Full text 
Verbatim report of proceedings
Tuesday, 5 July 2005 - Strasbourg OJ edition

32. The political situation in Belarus: student protests and the independence of the media

  President . The next item is the Commission statement on the political situation and the independence of the media in Belarus.


  Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Member of the Commission. Mr President, I wish to begin by thanking those of you who asked for an exchange of views with us on Belarus. It is the third exchange of views on Belarus since I became a Commissioner. It is very important, because I share your concerns. I firmly believe that strengthening democracy and supporting independent information sources in Belarus are of the utmost importance, especially in view of the forthcoming presidential elections.

The European Commission has a strong interest in Belarus being a democratic and stable neighbour and hopefully, in the future, being able to benefit fully from the European Neighbourhood Policy.

Recent developments in Belarus, however, have moved the country’s political system further away from a European democratic system and norms and values, preventing the country from taking its rightful place in the family of European nations. After the parliamentary elections and the referendum in Belarus last year, which fell significantly short of international standards for democratic elections, in November 2004 the Council of the European Union confirmed the restrictions on ministerial-level contacts with the Belarusian authorities. At the same time, the European Union sent a very clear message to the population to tell them that we had not forgotten them and that we wanted to enhance contacts with civil society.

The European Union has consistently condemned the arrests and politically motivated trials of potential opponents to President Lukashenko. We have called for respect for the rule of law and the immediate release of these people. We see these actions by the regime as attempts to eliminate opposition leaders, especially 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 also closely monitoring the human rights situation in Belarus. As a clear signal that the European Union cannot accept violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, last year we imposed a visa ban on certain high-ranking Belarusian officials on the basis of Council of Europe findings. There was the Pourgourides report on politically motivated disappearances. We then extended this visa ban to cover the officials considered responsible for rigged elections and also the rigged referendum, as well as those responsible for the repression of peaceful demonstrations.

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 also the right to collective bargaining, as defined in the ILO Conventions, especially within the framework of the GSP, the Generalised System of Preferences. The investigation might ultimately result in the withdrawal of Belarus’s access to the benefits of the GSP.

Against the background of the worsening political situation in Belarus, the European Union remains very committed to assisting civil society and the people of Belarus. Here it must be said that the Commission is a major donor to Belarus and in the past few months we have also streamlined our assistance to the country. A workshop was organised in Vilnius specifically to coordinate our assistance. This was very important, as it gave us the chance to intensify our coordination, not just amongst the Member States but also with countries like the United States of America and Canada.

We have two objectives. One is to assist and support human rights, democratisation, civil society and democratic forces in the strict sense of the word. We pay special attention to support for the media, non-governmental organisations, the strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law. This is being done through the EIDHR – the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights – and the decentralised cooperation instrument. Two calls for tender were launched there in March and the project selection has already been completed. Contracting will probably take place over the summer, so that the activities can start before the end of the year. There are 10 to 12 projects relating to education and advocacy NGOs giving legal advice to people who have human rights problems. I hope that the results will be excellent.

The second objective is to support the broader needs of the population in related areas. By broader needs, I mean the TACIS programme that focuses on support for the population itself in different sectors, including good governance, sustainable development, the social sector, education, health, the environment and economic development, and also alleviation of the problems caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe, which figures prominently on our assistance programme.

The idea of supporting independent radio broadcasting to Belarus has been suggested as an effective and useful response to the lack of alternative and independent information in Belarus. We have studied the possibilities carefully and will see how that can be managed. Under our current financial regulations it is not easy to find the right solution immediately. However, I can tell you that, as regards the difficulties journalists are facing in Belarus, we have a key programme for training journalists and we have already been able to do a lot. We have provided support for the Belarusian Association of Journalists, for which it is very grateful. For instance, we gave it our backing as the winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2004.


  Bogdan Klich, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. (PL) Mr President, Commissioner, this is in fact Parliament’s fourth resolution on Belarus. It is, however, the first to result from a deep sense of disillusionment with the Commission’s attitude. From Parliament’s point of view, the Council is an ally, and the Commission is the enemy, at least as far as a review of current policy on Belarus is concerned. The Council understands what is needed, whereas the Commission has no understanding whatsoever of how the existing instruments should be modified in order to support civil society and the process of democratic transformation in Belarus.

The message sent out by Javier Solana during his meeting with Condoleezza Rice in Vilnius on the democratic opposition in Belarus is important in political terms. At the same time, however, the Commission has fallen into a peculiar kind of vicious circle. It believes that change can be brought about in Belarus using existing political mechanisms and instruments. This is not the case. Change cannot be brought about in this way because these instruments are designed for democratic countries, or countries where the process of democratic transformation has already begun. It would be impossible to promote the start of democratic transformations in any country in the world by means of the instruments to which the Commissioner refers. If we were to try to do so, we would risk sacrificing the European Union’s political credibility, as well as running the risk that political declarations would in future no longer be followed by actions.

While all this is going on, presidential elections will take place in Belarus shortly, or in other words next year. We need to help the Belarussians make their choice. It is therefore enormously important that they are provided with reliable and independent information, mainly via radio stations. I would note that projects have been launched in Poland and Lithuania to establish independent radio stations. These projects were initially in competition with each other, but are now working together. It is for this reason that the resolution refers to a network of radio stations for Belarus.

The national governments have already lent their backing to these projects. They should also have the backing of the European Union, however, and current attitudes must change. The Commission has been considering the possibility of such backing for eight months already, and this cannot go on. This motion for a resolution is concerned with precisely this problem.


  Marek Maciej Siwiec, on behalf of the PSE Group. (PL) Mr President, what we are doing today amounts to nothing less than describing what could be termed the stagnation of a crisis. News of this crisis has reached us, and we have all seen the pictures of demonstrations, victims and people who have been beaten up. These people later go to prison, and we send protests and wait for the next pictures to appear on television. What all this means is that we are in fact incapable of doing much at all. We cannot do much, and we should at least have the honesty to admit that to ourselves.

Today’s debate on the media deals with only one small aspect of the harsh reality that prevails in all areas of life in Belarus. On behalf of my group, I should like to call most emphatically on the Commission to take the compromise resolution which has been drafted, and which will be tabled tomorrow, as an inspiration for its actions.

There is one additional point we should not forget. Despite the fact that it is so late, and that we have such a small audience, we should be honest with ourselves and admit that the European Union, by which I mean all of us in this Chamber and the Member States, will be powerless and helpless until we hold talks with Russia on the issue of Belarus.

We hold talks with Russia on various matters, the most popular of which are gas and various profitable interests, but we have not asked Russia for its real opinion on the situation in Belarus. It is very convenient for Russia and for President Putin for there to be a country that they can look down on in that part of Europe, and for there to be a regime that can be seen as the black sheep of Europe. Lukashenko and his exploits are tolerated and subsidised by means of cheap gas and oil, and the European Union agrees to it. We should at least admit to ourselves that the Lukashenko regime is convenient for Russia, and that we agree to this.

Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment pales into insignificance in the face of what is happening in Belarus. We tear our hair out and protest about Khodorkovsky, but precious little is said about Lukashenko’s anonymous victims. Unless we take concrete steps to strengthen civil society, these people will lose their most important asset, which is hope. That really would be the end.


  Anne E. Jensen, on behalf of the ALDE Group. (DA) Mr President, Commissioner, you gave a very lively description of the current situation in Belarus. Things are heading in the wrong direction there, and it is of course all the more depressing because, particularly in other countries of the former Soviet Union, there is a mood of renewal which we do not see at all in Belarus.

You mention a long list of programmes that are under way. I believe, however, that Mr Klich was quite correct in saying that many of the EU programmes are intended for neighbouring countries with some form of democratic structure. It is different when we are dealing with a dictatorship, as in the case of Belarus. Other instruments are needed for that country. As is well known, Tacis has many resources for solving environmental problems and resolving issues of border surveillance. How do we know, however, whether President Lukashenko’s management of these resources is in the EU’s interests?

I therefore think that the proposal contained in the resolution on which we are to vote tomorrow is perfectly correct. It is a document that the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe can support fully and unreservedly. It is important for us to support the right to free opinion-forming in Belarus, and we have an obligation, pure and simple, to get down to some of these projects which, from a financial point of view, will be extremely modest but which will mean an incredible amount for the morale of those in Belarus who are fighting for democracy. They need to hear and understand that there are people who are aware of their situation, who are behind them and who will support them wholeheartedly. In fighting, they are putting themselves on the line and are in great danger of their own lives. We must support them from outside. We have a responsibility, and I think you should explain to us how, in practical terms, you will go about matters.


  Konrad Szymański, on behalf of the UEN Group. (PL) Mr President, in recent weeks the Lukashenko regime has made yet another addition to its list of dubious practices. It has started playing the nationalist card against the Polish community in Belarus, even though the latter has lived in the country since time immemorial.

The Union of Poles in Belarus has been persecuted ever since a new democratic leadership was elected, despite the fact that the organisation stays well out of domestic politics in Belarus. The Polish-language newspaper was closed down, and the state-run media use official propaganda to portray Poles as agents of foreign powers, financed by NATO and the CIA, who are virtually preparing a bloody revolt against the Belarussian state.

