17 October 2006 - More Proactive Strategy towards Belarus Needed

Members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly gathered in Vilnius, on 11-13 October for the 2nd Vilnius Seminar on Belarus, organized jointly by the Assembly and the parliament of Lithuania. The purpose of this seminar was to receive updated perspectives on the political, economic and human rights situation in Belarus, and to discuss how international community can best encourage democratic change in Belarus. The 70 participants in the seminar included legislators, members of the Belarusian democratic opposition, EU and NATO officials, diplomats, NGO representatives, and international relations specialists who focus on Belarus.

The presentations from policy experts and opposition representatives showed that in terms of democracy and human rights, the situation in Belarus after the presidential elections in March 2006 continues to deteriorate, and repression of the democratic opposition is intensifying. The free media is on the verge of extinction and independent NGOs are floundering. Opposition is further stifled by the system of short-term work contracts in the public sector - which still constitutes the core of country's economy - discourages many Belarusians from actively opposing the regime.

Unfortunately, the democratic opposition remains weak and divided. Representatives of the Social-Democratic Party (Hramada) and the United Civic Party of Belarus refused to regard Mr. Alexander Milinkevich as the leader of the opposition. The evident disagreements within the opposition led some of the seminar's participants to express their disappointment in Belarusian democratic forces for failing to develop a single, comprehensive doctrine and vision of the future of the country, and thus present an attractive alternative to 'lukashism'. On the other hand, it was clearly acknowledged that the environment for opposition activity is extremely hostile, and that tribute must be paid to those democrats who dared to oppose the regime, risking their jobs, freedom or even their lives.

Participants of the seminar agreed that Russia was the key neighbour of Belarus both politically and economically. Russia's virtual subsidies to Belarus in the form of oil, gas and electric energy supplies amount to 13% of Belarus' GDP and are crucial for the country's economy. However, the pragmatic economic philosophy of Mr. Putin's administration is likely to result in significant increases in oil and natural gas prices for Belarus and a subsequent decline in the regime's revenues.

There was no consensus among the participants of the seminar as to what should be the posture of the EU and the Western democracies in the light of plausible tensions between the two countries. The proponents of the "engagement" approach argued that isolating Mr. Lukashenko will only induce him to unite with Russia, while other speakers stressed that "tough" language was the only one the Belarusian dictator understands. Some experts even speculated that, as an alternative to the choice between Russia and the West, Mr. Lukashenko might join the club of radical anti-globalist leaders such as Mr. Castro or Mr. Chavez.

During the discussions, several practical suggestions came up as to what the Western community could do:

- Increasing support for independent media. The efforts of the EU in this area are appreciated, but more needs to be done to increase the effectiveness of information projects,. Currently, many Belarusians are completely deprived of alternative information.
- Facilitating a visa regime for ordinary Belarusians. The sanctions should clearly distinguish the authorities and the people of Belarus, and the cost of visas would be prohibitively expensive for ordinary Belarusians.
- Encouraging student exchanges and other youth-oriented programmes.
- Supporting the families of political prisoners.
- Launching cultural programmes aimed at strengthening Belarusian language and national identity.
- Some participants suggested that inter-parliamentary assemblies could send joint delegations to Belarus. However, concerns were raised that such visits might be misinterpreted and used to demonstrate the legitimacy of the regime.
- A Ukrainian expert Mr. Oleh Soskin, advocated a regional approach towards Belarus whereby the leaders of Belarus' democratic neighbours would present an economic alternative to Russia for Mr. Lukashenko.

As a result of state propaganda, the majority of Belarusians perceive NATO as an aggressive, hostile and purely military organisation. However, speakers at the seminar noted that this image of the Alliance was only for "internal use" in order to consolidate the regime. In practice, the co-operation within the framework of PfP, albeit limited to a purely technical level, is rather smooth.

Belarus has not participated in the NATO PA since 1997, when the status of Associate Member (granted in 1991) was suspended as a result of the increasingly undemocratic activities of the Lukashenko regime. On 25 March 2006, the Assembly's Standing Committee adopted a declaration which strongly condemned human rights violations and abuses against opposition candidates and called upon nations "to actively support the democratic forces and promote the development of civil society in Belarus".