Olga Stuzhinskaya Сomments the Situation around the Review of the EU Entry Visa Ban List

The text of the interview was originally published in Russian Information Agency REGNUM

http://euroradio.fm/files/imagecache/in_report/83563.jpgThe beginning of February was marked by a number of rows in the ranks of the Belarusian opposition. The independent media has reported the details of the meeting of the six Belarusian opposition parties and civil initiatives ('Coalition of the 6') which ended in a scuffle. The meeting was held on the occasion of the signature of the paper on 'Public debate around the objectives and forms of the  opposition's participation in the 2012 elections in Belarus'. Two days later two opposition printed media published a number оf controversial reports in view to critisizing the initiative by the Brussels-based Office for Democratic Belarus.

The Brussels-based Office for Democratic Belarus headed by Olga Stuzhinskaya has proposed to fine-tune the criteria for applying entry visa bans to Belarus public officials. The Office came up with the recommendation to amend the list of 'banned' officials by removing from it such individuals as some Rectors of the Belarusian universities who have been accused of sending down students on political grounds and Vladimir Peftiev, a Belarusian entrepreneur who Lukashenka's opponents nicknamed the 'fire arms baron' close to the Presidential Administration.

A number of opposition members who insist upon tightening sanctions against the government have launched a debate by correspondence with Ms Stuzhinskaya.  One of them, Mr Nicolas Khalizin, a co-founder of the 'Free Belarus Now' campaign, argues that Ms Stuzhinskaya acted exclusively in her own interests and had no moral right to come up with the ban alleviation initiative. The Khalezin's stance has received support from 11 'Delegations of the Belarusian political opposition in exile' who declared that they 'firmly dissociate'   from 'irresponsible and immoral' initiative by the Office for Democratic Belarus and exhorted to tighten sanctions towards the Minsk authorities. Here below you will find an exclusive interview of IA REGNUM with Olga Stuzhinskaya where she tells about the circumstances in which the debate around the Office's initiative took place.

IA REGNUM: What is mission of the Office for Democratic Belarus?

Initially the responsibility of the Office for Democratic Belarus was to brief the European Union on events in Belarus. It was set up as a liaison office between the united opposition forces in Belarus and the European institutions. Then, the opposition failed to use the results of the 2006 elections or later occasions to unite their forces. Therefore, the Office presently engages with a wide range of Belarusian civil society movements as well as with experts and the European Institutions. In the pursuit of our objective to enhance the relations between the EU institutions and the Belarusian society we organise the visits of representatives of various Belarusian parties, media and civil society organisations to Brussels. In the course of these visits they have an opportunity to tell about the latest developments in Belarus, to express their  opinions and their vision for the EU engagement with Belarus.

The people of this country know little about the EU, very much like the EU lacks knowledge of Belarus as a result of many years of isolation policies. The liaison channels ought to be improved so as to enable both parties to get a better insight into each other situation. We do not believe in isolation of the Belarusian society. Brussels and Minsk should exchange opinions and best practices. Only the European Union can bring about to Belarus the much needed reforms and help the country in their implementation. We view Belarus as a European country, we promote its European orientation and reunification with the European family.

IA REGNUM: The Belarusian opposition media reported that the office  you run is a one-man show, that it does not represent anybody's interests (save for your own ones) and that, at the same time, it acts as a lobby enlisted with the European Parliament? Is it true?

The Office for Democratic Belarus was registered as a NGO under the Belgian law in 2006 and, contrary to the statement by Mr Khalezin, is not one of the lobbies registered with the European Parliament. We operate under the jurisdiction of the Belgian law. Our activities are funded by the European Commission as well as by the governments of individual member states and  international foundations. As a matter of fact, we permanently employ four full-time collaborates. We also subcontract various tasks on the case-by-case basis when it is required in the course of implementation of our projects.

IA REGNUM: You propose to review the modalities of the entry visa ban imposed by the EU on a number of Belarusian officials thus dissociating yourself from the Belarusian opposition mainstream.

There is a wide range of opinions across the Belarusian opposition as to the kind of policy towards Belarus to be expected from the EU. The opposition is not uniform in its understanding of the nature of sanctions applied by the EU to this country nor in its assessment of the efficiency of these sanctions. There are people who believe in full-scale economic sanctions and others who consider  'spot' sanctions more efficient. I join those who view the visa ban as counterproductive.

