Crisis encourages Belarus to look West

The current economic crisis is encouraging Belarus to take a step towards the West, it emerged from joint Nordic-Baltic-Belarussian roundtable talks in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on Monday. The agenda included the impact of the economic crisis on climate and energy policy.

The meeting, the third of its kind in Vilnius, was organised by the Nordic Council. The aim is to improve dialogue between the regime and opposition in Belarus and to promote democracy and civic society in the country.

Belarus is sometimes referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe and even though the country has taken a step towards the West, discontentment is still widespread among the opposition. Anatolij Lebedko, leader of the liberal United Civil Party, pointed out that there is no functioning dialogue with the establishment, exemplified, for example, by the lack of any joint debates in the run-up to the general election.

Mikhail Rusy, the only Belarussian MP at the talks in Lithuania, dismissed such claims and maintained that dialogue does take place between the opposition and the government parties. He also brushed aside criticism that all of the leading media are under state control.

The Finnish MP and former foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, sent a greeting to the Belarus regime, which is accused of suppressing the opposition parties, independent media and freedom of speech. He stressed that free elections contested by freely constituted parties are a precondition for democracy but are not enough on their own.

"Political parties alone can never meet the demand for democracy, not without a dynamic and free civic society," he said.

The Belarus politicians also welcomed closer contact with the Nordic Region but stressed the importance of tangible assistance. Vital Rymasheuski of the Christian Democrats thought that Nordic expertise could be applied to developing the business and health sectors, for example. The President of the Nordic Council, Sinikka Bohlin MP (Sweden), said that the Nordic Region could offer tangible assistance to Belarus via bodies such as the Nordic Environment Finance Corporation (NEFCO).

Former President of the Nordic Council Dagfinn Hoybraten MP (Norway), the driving force behind Nordic contacts with Belarus, hoped that subsequent roundtable talks could be held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Torkil Sorensen, Senior Adviser

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