Belarus says "We are not a Banana Republic," urges patience on democracy

The high-level political battle between the West and Belarus, especially the European Union's ongoing efforts to use negotiation and a mix of sanctions to bring the country into the camp of Democracy, has been going on for as long as President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country with a hand as tough as the Iron Curtain. Last month, the EU thought it was moving toward a breakthrough when it offered the Belarus a chance to be part of its Eastern Partnership aimed at eastern European countries, but even before the high-level meeting in Prague, Lukashenko said there would not be democratic reforms there, where there are still some political prisoners in jail, such as Mikalai Autukhovich, who has been on hunger strike for more than a month protesting against what he said was his unlawful arrest. On May 24, a picket of solidarity with political prisoners was organised in the capital, Minsk. Some activists of the civil campaign European Belarus unfurled a banner Freedom to Autukhovich! and told passers-by about political prisoners calling to express solidarity with them. They also handed round leaflets with information about hunger strike conducted by Autukhovich.

Another dissident, Alexandre Milinkievich, was awarded the 2006 Sakharov Prize for human rights by the European Parliament for his efforts to bring democracy to the country and Belarus is often portrayed as being as repressive as the Soviet Union from which it became independent in 1992. But last week in Brussels, at a panel sponsored by the European Union's Committee of the Regions (COR) and the Association of Local Democracy Agencies (ALDA) on The Role of Local Authorities in Belarus - and moderated by New Europe - the country's Minister-Counselor for the Missions of Belarus to the European Communities, Yury Ambrazevich, stood his ground and made his case to an unreceptive audience that Belarus was moving closer to democracy but that it would need more time because it was still imbedded in some cases in Soviet-style thinking, although he raised eyebrows at one point where he said part of the problem was "non-conformists" in the country.

He started off with a quiet presentation of what he said was the mistaken impression in the West about Belarus, reiterating the party line that the development of cooperation with the EU is of great significance, despite EU sanctions against the country and being the only one in the region to be excluded from membership in the Council of Europe for its lack of press freedom and repressive measures.

"The weakening of EU cooperation with Belarus in the last years was caused mainly by subjective factors," an official statement insists, adding that the suspension of contacts at the highest levels has "hampered the full-scale political dialogue with the foreign countries on the essence of differences and decreased the number of possibilities to change the misapprehended image." So Ambrazevich's appearance was something of a little breakthrough itself because Belarus doesn't like to go public and, after the first hour where the panel made mini-speeches, it got more intense when an audience including non-government organisation activists and Belarusian citizens started pressing him and others about how long it would take for Belarus to become truly democratic and closer to the EU.

The Belarusian minister countered criticism and didn't back down from questions, even if he diplomatically danced around some of the tougher ones. On the panel with him was John Kjaer, who oversees eastern Europe and Belarus for the European Commission; Istvan Serto-Radics, chairman of the COR's Commission for External Relations; Jan Micaleff, interim President of Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and with the Council of Europe, Antonella Valmorbida, director of ALDA, and Miroslaw Kobasa, chairman of the Lev Sapieha Foundation, an NGO in Belarus that has been pushing for reforms for 17 years and includes accountants, lawyers, economists and activists.

Ambrazevich underlined that any reform in Belarus had to take into consideration the historical circumstances, which differ massively from other European countries. "Historically our system differs strongly from political systems in Western Europe, which have been polished for centuries," he said. "We are working on a new law on a reform of local self-government in Belarus and we consider sending our draft legislation for comments and advice to the Council of Europe. Any moves to create a new law should aim to improve the current system of local government in Belarus, which grew out of a particular historical situation. We do not want reform for the sake of reform."

Kjaer stressed that the EU's relations with Belarus were developing rapidly since the release of the last remaining political prisoners in August 2008. "We came to the conclusion that isolation had lasted a long time but had brought no results. It was important to create a positive momentum." However, he, also made it clear that "the political situation in Belarus as regards human rights, democracy and the rule of law remains under scrutiny and the EU will reassess the situation in the autumn." Ambrazevich also highlighted the positive developments of the last two years, which he said were mainly due to the new approach from the EU, which replaced pressure and sanctions with a process of constructive cooperation, particularly within the framework of the Eastern partnership initiative. Micalleff, who had recently received the Chairman of the Upper Chamber of the Belarusian Parliament in Strasbourg, agreed that cooperation with Belarus had improved in recent years but insisted that major progress still had to be made to increase local autonomy in the country: "Democratic local self-government is the way to help Belarus' citizens to have a better life with more autonomy and more democracy, as well as better economic conditions and prospects. We need a straightforward dialogue with the Belarus' national authorities. This process is ongoing. It's a long journey but we are on the right path." Serto-Radics presented the COR position regarding the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative, which will be at the heart of a seminar in Kosice, Slovakia, June 2-3 and at a forum during the next COR Plenary session, June 16-18 June in Brussels. Serto-Radics said: "Belarusian national authorities should set up a structured dialogue with sub-national authorities and civil society in order to strengthen democracy. My message to the Belarusian government is that they should involve local authorities and civil society in the Eastern Partnership project. The traditions and historical circumstances surrounding Belarus that have favoured centralism must not prevent Belarus from developing democratic local and regional structures which meet the standards established by the Council of Europe."



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