Jean-Louis Laurent: Once the Belarusian government starts the process of democratization, negotiations can begin immediately

ODB: Mr. Laurent, currently there are two approaches towards Belarus in the Assembly, that of Mr. Pourgourides, known for his tough position regarding the current situation of human rights in Belarus, and that of Mr. Rigoni, who calls for more contacts with the government of Belarus. Which strategy do you favour?

J-L.L.: I am not sure there are two positions. The rapporteurs have different mandates within PACE. While the position of Mr Pourgourides is well-known, Mr Rigoni’s draft report has not been presented yet, so it is too early to draw any conclusions. I personally do not see any fundamental contradictions in their assessments of the current state of affairs, it is rather that they have different approaches in how to deal with the situation while the objective is the same. The Council of Europe is not complete without Belarus. The question is how to extend the work of the organization to the people of your country.

ODB: The Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Hammarberg, said during the session debate that not enough is being done about Belarus. Members of the Dutch delegation from the liberal group voiced their concern about the grave situation in Belarusian prisons and suggested to The Commissioner that a visit by the Committee on Prevention of Torture (CPT) should be arranged. Do you think this would be possible?

J-L.L.: The mandate of the Commissioner is limited to members of the organization, and Belarus is not part of it. However, when there is the will to act, one can find ways. The question is whether such a visit would be accepted by the government of Belarus. In order to inspect Belarusian prisons, one has to have access to them. In addition, we have to act carefully and make sure such a trip would not be misused by the government and the state media.

ODB: As it happened to Mr van der Linden when he visited Minsk in January 2007?

J-L.L.: The former PACE President was himself critical of how the purpose of his journey and his messages were presented to the public by the Belarusian state media. To my mind, his visit was a courageous act, even if he did not achieve any real impact- at least in the short term. Experience shows how difficult it is to come to any agreement with your government. For example, we had to cancel a conference in Bratislava this spring because the conditions imposed by the Belarusian side were unacceptable. While conducting a dialogue, one has to assess the achievements and risks, and then decide if it is worth acting. In any case, we will continue our support for civil society in Belarus. Our programmes are open and serve the purpose of our organization: to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

ODB: Are you excited about the opening of the info-point in Minsk? Can the agreement to implement this project be considered as success?

J-L.L.: Excited would be an exaggeration. I hope we will be able to provide more objective information about the Council of Europe both to the people of Belarus and the government. However, there are no illusions on our side. The info-point will be a very limited institution, based at the faculty of journalism of the Belarus State University (but not itself part of the BSU). We shall try to make sure the project is not a static collection of books and other printed materials, but a dynamic programme describing our main achievements and campaigns. Free access for everyone was one of our key conditions when carrying out negotiations with the state authorities.

ODB: When presenting his report on Abuse of Criminal Law in Belarus, Mr Pourgourides pleaded to the Russian government to stop supporting the regime of Lukashenka. Would you add your signature to such an appeal?

J-L.L.: All efforts tend to show long-term benefit. Some members of the Assembly have more influence than others on various issues. Maybe this is the case.

ODB: Members of the Russian delegation voiced a suggestion to restore immediately the observer status of Belarus at PACE, without demanding compliance with any conditions. Is the Belarusian government lobbying for the same objective?

J-L.L.: Yes. In place of the fulfilment of conditions for a dialogue with us they suggest activities in areas of culture and education, but never mention human rights and democracy. Culture and education are very important, but they are not at the centre of the Council’s activities. Once the Belarusian government commits itself to openness and starts the process of democratization, negotiations can begin immediately.

ODB: Is the Assembly planning any activities in connection with the parliamentary elections in Belarus due to take place this autumn?

J-L.L.: It would be a very clever move by the officials of Belarus to issue an invitation for an observer mission. Such action would show their attempt to be more transparent and open. In the end, what is the most important for us that the country should be ruled by fairly elected officials and the political leaders work for the good of the people.
Finally, I’d like to reiterate that it is the Belarus government’s turn to act. The ball is in their court.