Economic and political sanctions  are different in their nature. There is no common assessment of the sanctions across the opposition in this country but rather a set of opinions by different groups. It should be pointed out that various types of sanctions are often get mixed, and the whole issue is presented in a way which is biased and lacks objectivity.

We propose to review the list of the 'banned' individuals carefully. The list may need to be extended to include new names, but the underpinning criteria should be treated with caution. When Mr Gunnar Wiegand (Head of the European Commission's Unit for Relations with Russia as well as the acting director for Eastern Europe, Southern Caucasus, and Central Asia, IA REGNUM) was reported to state that the EU was planning to extend the list to include further 135 names, and we thought that the mere extension of the list would bring about a new outburst of repressions in Belarus which would cause further suffering to political prisoners, political parties and the Belarusian civil society at large.

The experts in international relations have long been questioning the efficacy of the visa bans. We have proposed the option of reviewing the list of the 'banned' individuals. The modalities of drawing and updating this list have long been a matter of controversy. For example, there have been numerous reports pointing to the fact that the individuals who had resigned or even passed away had been kept on the list, and these reports are much older than our initiative. Prior to putting forward this proposal I have consulted several experts and international organisations active in this country. This has permitted us to define specific groups of individuals which, if the EU opts for the revision, could be considered as potentially eligible to being removed from the list; along with those who may be deemed eligible to being added to the list. All the above-said has been misrepresented by the media, as though the only update we advocated was that of removing people from the list.

IA REGNUM: There is an opinion that the list of 'banned' individuals has been drawn by the Belorussian opposition who put on it all those who they deemed fit. In reality, who has compiled the list and what criteria have been used?

Our office had took no part whatsoever in drawing the list of individuals banned from entering the EU. The list features the individuals drafted from various pre-defined professional groups such as journalists working for state-owned media, members of the higher education community, like university rectors, and members of the business community, like Vladimir Peftiev. We would have difficulty understanding the reasoning behind his presence on the list as exclusive representative of the business community while many others are said to be 'funding the Lukashenka's regime'?

Our proposal has been driven by the following reasoning: the mere extension of the list would lead to tougher repressions and worse conditions for political prisoners in Belarus. Odds to improve the political prisoners' situation would be higher if the list was revised rather than being merely extended. And I am not alone to hold this stance.

IА REGNUM: Can't this position be described as 'bartering political prisoners' as it was referred to by the opposition? The authorities pursue their repressions on political grounds, they set up a group of political hostages from within pro-Western members of the opposition whose release is later traded against the lift or alleviation of the sanctions as soon as the latter are adopted by the indignated West?

Why should this issue be presented as boiling down to political bargaining? If, as a result of the failure to review the list of 'banned' officials, the repressions get tougher and political prisoners suffer more during their detention, what is the point in extending or indeed maintaining such list? If the list will be updated in both directions rather than being merely extended, it will no longer act as a flagrant 'red rag' to which the Minsk authorities respond violently and without delay.

IA REGNUM: Besides Vladimir Peftiev, your proposal seems to cover two more groups of individuals to be recalled from the 'entry visa ban' list?

Along with the names of individuals who have been found guilty of election fraud and  falsification, like officials who took lawless decisions and judges who gave politically motivated sentences, the list features also Rectors of the Belarusian universities, journalists working for the state-owned media and the businessman Mr Peftiev. Regarding the latter ones, there is no need to raise the issue of reviewing sanctions, it goes without saying.

As for the Rectors, the issue is more complex. The Rectors of some Belarusian universities bear the responsibility for politically motivated dropouts reported in in 2006 and later in 2010. The Belarusian education system needs an overhaul and may be reformed only through the EU cooperation programmes which aim at exchanging best practices, involving Belarus in the European programmes and the Bologna process. By the way, it coincides with the EU-declared intention to enhance relations with Belarusian universities. The contradiction lies in the fact that such intentions are difficult to realize as long as the Rectors are staying on the visa ban list.

My position may be naive to a certain extent or it may be premature to raise this issue, but I believe that this proposal is worth to be discussed. This is why it is referred to as initiative which is an opinion expressed in the course of a consultation rather than a sort of ultimatum, like the demand to remove the Rectors from the list overnight! People took note of our initiative as an alternative opinion or a new approach.

