Wednesday, 31 August 2005

EU calling Belarus

Written by Brussels journalist David Ferguson

"I confirm that the Commission intends to send an envoy to Belarus. As you know relations between Belarus and EU have been of a very limited nature so far," said European Spokesperson Francoise Le Bail. "Belarus was mentioned in the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy. When conditions are met it will be possible for Belarus to be part of this Neighborhood Policy."

"We are looking towards establishing Commission representation in Belarus. As a first step a charge d'affaires will be sent. We don't have any details on the time framework," added the Commission's External Relations Spokesperson Emma Udwin. "For the time being relations with Belarus are based in Kiev. This person or someone else will be moved to based in Minsk," noted Le Bail.

Last week the European Commission granted ?138,000 to Deutsche Welle Radio for broadcasts to the former Soviet republic, initially, though, only in Russian and not in Belarus. The grant bypasses other possible broadcasters including Radio Polonia, which produces a daily 30 minute Belarus language program. "With this measure, the Commission hopes to increase the awareness of the Belarus population about democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, freedom of press and human rights. Broadcasting will take place over 12 months from 1 November 2005," read a Commission statement.

"We are extremely worried about the lack of freedom of expression in Belarus. Over the past years independent media coverage in Belarus has met increasingly tight restrictions. This initiative will bring independent international radio to the Belarus population," added External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. "It will increase their awareness of the deteriorating situation of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in their country."

Nonetheless, the 15 minute daily broadcasts via radio and Internet are unlikely to reach ordinary Belarus citizens be difficult. Short wave is not popular with listeners and Internet, easily blocked by state-controlled Internet providers. Additionally with Europe's lowest Internet usage figures, Deutsche Welle's radio service, which cannot be downloaded, are unlikely to attract normal listeners.

The European Commission's appears more symbolic satisfying Polish demands for greater EU action against Belarus. Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner was also criticized in the European Parliament for being slow to aid Belarus' civil society.

Poland is now considering establish its own FM radio broadcasts to Belarus. Currently, Polish state radio is popular, especially amongst Belarus' ethnic Polish minority. However, new telecoms regulations, signed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko earlier in August, introduce further state control of radio frequencies.