on election day. We have to see after [that] output, after the result.

RFE/RL: The Belarusian voter, of course, must decide what to do before the elections. Is there any EU message for the Belarusian voter as they consider their options on Sunday and beyond -- to vote or not to vote, to protest or not to protest?

Ferrero-Waldner: This has to be the decision of each and every voter and, of course, we cannot take the decision for them. I hope that they have seen the broad picture of information, on their own country and from outside. Because, indeed, sometimes, as you know, there might have been a selective picture. So it is really up to each and every voter to decide in the [booth], in the voting [booth], what they will do. I cannot say any more. But, of course, the voting right in principle is always a very important right that each and everyone can exercise.

RFE/RL: It appears beyond doubt now that Alyaksandr Lukashenka will win the election. But regardless of the outcome, what kind of EU engagement can you promise Belarus in the future?

Ferrero-Waldner: On the one hand, we will certainly discuss that in the next council of [EU] foreign ministers [in Brussels on Monday, March 20], you can imagine. And while we might not rule out more sanctions for those who are responsible for noncompliance with democracy, human rights, and free and fair elections -- if this were so -- on the other hand, we would like to engage, of course, with the population of Belarus.... We have been working with the civil society already, for instance on the humanities university in Vilnius when [its office] in Minsk had been closed down. So for the future we will have to find maybe additional ways and means [to assist] civil society, and of course I think we have to clearly see that NGOs also will be [among] our partners.

RFE/RL: Do you support the idea of making more EU money directly available to the civil society, bypassing the government?

Ferrero-Waldner: We will have to take a decision after the elections. I think now let us see how the elections go, let us then make a clear judgment, and then let us take decision for the future.