Wednesday, 14 September 2005

Belarus: European Commission Plans For Independent Media Come Under Fire In European Parliament

By Ahto Lobjakas

European Parliament deputies representing mostly new member states today attacked plans announced by the European Commission to fund independent radio and television broadcasts to Belarus. Deputies complained that the funds were insufficient, the tendering rules discriminate against countries bordering Belarus, and too much emphasis is being put on the use of Russian language in the putative broadcasts.

Brussels, 14 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission's plans to fund independent radio and television broadcasts into Belarus were met by harsh and sometimes scathing criticism in the European Parliament's foreign-affairs committee today.

Many members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were particularly scathing about the commission's perceived preference for Russian over Belarusian as the main language for the planned broadcasts.

Former Lithuanian President Vytatutas Landsbergis was one of a number of MEPs from former communist countries who warned the commission it risks complicity in Russia's longstanding ambitions to "Russify" its neighbors.

Landsbergis demanded assurances Belarusian will feature alongside Russian in broadcasts to Belarus.

"I would like to be sure that [the] formula 'Russian and Belarusian' -- at least -- is not to be interpreted as 'Russian or Belarusian,'" Landsbergis said. "Or, in turn, that it is [not interpreted to be] an issue to be decided by Deutsche Welle."

Deutsche Welle last month became the first media company to be awarded a commission contract to broadcast to Belarus. The commission first said broadcasts would use Russian, with the possibility of Belarusian being added at a later, unspecified date.

Some Western European MEPs pointed out that more than 60 percent of the population of Belarus considers itself ethnically Russian. Their appeals to pragmatism were drowned by protestations from representatives of smaller, Eastern European member states.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, an Estonian and a vice chairman of the parliament's foreign-affairs committee, noted that indigenous languages, not Russian, had served as the main vehicles for democratic change in Eastern Europe.

He also appealed to the national awareness of smaller Western European countries.

"Imagine if in this parliament we said 'Well, all the Slovaks understand Czech, all the Danes understand Swedish, all the Portuguese understand Spanish, and all the Dutch understand German'? What would be the reaction here?" Ilves asked. "We can say, of course, 'All the Belarusians understand Russian,' but what does that mean for the people you are talking to?"

More than 60 percent of the population of Belarus considers itself ethnically Russian.

Most speakers also dismissed the 2 million euros earmarked by the commission for two years' TV and radio broadcasts as by far insufficient. The commission's tendering rules, requiring applying media organizations to demonstrate an annual turnover of 3 million euros, were described as designed to exclude companies from neighboring Poland and Lithuania.

The strategy also appears to sideline the 500,000 ethnic Belarusians living in Poland and the three Baltic States, who a number of MEPs said would be best-placed to reach out to their compatriots.

Polish MEPs were particularly scathing in their judgments of the commission's performance. They accused the EU's executive of dragging its feet, pointing out Polish parliamentarians had been spearheading demands for action for over a year.

Many noted that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has already set up his own radio station beaming propaganda at Poland's Belarusian minority.

Ilves, a former director of the RFE/RL Estonian Service, also warned that the 2 million euro budget for television and radio broadcasts stretched over two years would allow for "minuscule" amounts of programming.

A number of MEPs also attacked EU current funding rules that require it to clear assistance with the government of the country targeted. Edward Mcmillan Scott, a leading British conservative MEP, was among those suggesting the EU must overhaul the system to allow it to finance organizations that may be illegitimate in the eyes of regime's such as Lukashenka's

"TACIS [the main EU aid program for the former Soviet Union] must be flanked by an external fund for Belarus that is managed and disbursed by the commission with assistance from a small number of interested member states," McMillan Scott said. "Such a fund needs to operate outside the strict guidelines of the commission. The purpose and mission of the fund would be to offer fast and flexible support to Belarusian democratic forces and NGOs that fall outside the parameters of current EU regulations and often have to operate on an illegal basis inside the country."

A representative of the European Commission, Hugues Mingarelli, present at the debate, offered a defense of its record and assured the MEPs of its continuing commitment to promote reforms in Belarus. However, he did not address the criticism offered by MEPs in any detail beyond saying that it is "a fact that today more people in Belarus speak Russian than Belarusian."