Belarus: EU Sets Up 'Situation Room' To Watch Election

By Ahto Lobjakas

A "situation room" has been set up at the European Parliament in Brussels to observe as much as possible of the presidential elections on March 19. The parliament's own monitoring team was warned not to attempt to come to Belarus, and the EU presence on the ground is likely to be thin at best. The 'situation room' will therefore be at the forefront of much of the earliest EU reactions to the increasingly flawed poll.

BRUSSELS, March 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "It's not really a 'war room' in the style of Winston Churchill," says Arnoldas Pranckevicius, who runs the EU's situation room, which is operating this weekend at the European Parliament.

However, the large room on the eighth floor of a European Parliament building in Brussels -- with its round table, a television set, telephones, and computers -- could be on the cutting edge of the EU response to the Belarusian poll.

EP Delegation Denied Visas

The room was set up this week when an ad hoc observation delegation of seven European Parliament deputies was denied visas to enter Belarus.

Pranckevicius said the parliament's standing delegation for Belarus then decided to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation and attempt to carry out its mandate from afar.

"The primary role of the situation room is to constantly follow information about the elections in Belarus and [to] inform the members of our ad hoc delegation; and also [to] be always prepared, if necessary, to mobilize attention here at the European Parliament; and also to prepare a statement on Monday [March20] as a first assessment of what has happened in Belarus," Pranskevicius says.

A Communications Hub

Arnoldas Pranckevicius (RFE/RL)Today, Pranskevicius mans the situation room alone. At full strength, on March 19, five or six officials will relay information for 20 to 30 European Parliament deputies, most of whom won't be in Brussels. The situation room will have access to satellite television from Belarus and from neighboring countries such as Russia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. It will receive information from opposition activists in Minsk and elsewhere.

The situation room will also have direct access to the Latvian Embassy in Minsk, which currently speaks for the EU in Belarus.

The situation room is liable to be able to offer the nimblest response to developments in Belarus on election day and on March 20. The European Commission and EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on March 20 will await the report of a monitoring team sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), due at 4:30 p.m. Brussels time on March 20.

Pranskevicius says the European Parliament does not feel bound to wait that long and will probably have a statement out on March 20 morning, drawing on situation-room reports.

EP Deputies Attempting To Get Across The Border

He says another, more immediate key task of the situation room will be to monitor the progress of a number of European Parliament deputies attempting to enter Belarus individually.

"Of course, as you know, the ad hoc delegation decided not to go to Belarus because it was denied visas, but that does not exclude the possibility for individual members of the European Parliament to try to endeavor to enter Belarus on their own," Pranskevicius says.

The liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), a bloc in the parliament, has sent three deputies, all attempting to enter Belarus on tourist visas at various times and points today.

Pranskevicius says he cannot reveal the deputies' identities or itineraries for fear of tipping off the Belarusian authorities and compromising their chances of entry.

Pranskevicius says that if successful, the three deputies could perform a very important function both observing events and providing an EU presence on the ground.

"And, of course, here at the situation room in the European Parliament we will be in contact with those members who will be trying to [enter Belarus] and we will inform other members of the European Parliament as soon as we know if they succeeded or not," Pranskevicius says. "And if they do succeed we will try to establish contact with them and inform other members of what they have seen their, their experiences, impressions, and observations."

Pranskevicius says the situation room will arrange a video conference on March 20 at noon local time, linking up EU deputies in Brussels, a group of members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, and the Lithuanian parliament in Vilnius.