Andrea Rigoni: I am in favour of dialogue as a matter of principle.

ODB: Mr Rigoni, when speaking about relations of the international community with Belarus, you favour a “dialogue with the broadest spectrum” and mention that there are people in the current government ready to receive the European message. Do you have a concrete plan?

I think that within the system of power in Belarus, at all levels, there are people who understand the message coming from Europe and who are prepared to respond positively to it. It is unwise to sever all contacts with the Belarusian authorities as such, as if the system of power was a single and compact block. If we do so, we deny ourselves the chance of having an influence on those who are within the system and receptive to our message, who could be some of the driving forces of democracy in the future. But to be completely clear, I am not in favour of dialogue with the authorities only because it is strategically sound: I am in favour of dialogue as a matter of principle. The Council of Europe is an organisation which accompanies its member States along the path of increasingly higher standards in the field of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in a spirit of co-operation. In fact, the Council of Europe even accepts that its own members are not perfect democracies. This is why a series of monitoring mechanisms have been set up, to identify shortcomings and assist member States in overcoming them, in a spirit of co-operation and not of condemnation. This implies continued dialogue together with continued and constructive criticism. I believe that the same approach of dialogue and constructive criticism should be employed with Belarus, even if at this stage Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, neither is it conceivable to think about the restoration of special guest status in the short term. Of course it would be terribly pretentious for me to say that I have my own ‘plan of action’ for Belarus. Both the Council of Europe and the European Union have said very clearly what the plan of action is: that Belarus becomes a democratic country, respectful of human rights and the rule of law. For my part, as Rapporteur on Belarus for PACE, I think that my role is not only drafting a report which portrays the situation and makes recommendations but also contributing to setting a process in motion, to bring Belarus closer to Europe and European values closer to Belarusians.

During the debate that followed the presentation of the Legal Affairs and HR Committee rapporteur Pourgourides’ paper on abuse of criminal law in Belarus, you said the Assembly has to be consistent in its policies towards Belarus. Do you expect consistent policies from the government of Belarus? So far it has not been the case, as one can see.

I cannot deny that it is frustrating to see that the Belarusian authorities have not yet undertaken a clear and consistent path to bring Belarus closer to Europe. The liberation of six political prisoners some weeks ago showed that the authorities have a clear understanding of what steps they should take to achieve a normalisation of relations with the West. Unfortunately, the repressions around the demonstrations of 25th March, the imprisonment of Andrei Kim and the sentences handed down against some participants in the entrepreneurs’ rally of 10 January indicate that there is no serious and unequivocal political commitment to undertake such a path. On the other hand, the availability indicated by some European figures, including myself, to be open to dialogue, should not be mistaken for weakness: Europe will never content itself with mere tactical or cosmetic changes in Belarus.

Irrespective of the behaviour of the Belarusian authorities, however, the approach of the Council of Europe should be consistent. Consistent with its principles, consistent with its vocation, but also consistent with the policy it applies in its relations with member and non-member States. This means no double standards. I mentioned earlier that dialogue is a matter of principle and that continued dialogue and continued constructive criticism should go hand in hand, even before the restoration of any status for Belarus with the Council of Europe - even more so when one considers that recently the Assembly has declared itself ready and willing to establish a political dialogue with non-member States such as the Maghreb countries, or countries from central Asia, without the democratic and human rights record of these countries being considered as an obstacle. Since 2004, the Assembly has even had a co-operation agreement with the Parliament of Kazakhstan. I repeat, I am not talking about restoring Special Guest Status for Belarus, but I am talking about engaging in a political dialogue, consistent with the Council of Europe’s principles, its vocation and its policy towards other states.

ODB: During the debate on Belarus last week some MP’s spoke in support of lowering costs of Schengen visas for Belarusian citizens. Belarus is the only country in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood whose citizens have to pay 60 euro for a one-entry visa. Do you support this initiative? And what is the position of your government on the issue?
I absolutely support it. Ordinary Belarusians should not suffer in any way because of the state of relations between their authorities and Europe. On the contrary, their mobility should be encouraged as much as possible, in order to acquaint them with European values and the functioning of democratic institutions. I think that PACE should play a more active role in this area, given that its members are also national parliamentarians and can exert pressure on their governments to obtain a reduction of the cost of visas. I will discuss this issue further with Mrs Hurskainen, the Chair of the PACE sub-Committee on Belarus, to verify what action can be taken. I will also take up this issue with my own government.

ODB: Mr Rigoni, you have visited Belarus once in your position of the PACE rapporteur, and you are planning a trip there again this summer. Will you present a report to the Assembly on your findings and suggestions for action?

There is no set deadline for the presentation of my report on the situation in Belarus. It is true that I am considering conducting a second fact-finding visit to Belarus, if the Bureau of the Assembly authorises it. There are some very important events ahead, the most prominent being the parliamentary elections in September. The coming months are key to understanding in what direction the authorities really intend to move. In addition, there are two other projects in which I have engaged myself personally: one is the introduction on a moratorium on the death penalty, while the other is the opening of a Council of Europe Information Office in Belarus. I would like to see what concrete response is given to these two ideas by the Belarusian authorities before finalising a report. The moratorium on capital executions, in particular, would be an important step in the field of human rights, and would make Europe a death-penalty-free continent.  During the meetings I had in Minsk in October last year, I discussed this possibility with several high ranking officials, and I had the impression that some progress could be made. Therefore I was greatly disappointed to learn that 4 people were executed in the months following my visit. This is why I decided to launch an appeal in the form of an open letter to the chairmen of the parliamentary chambers, which was published by Narodnaja Gazeta. It was the first appeal of this kind by a European rapporteur published in Belarus. I hope that it will contribute to stimulating a domestic debate in the society and in parliament on the need to abolish the death penalty.

ODB: Do you consider opening of the info-point in Minsk to be an achievement in relations with the government of Belarus?

The Council of Europe has excellent contacts with the Belarusian opposition and civil society. But these people, with whom we co-operate on a regular basis, who are familiar with us, with whom we speak a common language and represent an elite. The European message does not actually reach the great majority of the Belarusian population, as it is indicated by the research carried out by independent institutes such as NOVAK. The opening of a Council of Europe Information Point in Minsk, therefore, is first and foremost an achievement in terms of the outreach capacity of the Council of Europe towards the Belarusian society at large. It is important for our Organisation to be able to provide information on its work and to disseminate its values amongst the Belarusian population. Democratisation is always the result of a process which is internal to every society and the Infopoint could be instrumental to facilitating this process.

At the same time, you may well say that the opening of an Infopoint is an achievement of the contact with the authorities. This proposal, in effect, was launched by the Assembly in 2006, in a recommendation whose Rapporteur was Mr Herkel. However,  it didn’t get off the ground due to the lack of contact with the Belarusian authorities: it is just utopistic to think about opening an Infopoint in a country without having any contact with its authorities. It was President van der Linden who insisted that this proposal should become a reality, during his visit to Minsk in January 2007, and then myself in October of the same year. I am proud to say that a few days after my visit the Council of Europe was informed by the authorities that they would give their green light to the project.

ODB: Do you communicate with the rapporteur on Belarus in the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee?

So far I haven’t had any contact with the European Parliament in my capacity as rapporteur, even if I am aware of their activities on this issue. It is rather the Chair of the PACE sub-Committee on Belarus who maintains contact with the European Parliament, under the aegis of the Parliamentary Troika on Belarus.