08.09.2005 - 17:43 CET

MEPs blast Brussels' Belarus radio scheme

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / STRASBOURG - The European Parliament's Belarus delegation has called on Brussels to start over with efforts to set up independent radio broadcasting into the eastern European country.

The European Commission last month issued a tender for a ?2 million contract to create a fully-staffed unit dedicated to raising awareness of democracy in Belarus.

Expressions of interest are due by 11 October with plans to start broadcasts in Russian next year and later, "as soon as possible", in Belarusian also.

The commission has also hired German media giant Deutsche Welle (DW) to extend its Russian radio service - broadcasted from Moscow - to cover Belarusian issues from next month onward.

DW's broadcasts will also be in Russian initially and Belarusian later.

MEPs on the Polish-dominated delegation said in Strasbourg on Thursday (8 September) that the terms of the ?2 million tender will block Polish firms from bidding and that the Russian character of the project is misguided, however.

The tender stipulates that bidders must have five years' broadcasting experience, a turnover of ?2 million a year and one million proven listeners in the region, effectively limiting offers to large western European firms, such as DW, the BBC or Radio France International.

Radio station should be in Poland

"This broadcast should be from Poland", conservative Polish MEP Barbara Kudrycka indicated. "We know the culture and the mindset of the Belarusian people".

And liberal Polish member Janusz Onyszkiewicz said that "this [the Russian launch] squares with Minsk's plans to destroy the Belarusian language, relegate it to a kind of regional dialect".

The delegation has asked the commission to reissue the tender on new terms and plans to fire off a letter of complaint to external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

A commission spokeswoman said Brussels is looking for extra cash for the project to speed up the Belarusian service, adding that the EU has recently stepped up efforts to promote democracy in Belarus with plans to install a permanent envoy in Minsk next year.

Brussels says it also has moves in hand to kick Belarus out of the Generalised System of Preferences on trade.

Meanwhile, Warsaw is reportedly in talks with Riga, Vilnius and Kiev to set up their own radio station and has pledged to subsidise the EU project to the tune of ?240,000 if it comes to Poland.

MEPs' guest faces arrest

MEPs also heard an emotional appeal for help from the unofficial leader of the 400,000-strong ethnic Polish community in Belarus, Angelika Borys.

Ms Borys travelled to Strasbourg fearing that she might be arrested on her return home, with Belarusian media reporting her brief visit.

She reported that the Belarusian government has taken over the main Polish NGO in the country, the Polish Union in Belarus (ZPB) over the past seven months, shutting Polish schools and community centres.

Belarusian media are also trying to incite ethnic tension by depicting the Polish community as a dangerous western fifth column, even though most Belarusians see through the message with non-Polish demonstrators wearing black armbands over the ZPB crisis.

In a topsy-turvy version of the EU radio project, Minsk is also beaming propaganda to the homes of the 50,000 or so ethnic Belarusians living in eastern Poland.

Ms Borys said daily life for ethnic Poles under president Aleksander Lukashenko is one of constant intimidation by the police and secret services, with random arrests for spitting or singing, travel restrictions, huge fines for anti-government statements and the gnawing fear that things might get much worse in the run up to next years' presidential elections.

"The world should know about this", she said. "Without help, solidarity, support, it will be difficult for us to survive".