31.05.2005 - 19:06 CET

MEPs call for EU to fund Belarus opposition

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - A group of Polish and Lithuanian MEPs is pushing for a tougher EU line on Minsk, with proposals to deepen the diplomatic isolation of president Alexander Lukashenko's regime and for the EU to support pro-democracy movements in the country.

Six centre-right MEPs along with several Belarusian, Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian politicians issued the call during an EPP-ED group-sponsored conference in Bialowieza, eastern Poland, on Sunday (29 May).

The so-called Bialowieza Declaration urges the European Commission to sponsor independent radio and TV stations on the EU-Belarusian border, to set up a European Democratic Fund to finance opposition groups inside the country and to establish a second Solidarity Fund "to help create the future democratic elites of Belarus" via academic exchange programmes.

The statement also calls on Brussels to monitor Belarusian human rights abuses and to extend its travel ban to any Minsk officials active in suppressing civil liberties in the future, while stressing that "the Belarusian dictator exercises his presidential function illegitimately and the power he now wields was obtained by force, and continues to be maintained by force".

Member states issued a common position banning two Belarusian officials from entering the EU following an October 2004 referendum to extend president Lukashenko's mandate, while western European diplomats called the vote a sham.

The move came on top of an earlier visa ban on four Belarusian politicians in response to the disappearance of four opposition activists in 1999 and 2000.

Not calling for a revolution

The Bialowieza Declaration MEPs aim to use as a statement to form the basis of a new European Parliament resolution at the next plenary in Strasbourg.

"Such a declaration would get widespread support", Polish MEP and declaration signatory Barbara Kudrycka predicted - the parliament's June session agenda will not become clear until the end of this week.

She added that the cost of the proposed measures would be modest and pointed out that the commission has already allocated 12 million euro of assistance to Belarus for 2005 and 2006, with around 5 million euro slated to support "civil society" through measures such as boosting NGO capacity.

Ms Kudrycka warned that any resolution should not be interpreted as a call for an uprising on the model of Ukraine or Georgia however, saying "We can't call for a revolution".

And she explained that the closing words of the Bialowieza Declaration, which envisage a Belarus that "will take its rightful place among the free nations of Europe", should not be taken as an invitation to join the EU.

The Bialowieza statement also called on Moscow to honour human rights commitments under the recent EU-Russia road map, urging president Vladimir Putin to withdraw his backing for the Lukashenko government, saying "We firmly reject the conspiracy theory about the democratic movements which was presented by the head of the FSB in the Russian Duma on 12 May".

Reaction subdued

The European Commission gave a muted reaction to the MEPs' appeal, saying the EU's existing common position already covers much of the same ground, and noting that the independent media project has been kicked around in Brussels for some time.

"We are looking into the radio proposals. We have not said we would not do it and we are looking into ways to support it", a spokeswoman said.

External relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner noted in a speech of 18 March that "We firmly believe that democracy cannot be imposed from outside" but added that "where our neighbours are turning to us and requesting our help, we are bound to respond".

Belarus' mission to Brussels pointed out that the country currently cooperates with Europe on human trafficking and energy transit arrangements with Russia.

"If the EU would like to establish such [radio or TV] stations in Poland or Lithuania, it's up to the EU", Minsk's envoy Vladimir Serpikov indicated.

He added that Belarus already takes part in student exchange schemes with member states, remarking "It's going on. I wouldn't bring so much fuss into this issue".

The Belarusian councillor also warned that "harsh language won't help to improve relations or to find mutual points of interest".