Belarusian Social Democrats Visit Brussels

On the invitation of the Socialist Group of the European Parliament, leaders of Belarus’ two social democratic parties, Stanislau Shushkevich and Mikalai Statkevich, and Volha Kazulina, the daughter of political prisoner and former presidential candidate Aliaksandr Kazulin, visited Brussels, Belgium on July 15, 2008. During the visit, the delegation from Belarus met with Pirkka Tappiola, Senior Adviser at the Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, and held discussions with Jacek Protasiewicz, Chairman of the Delegation for relations with Belarus, and Martin Schulz, Chairman of the Party of European Socialist group, at the European Parliament. They also participated in the round table attended by the members of the European institutions and representatives of the mass media and NGOs. 

The delegation’s general analysis of the current situation in Belarus was largely pessimistic. They expressed no hopes as to the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country. They pointed out to the deficiencies in the legislative framework, particularly the election code, and explained how the arbitrary application of the relevant laws is being used to exclude candidates with diverse views from the election process through non-registration and deregistration. Once registered, candidates face numerous barriers to conducting effectively their campaigns. For instance, due to the absence of genuinely independent media in the country, old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning remains the only viable way to reach potential voters. However, the authorities often interpret activities associated with door-to-door campaigning in a way that allows them to deregister candidates.   
The representatives of the Belarusian social democratic parties also expressed serious concerns about the regulation of early voting and vote counting. Mikalai Statkevich argued that significant falsification of votes occurs already during the period of early voting. Volha Kazulina therefore believes that the introduction of transparent ballot boxes and a rule requiring the sealing of boxes during intermissions of the five-day early voting, should improve the situation. Stanislau Shushkevich, for his part, calls elections in Belarus a ‘ritual’.  
Despite all these problems, the members of the Belarusian delegation nonetheless oppose the idea of boycotting the elections. They underscore the importance of using the election period to convey their messages to the public. They also sadly admit that the opposition forces do not have a very positive image among the majority of the Belarusians, who tend to associate the county’s democratic forces with the political and economic chaos of the early 1990s. The leader of the European Coalition, Mikalai Statkevich, noted that at that time the situation was similar in most of the neighbouring countries, but their people did not give up their course of democratisation. He believes that it is time that the people of Belarus learn that there is an alternative path for the development of their country and its future lies in Europe.     
The Belarusian opposition leaders’ resolve not to boycott the upcoming parliamentary election was fully supported by the members of the Socialist Groups in the European Parliament. They readily accepted a joint invitation of the Belarusian social democrats to visit Minsk in September 2008 to observe the elections and support the country’s democratic forces. The Vice President of the Socialist Group, Jan Marinus Wiersma, said his visa application was on its way to the Embassy. He added he would encourage his colleagues to do the same. Jacek Protasiewicz admitted that he was waiting for the Belarusian authorities to send the European Parliament an official invitation to attend the 2008 parliamentary elections in Belarus as observers. Martin Schultz also promised that his group would insist that the Belarusian authorities allow them to rally on the spot. 
During the round table, leaders of Belarus’ social democratic parties further elaborated on the situation in the country. They also answered questions from the audience. Replying to a question about the best forms of assistance to Belarus’ democratic forces, the speakers stressed the importance of continuing support for the development of the civil society and for cultural and student-exchange programmes. They also expressed a hope that members of the European Institutions would continue to follow the situation in Belarus and would support the cause of the country’s democratic forces.     

ODB editorial team