PACE: Pourgourides Line vs. Rigoni Line towards Belarus

By Olga Stuzhinskaya

Active discussions on Belarus at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stopped in 2004, following release of the well-known Pourgourides Report[1] and, consequently, adoption of the Resolution on Disappeared Persons[2], as well as the Resolution on Persecution of the Press in the Republic of Belarus[3]. In the course of 2004-2005, PACE continuously made statements condemning the grave situation with human rights, political freedoms and independent media, and called on the Belarusian government to improve the state of affairs: release political prisoners, conduct free, fair and democratic elections, ensure favourable conditions for existence and functioning of the independent press, allow freedom of assembly.

The Pourgourides Report on cases of politically-motivated disappearances and allegedly involvement in this crime of some Belarusian high-level state officials, his tough position based on non-engagement with the Belarusian government until investigation of the disappearances takes place and the human rights situation improves, led to establishment of so-called Pourgourides Line in PACE.

PACE President Rene van der Linden was among first to suggest more dialogue with the government of Belarus. He voiced his suggestion in February 2006 at a conference in Prague: “We need to break the isolation of the Belarusian people. We must strengthen direct contacts with Belarusian democratic forces and civil society. We need to reinforce our presence in Belarus. Our Assembly has suggested establishing a Council of Europe Information Centre in the country”[4]. Few months later, Mr van der Linden welcomed some new approaches in the EU policy towards the official Minsk, underlining more openings for possible relations with the government: “I believe the only way to improve things is through dialogue"[5], he said.

Around the same time, preparations began for the official visit of van der Linden to Minsk, which, allegedly, was coordinated not only with Belarusian officials, but also with the Kremlin[6].Concluding his three-day trip to the country in January 2007, PACE chief called to start fresh cooperation with Belarus. In his view, situation after the Russia-Belarus gas crisis had changed substantially and there was more willingness on the side of the Belarusian authorities to move closer to European structures. According to him, the positive reaction on the Belarusian Parliament’s invitation and visit to Belarus showed readiness of the Council of Europe for dialogue. However, the dialogue is to be conducted only with acceptance of the Council of Europe commitments by the Belarusian side.

Van der Linden’s statements when in Minsk (although misinterpreted by the state run TV) were clear. By the time of his visit, general agreement among various bodies of the international community was reached on the need of some engagement with the official Belarus: the dialogue on conditions, such as release of political prisoners, respect of the international electoral standards, political pluralism and existence of strong civil society. What is more interesting and catching attention is van der Linden’s understanding of Russia’s role in promotion of European values in Belarus. Positive influence of the “friendly” Kremlin was suggested by the PACE chairman in his interview for the "Эхо Москвы" radio station in May 2006[7] when he insisted on Russia’s very important role helping to put Belarus on the pro-European track. Using its special relations with Belarus, Moscow, according to the politician, could serve as an intermediary and persuade the Lukashenka government to change its attitude towards values of the democratic European family. T

his statement raises a question of how the Kremlin, rapidly slipping towards the totalitarian style of governance itself  and with its worsening relation with the West, would help Minsk to better understand basic principles of democracy and human rights. PACE chairman, however, hoped that during Russia’s chairmanship in the Council of Europe (May 19-November 15, 2006) Belarus would have more opportunities to participate in activities of the 47-member organization[8].

Appointed by the Political Affairs Committee in February 2007, new rapporteur on Belarus Andrea Rigoni (Italy, ALDE), carried out a fact-finding mission to Belarus in October of the same year as part of the report preparation on the situation in the country. In his later comments, he reiterated that political “dialogue with Belarus must start again”[9]. "It is essential for the Council of Europe to start thinking seriously about what it can do to promote democratic values in Belarus. I am against severing all contact with the Belarus authorities – as we have seen, that has no effect on the situation in the country, and simply makes it harder to get through to the people"[10], declared the rapporteur on Belarus. His views and strong favour of a dialogue despite the continuously difficult situation with human rights in the country became known in the PACE as the Rigoni Line.

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly faces the same challenges in its relations with Belarus and the same dilemma of engagement or non-engagement with the government as other organizations do. On one hand—and this has been approved by many members of the Belarusian democratic forces—the dialogue is needed, both internal, between the government of Belarus, the opposition and the society as such, and external, between the government representatives and the international community. On the other hand, continuous repressions of political parties and civil society activists, interrogations by KGB officers, mass arrests during and after peaceful street protests, as in case of the recent entrepreneurs strike, do not provide much proof of the Belarusian officials’ wish to move closer to Europe.

What differs PACE from other European structures coping with the Belarus dialogue dilemma, is the almost completed, but successfully contained during the recent meetings in Strasbourg Kremlin’s mission of supervising the decision-making process, that, in prospect, could lead to establishment of yet another, the “Margelov Line” towards Belarus. Mikhail Margelov, appointed by the United Russia party and the Kremlin[11], if elected the new chairman of the Assembly and in search for more supporters of the Russian “managed democracy” in Strasbourg, would offer extended opportunities to the government of Belarus. The dialogue on conditions, the step-by-step approach could have turned into a less-conditioned one-step move. Minsk would find itself much closer to the European structures with less effort and improvement than discussed currently. However, the election of Spanish MP, Lluis Maria de Puig instead of Mikhail Margelov to succeed Rene van der Linden as the PACE President, despite the enormous efforts of the latter to lobby for the Russian politician, gives better hope for a united European policy towards Belarus. Thus, there will be no “Margelov Line”: one complication less in the already complicated issue of communication between Belarus and the rest of Europe.

Views and arguments of both Christos Pourgourides and Andrea Rigoni deserve attention and encouragement. The stalemate situation with Belarusian presence on the international scene has to be resolved. The dialogue with Belarus and more engagement is needed, but the cases of political disappearances and the every-day persecutions, especially of youth activist, have not gone away. The dialogue with no substance can not cure the situation and is not worth implementation unless the agenda for it is clear and involves real pre-conditions, not technicalities, such as, for example, abolishment of the death penalty by Belarus. Release of all political prisoners has to be an absolute bottom line before any serious talks with the current Belarusian government begin. This month release of three prisoners is an encouraging step made by the official Minsk and hopefully will lay a ground for further liberalisation. Most probable and realistic scenario, however, is that Belarus, in the course of the year, will see a fusion of government’s gestures towards liberalisation with even more “sophisticated” and sometimes brutal repressive actions. Demonstrations of the entrepreneurs and the Freedom Day peaceful celebration on March 25 will probably end the same way they usually do. There is very little chance that parliamentary elections in the autumn will be conducted in accordance with the OSCE standards. PACE, being an inter-parliamentary organization, should closely follow and focus its attention on developments around this event, however.

The international community has to be ready to the swings back and forth by pursuing a well-coordinated, in first place, policy line, and implementing a step-by-step conditioned dialogue with the authorities in Minsk. Coordination of efforts by the EU and the Council of Europe, as well as other European bodies is essential in order to avoid disunity on the policy towards Belarus--so much desired by both the officials in Minsk and their allies in the Kremlin.