MEPs go it alone to Belarus

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - MEPs monitoring the Belarusian presidential elections on 19 March will not be speaking for the EU, the European Commission has warned, while signalling interest in new official election missions to Asia and Africa.

The European Parliament is planning to send an ad hoc delegation of seven MEPs to Minsk next week, with around five more liberal group members set to go under their own steam.

The MEPs are using member states' embassies in Belarus to try and get visas but will not have access to polling stations or produce a final report, with the commission leaving official observation duties to the OSCE.

"They [the MEPs] speak for themselves," external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on Monday (6 March). "It is the OSCE who, at the end of the day, will make the official statement."

Commission methods rule out sending official missions to the OSCE zone, she explained, with the Vienna-based body covering the EU as well as all the former Soviet states.

The MEPs' ad hoc mission, led by Polish conservative Bogdan Klich, will focus on giving moral support to Belarus opposition parties and boosting international attention in the event of potential post-election protests and police reprisals.

"In the end we will see who can get in and what they can do," a parliament official indicated.

Pre-election beatings

The OSCE has so far deployed 46 experts in Belarus, with an interim report last week criticising the detention of opposition activists and the beating of independent presidential candidate, Aleksander Kozulin.

Ms Ferrero-Waldner called the beating a "serious development" and repeated EU threats to extend a visa ban on Minsk politicians if the OSCE mission concludes the elections are unfair.

The OSCE plans to deploy a further 400 observers for the elections, with another 300 to 400 observers due to arrive from separate national missions from the former Soviet countries.

But Minsk has questioned the objectivity of both the OSCE and the EU when it comes to discussing the elections.

Belarus foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said OSCE, EU and US reactions to the Kozulin beating were not only misinformed but suspiciously-well coordinated, Belarus NGO Charter97 reported.

"All this prompts the thought that there is obvious stage direction here," Mr Popov said on state media.

Belarusian diplomats also attacked the EU's decision to hold VIP-level meetings with opposition candidate Aleksander Millinkevich in Brussels last month.

"One can even doubt the sincerity of the EU's analysis of the election results if the result is something other than what the EU expects," Minsk contacts told EUobserver.

Offical missions for Asia and Africa

Turning away from Belarus, Ms Ferrero-Waldner said the commission plans to step up official election missions in non-OSCE territories in the future, while explaining Brussels' democratic credo.

"This [election observation] is one of our most effective instruments in supporting democratic processes," she said. "We don't aim to change governments, but we aim to help the people of these countries make their choice freely."

The commission clarified that its job is not to "certify" or endorse election results, but to increase transparency, deter violence and fraud and gather data for its own long-term foreign policy planning.

Ms Ferrero-Waldner said Brussels has spent ?77 million on offical missions since 2000 and is considering sending offcial observers to Aceh, Indonesia in April, to Fiji in May, Congo in June, Mexico in July and Angola in September.