|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||20/02/97, Volume 3, Number 07|
EU GOVERNMENTS are still debating whether to launch a wholesale attack on Belarus' headlong rush back to totalitarianism when foreign ministers meet next week.
Ministers are likely to threaten to cut off top-level contacts and block a partnership accord with the country if it does not carry out crucial reforms under Union supervision, at their meeting on Monday (24 February).
But the strength of the Union's condemnation is still the subject of intense debate between diplomats, who fear angering Belarus' Russian supporters.
The re-emergence of a dictatorship in a country which could border directly on to the EU within five years is one of the most serious issues facing the Union today, and one which commentators believe will test the strength of its common foreign and security policy to the limit.
Three of Belarus' neighbours - Lithuania, Latvia and Poland - could be EU members within a decade (marking its eastern frontier), and any decision ministers take now could have profound implications for the Union's future.
“Belarus is testing the EU's mettle to the full. A wrong step either way could leave scars for years to come,” said one diplomat.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's mass appeal, plus the lack of any viable political alternatives in the short-term, mean that any untoward interference could unleash forces the Union would be ill-equipped to deal with. On the other hand, failure to act might be seen as a green light by other potential hard-liners in the region.
Diplomats warn that the EU can ill afford to dither yet again on a crucial foreign policy decision, given criticism over its handling of ex-Yugoslavia and, now, relations between Greece and Turkey.
EU leaders first expressed concerns about Lukashenko's regime last December when they called on him to “re-establish full respect for internationally accepted democratic and constitutional principles”.
The target of their attack was a referendum in November which gave Lukashenko sweeping powers to crush political opposition.
But the lack of objective information on what was going on in the country made it difficult for the EU to progress beyond generalities. That has now changed, with a report from Dutch diplomat Aad Kosto which condemns Lukashenko for illegally obtaining vast and undemocratic powers late last year.
The document, which states that the November referendum “cannot stand the test of criticism on minimum democratic standards and principles of the rule of law”, has given ministers powerful ammunition to back up their tirades.
EU ministers are likely to agree to send delegates to Belarus to push for key democratic reforms. They would demand greater media freedom, a formal commitment to the separation of powers and
the holding of parliamentary elections. The Union may also insist that a presidential decree which set the referendum's result in stone be declared void.
But despite the harshness of the Kosto report, member states may yet shy away from a full-scale confrontation. President Boris Yeltsin's invitation to Belarus to rejoin Mother Russia this January demonstrated starkly that the former Soviet Union's ghost is still powerful.
By further isolating Belarus - already spurned by the US - the EU risks sowing instability on its eastern borders, which it could well do without.
|Subject Categories||Justice and Home Affairs, Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine|