18 October 2005 - SEMINAR ON BELARUS, VILNIUS, LITHUANIA, 23-24 September 2005

Friday and Saturday 23 and 24 September on the current situation in Belarus. The seminar brought together representatives of the democratic opposition and civil society in Belarus with NATO PA members and representatives of other international organizations. The aim was to assess, with the help of the Belarussian representatives, what further action the international community, and particularly the NATO PA, could take that will assist the country to return to democracy.

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.

According to the various presentations, conditions in Belarus continue to deteriorate. Every aspect of society is strictly controlled by the regime and the private sector is vanishing fast. There is regular harassment at all levels of civic opposition to the regime whether it is media, academia, NGO's, or even local authorities. This harassment is pervasive and relentless and appears in many guises impossible regulations, extortionate fees, provocations, beatings, imprisonment and even the ultimate, disappearance. It succeeds not only in stifling all forms of opposition but also in keeping the Belarus population in ignorance of the outside world. This total unawareness coupled with nostalgia for the Soviet past, deliberately encouraged and exploited by Lukashenko, explains why the regime continues to command support among much of the Belarus population.

In view of the monopoly on information, the provision of alternative information for the Belarus population through external broadcasting has become a top priority. Such broadcasting might be done from the neighbouring countries, with involvement of the independent Belarussian journalists. The information should be broadcast in Belarussian as well as Russian languages.

The influence of Russia remains key and can also be said to explain the frequently muted reactions of certain member governments. Putin, it was said, does not like Lukashenko but he fears revolution even more. The "encouraging" examples of Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine were discussed but Belarus representatives were quick to point to the many differences that in their view invalidate such comparisons.

One positive note from the presentations was the fact that the opposition is attempting to create a degree of unity and plans at the forthcoming Congress to select a single candidate for the elections in 2006.

There was agreement among the leaders of the Belarussian opposition that contact with the higher echelons of the Belarus regime - the President and his ministers, including the parliament - should be strongly resisted. They are nothing more than puppets. Any official contacts would be used to strengthen the image of Lukashenko in the eyes of Belarussians as an important international figure. Since the policies of Western governments and international organizations have failed to bring any benefits to the cause of democratisation in Belarus the seminar tabled, among other things, proposals to discuss the possibility of looking for constructive cooperation with some Belarus officials.

It was agreed that all international organizations should keep the issue on their agendas in order to maximise pressure on Lukashenko. Parliamentary organizations, it was also agreed, have less leverage than their governmental counterparts, however, they have greater freedom to express views more frankly. Their principal contribution lies in raising and sustaining public and parliamentary awareness. These interparliamentary efforts should be better coordinated. However, as real influence lies with governments, a better synergy should be achieved between the executive and legislative approaches.

For the NATO PA, there was general agreement that the democratic forces in Belarus should receive active support and encouragement. However, it is not evident how this can be achieved. The Standing Committee should be asked to consider a number of options at its next meeting in Copenhagen.