IA REGNUM: The Office for Democratic Belarus was accused of acting as a lobby in the interests of the businessman Peftijev and, possibly, some other stakeholders. Are these allegations founded?

These accusations are totally groundless. Vladimir Peftiev has never contacted our office, I never met him personally and no one has ever proposed us a reward for lobbying any interests whatsoever. We submit progress reports on all the projects we run, our accounts are audited every year and our activities are entirely transparent.

IA REGNUM: How would you then explain the allegations disseminated by the opposition media in this country and instigated by a number of actors who criticize your proposal?

I presume we can name the critics; these are Nikolai Khalezin and 'Charter 97' which, through the mixture of distorted evidence and unfounded accusations, all shaped in the most inappropriate way, have staged a sort of public flagellation. There is no other name to the phenomenon. The reason is probably the fact that the 'hard line' well known in the EU and in Brussels and promoted by Khalezin, Free Theatre, Charter 97 and some of their colleagues is different from our stance. While they call for tough sanctions towards Belarus and the isolation of the country, we want to see relations between EU and Belarus continuing and growing. Our approach is different in that we see the real opportunity for improving the situation, in particular that of political prisoners, through the revision of the list rather than through tightening the sanctions.

My personal opinion is that the EU entry visa ban is counterproductive. The people who are  affected by this sanction and considered 'banned from travel' keep travelling anyway. Take the example of  Anatol Kuliashou (Anatoly Kuleshov) (Head of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who visited France on official invitation in January 2012, IA REGNUM), to name just a few of them. In my view, the visa ban only contributes to erecting barriers in the way of improving relations between the people in this country and in the European Union.

IA REGNUM: On the 3rd January a number of the Belarusian media published the declaration of the 11 "Delegations of Belarusian political opposition in exile", where they have proclaimed their 'ultimate split-up' with the organisation you lead. Have you been engaged with them earlier?

I am aware of existance of the bodies you refer to. Many of them have been set up recently, and I would not know whether they have been registered or not. As far as I know, Free Belarus Now civil campaign is, as a matter of fact, nothing else than Mr Khalezin and his fellows-in-arms. The Antwerp-based Office for Belarusians in exile is a bunch of political emigrés living in Antwerp. I ignore whether they represent any other interests other than their own ones. We have never run any joint projects or adopted any joint declarations. We have never organised any events together. There has been just one introductory meeting.

IA REGNUM: Your critics in Belarus probably declare the same political objectives as yours?

Our critics in Belarus who represent some part of the democratic community in this country are now throwing mud at our organisation and at me personally in the most unfounded and inappropriate way. Their lack of tolerance to diverging opinions leads them to resort to plain offenses. Take an example of Mr Khalezin who treats his opponents and competitors in the most unacceptable way. Some representatives of the democratic community in Belarus who pretend to promote the European values had better embrace these values themselves and start by learning how to hold a debate in a civilised way and at the European level.

IА REGNUM, On the 23 January the EU Council of the Ministers of foreign affairs decided to extend sanctions towards physical and legal entities that represent the Belarusian administration. Unofficial sources reported that the  updated list of the Minsk officials banned from travelling to the EU may enumerate some 350 names.

As a reminder, the meeting of the European Parliament Committee on  Political Affairs took place. Talking to the meeting, Gunnar Wiegand, the acting director for Eastern Europe, Southern Caucasus, and Central Asia at the DG 'External Relations', declared that the European Union would adopt additional restrictive measures towards the individuals who have been involved in repressions and violations of civil rights in Belarus. The Commissioner indicated that further 135 persons may be put on the list. He said: "I hope we will be able to quickly agree upon this matter with all the Member States within the coming weeks". Talking about the Minsk bid to host the World Ice Hockey Cup in 2014 Gunnar Wiegand reminded of the boycotte of the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980 Cup pointing out that: 'Such possibility is being discussed".

We may also remind you that, in the wake of the crackdown on protesters against Lukashenka's  Presidency in Minsk on the 19 December 2010, the USA and the EU have renewed political sanctons against Minsk administration and extended the list of people banned from entering the European Union bringing it to 210 persons. They have also adopted economic sanctions towards Belarusian enterprises. In March 2011 they have been joined by the EU partner countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Albania, Island, Lichtenstein and Norway.