Talks ease pressure on Belarus

Series Title
Series Details 05/06/97, Volume 3, Number 22
Publication Date 05/06/1997
Content Type

Date: 05/06/1997

AN end-of-May deadline set by Europe for Belarus to begin democratic reforms has been quietly dropped in the wake of its government's decision to agree to talks, say Brussels diplomats.

But critics fear that since Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has done nothing concrete to allay EU concerns, this latest show of flexibility could be interpreted as weakness by his authoritarian regime.

Belarus' hard-line government has come under increasing international scrutiny since President Lukashenko acquired vast centralised powers in a referendum last November.

Since then, Lukashenko - who has publicly praised Adolf Hitler - has steadily clamped down on political opposition and media freedom as well as pushing for union with Russia.

In response to growing concern, the EU sent former Dutch Interior Minister Aad Kosto on a fact-finding mission earlier this year.

After intense discussions with 60 key members of Belarus' government, opposition and 'civil society' in the last week of January, he concluded that the November referendum could not “stand the test of criticism on minimum democratic standards and principles of the rule of law”.

In the light of his findings, Kosto called on Belarus to allow greater media freedom, to give a formal commitment to the separation of powers and to hold fair parliamentary elections.

Little has changed since then, but EU politicians have so far shied away from any firm action, fearing increased instability in the region should they do so.

They point out that for all his faults, Lukashenko retains considerable popular support, and say they do not see a viable opposition in a position to replace him. Finally, there are hopes that his recent agreement with Russia might lead to a calmer political atmosphere in the region.

The Union has now agreed with Lukashenko's regime on a series of tripartite meetings between government, opposition and western observers - the EU, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - ostensibly to discuss constitutional reform.

Belarus' ambassador to the Union Vladimir Labounov is upbeat about the talks and stresses that his government is open to suggestions.

“Step by step, both sides will find a mutually acceptable solution. Our president sent a letter to the EU showing his willingness to cooperate,” he said.

“It is now necessary to develop mechanisms to elaborate how the constitution should be changed.”

But he warned that the talks would not be easy, as this was “an entirely new process” and no one was “aware how exactly to proceed”.

Critics fear that the discussions will have no effect whatsoever - and are more likely to produce Neville Chamberlain-style piece of paper than a binding commitment - and stress that Lukashenko cannot be trusted.

But an aide to Foreign Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek responded: “It is always easy to point to examples where appeasement did not work. Everyone forgets those occasions when constructive diplomacy was the only solution.”

EU diplomats admit that they are far from confident that the meetings will produce results, but argue that the fact they are taking place at all is an important advance.

“The game Lukashenko is playing is not clear to us,” said another aide. “Nevertheless, we think we are on the right path. It is now up to Belarus to deliver. The deadline for the country to show a real commitment to reform is now mid-July.”

In the meantime, EU sources point out that macro-financial assistance worth 25 million ecu to the country has been already been frozen and a cooperation agreement with Belarus initialled in 1995 has been put on ice.

Moreover, funding under the EU's Tacis programme has been restricted to non-government and decentralised projects.

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