Belarus - Political Situation and the Independence of the Media

European Parliament Strasbourg, 5 July 2005 - SPEECH/05/417
Mr President, Honourable Members,

Thank you for the invitation and opportunity to exchange views on Belarus with you.

I very much share the concerns expressed by the European Parliament on Belarus, and firmly believe that strengthening democracy and supporting independent information sources in Belarus is of utmost importance, in particular in view of the upcoming presidential elections.

The EU has a strong interest in Belarus being a democratic and stable neighbour, fully benefiting from our European Neighbourhood Policy. Developments over recent years in Belarus have however moved the country’s political system further away from European democratic norms and values, preventing the country from taking its rightful place in the family of European nations.

After the parliamentary elections and referendum in Belarus last year, which fell significantly short of international standards for democratic elections, the Council of the European Union confirmed in November the restrictions on Ministerial-level contacts with Belarusian authorities. At the same time the EU sent a very clear message to the population that they have not been forgotten, and that we would enhance our support to civil society and democratic forces in Belarus.

The EU has consistently condemned the arrests and politically motivated trials of potential opponents to President Lukashenko, and called for respect for the rule of law and the immediate release of these persons. We see these actions taken by the regime as attempts to eliminate leaders of the opposition in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2006. The growing repression of political parties, non-governmental organisations and independent media outlets is of serious concern to us.

We are closely monitoring the human rights situation in Belarus. As a clear signal that the EU cannot accept violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the EU imposed a visa ban last year against certain high-ranking Belarusian officials, on the basis of the findings of the Council of Europe’s “Pourgourides Report” on politically-motivated “disappearances”. We then extended this visa ban to also cover the officials considered responsible for the rigged election and the referendum, as well as those responsible for the repression of the peaceful demonstrations which followed.

Our grave concerns about the observance of trade union rights in Belarus have led to an investigation into alleged violations of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining (as defined in the ILO conventions) in the framework of the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). The investigation may ultimately result in withdrawal of Belarus' access to the benefits of the GSP scheme.

Against the background of the worsening political situation in Belarus, the EU remains committed to assist civil society and the people of Belarus. The Commission is a major donor in Belarus, and in the past months we have considerably streamlined our assistance to the country.

The first objective of our assistance is to support human rights, democratisation, civil society and democratic forces in the strict sense of the word. We pay special attention to support for independent media, non-governmental organisations, the strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law. We do this through the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and the Decentralised Cooperation instrument which was recently opened to Belarus.

Two Calls for Proposals under these instruments were launched in March, and the project selection has been completed. Contracting will take place over the summer, so that the activities can start before the end of the year.

The second objective is to support the broader needs of the population in related areas. The Tacis programme focuses on support to the needs of the population and support for democratisation and civil society in the broad sense of the term, in areas such as good governance, sustainable development, social sector, education, health, environment and economic development. The alleviation of problems related to the Chernobyl catastrophe figures prominently among our assistance priorities. Activities under the Tacis programme are implemented with the full involvement of Belarusian civil society.

In March this year we organised an assistance coordination workshop in Vilnius (hosted by the Government of Lithuania) with the participation of Member States, interested third countries, NGOs, and other relevant actors to co-ordinate assistance to democratisation and civil society in Belarus. This event was an important occasion to intensify the coordination of our assistance to Belarus, not only between the Community and its Member States, but also with other donors, be it other third countries, such as the US and Canada, or relevant international organisations.

The Vilnius workshop reaffirmed the importance we attach to democracy in Belarus and to the role civil society can play. We all share the wish to see Belarus as a democratic, stable and prosperous country.

The assistance coordination workshop in Vilnius has allowed us to demonstrate that the Commission, other major donors such as the US and international organisations, have a clear and shared vision of how to take forward work to coordinate assistance to support as effectively as possible democratisation and the needs of the population in Belarus.

The idea of supporting independent radio broadcasting to Belarus has been raised as a possible effective and useful response to the lack of alternative and independent information in Belarus. The Commission services have carefully studied the possibility for the Commission to contribute to such an endeavour. As things stand now, there is no straight forward funding solution for radio broadcasting under the rules and procedures that bind the Commission. But I assure you that I am doing the utmost to find a solution.

We are well aware of the daily difficulties that independent media and journalists face in Belarus. We are doing what we can to support free and independent media. A key element is the training of journalists. I would like to recall that the Commission has supported information and media organisations through the TACIS programme. We have provided support to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which was the winner of the Sakharov Prize “For Freedom of Thought” in 2004. Our assistance to the information and media sector will continue under the EIDHR and the Decentralised Cooperation instrument.

We welcome the role that the European Parliament can play in encouraging democratic change and supporting democratic forces in Belarus.