Thursday, 29 September 2005

Symbolic language for Belarus

Written by Brussels journalist David Ferguson

MEPs at Strasbourg plenary session finally turned to Belarus. Answering their questions was not External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner - too busy elsewhere - but Enlargement Commission Olli Rehn. "Belarus is in clear breach of its international commitments under the OSCE and UN charters," said Rehn. "We have recently seen a worrying deterioration in the situation. The regime restricts human rights even more and is taking further steps against non-governmental organizations, undermining the rights of minorities, imprisoning citizens for political reasons and curtailing freedom of expression," the Commissioner argued.

"But what exactly has happened since the last resolution on Belarus that we adopted in July, just before the holidays?" asked Polish MEP Bogdan Klich. "After all, as the Commissioner rightly notes, events in Belarus are galloping ahead. The political situation is undergoing a radical change to the worse from month to month," said Klich.

"You may ask how the Commission has reacted. In response to the growing repression in Belarus we have increased our funding for democratization and human rights by transferring ?2 million from the TACIS Programme to the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights Programme," said Rehn.

Other measures include opening, early next year, a Commission office in Minsk headed by a charge d'affaires. The Commission has also quietly investigated alleged violations of trade union rights under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and extended an EU list of senior officials covered by a visa ban.

Polish MEP Konrad Szymanski, nonetheless, criticized a lack of effective EU financing: "We need an effective financing system for democratic forces and it is difficult to imagine such a system without a specific human rights instrument that should be flexible as possible, rapid and effective in transferring support in unfavorable legal conditions," argued Szymanski.

"This year we have already signed 27 small contracts with NGOs worth EUR 3 million. One of the most significant developments in our assistance is our support for independent broadcasting," countered Rehn. "In response to the suggestions from this Parliament and elsewhere, starting from 1 November we shall fund a daily radio news programme."

The program, to be broadcast by Deutsche Welle from 1 November, quickly came in for criticism for being only in Russian. "It was a mistake to support radio and television programs in Russian. We cannot take part in the russification of Belarus that has been decreed by Lukashenko. European money must be earmarked for radio and television in the Belarus language," Polish MEP Boguslaw Sonik told Rehn.

"Why do we support broadcasting in both Russian and Belorussian? There is one simple fact which we have to take into account: 65% of the Belorussian population speaks Russian at home, while 5% speak Belorussian at home," said Rehn. "This is precisely the reason why we have opted for broadcasting in both languages, Russian and Belorussian: Russian for pragmatic reasons - that is what most people speak every day; Belorussian for symbolic reasons - this is the language that heralds a new free Belarus."