EU policy must provide a response to such goings-on. In my opinion, it would be worth thinking about an increased level of solidarity between countries at intergovernmental level, as well as solidarity in terms of EU and transatlantic policies. As far as the Commission is concerned, policies must be targeted at implementing very specific projects, such as support for independent media.

Commissioner, there is one issue I should like to highlight in particular at this point. There can be no question that this House will have no understanding for any passivity and sluggishness by the Commission during this parliamentary term. If you continue to act as you have done in the past, you will do nothing but create further areas of conflict between Parliament and the Commission. You leave us no other choice, Commissioner.


  Aldis Kušķis (PPE-DE) (LV) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, Commissioner, Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, is successfully creating a totalitarian regime, learning from the classics of Soviet totalitarian communism and praising them; this time he is not using the dictatorship of the proletariat and communist ideology as a mask but is methodically destroying the civil and political liberties of the people of Belarus, and destroying the right to freedom of speech and truthful information. The people of Belarus receive minutely detailed reports of the dictator’s heroic deeds from the enslaved media. Songs of joy come from the radio and a propaganda machine worthy of Goebbels is crippling the confidence of society. The need for democratic freedoms is being destroyed, hopelessness is degrading people’s dreams and belief in their own strengths. How can this process of mankurtism be halted? How can we preserve those shoots of civil society that still remain intact? How can we create anew an internal demand for honest and truthful information?

We can do this if the European Union fulfils its own rights and obligations. By fulfilling the right and obligation to create a free information space with budgetary funds that have already been voted this year. I call on the European Commission to stop playing at its exaggerated diplomacy and to carry out its obligations. The launch of independent radio broadcasts currently depends purely on the goodwill of the European Commission. Financial, technical and organisational issues can be resolved during the course of this year. Professional journalists are standing by at this moment to create objective content. This work would be an even greater honour to them than the Sakharov prize presented by the European Parliament last year. I call on you to support this resolution. Support it and carry it out, so that Belarus does not become a totalitarian state.


  Joseph Muscat (PSE). Mr President, the Commissioner does not need any of us to tell her what is going on in Belarus. At the same time, I believe that you are on our side, Commissioner. However, please let us get things going. That is the plea that we are all jointly making.

Rules are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We cannot tell the people in Belarus that we cannot help them at the moment because we have to comply with difficult rules. Let us change the rules.

One of the major players in making the rules and ensuring their observance is Parliament. Let us see what we can do. We would all like to establish concrete commitments with regard to the radio station project, direct assistance for the families of victims of the regime – they are in dire straits – and thirdly and most importantly, a concrete, realistic timetable. I understand what you mean when you refer to a timetable which will begin, hopefully, after the summer and continue for the foreseeable future, but we should have a concrete timetable of specific events over the next 12 months.


  Rolandas Pavilionis (UEN). (LT) The European Humanities University which was closed in Minsk a year ago was recently reborn in Vilnius. Historically, the universities of Europe were the forerunners of the European Union. The true roots of the European Union are in the universities, while the universities are founded on freedom of thought. This is why we welcome the revival of the European Humanities University in the resolution that we are presenting to the Parliament on behalf of the Union for Europe of the Nations. We also derive joy from the efforts of the Republic of Lithuania, which are aimed at spreading democracy, freedom of thought and human rights through education, by preparing a trained generation for a new country, one which is a neighbour of the European Union, but still in the grip of a dictatorship. Therefore, we address the European Commission, the Member States of the European Union and urge you to follow the example of donors in Europe and the United States of America and to support this university in every possible way. We are sure that this is how we will really broaden the realm of freedom, in which a nation's freedom, solidarity and cooperation serves a person's dignity our own dignity.


  Charles Tannock (PPE-DE). Mr President, I have a long-standing interest in Belarus and I have never advocated completely cutting off contact with the Belarus authorities in areas of mutual concern such as people trafficking and trade matters. It is also true that current EU policies have not paid any dividends. The regime of President Lukashenko has retreated into a siege mentality, in which increasing paranoia about the intentions of the EU, the USA, and even Russia at times has resulted in mounting repression and authoritarian responses.

Democracy has been effectively terminated, with sham elections and an end to limits on the president’s term of office, although CIS observers would claim otherwise. Human rights are trampled on, with unexplained disappearances of opposition figures. The judiciary is far from independent and does not question the campaign of Deputy Attorney General Paval Radzivonaw as the principal architect of the crackdown on newspapers such as Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni and Vremya. The criminal conviction of opposition figures such as Mikhail Marinich is further evidence of this. Press freedom is virtually non-existent now, with newspapers being suspended and journalists, including foreign correspondents, harassed or fined. Theoretically, Belarusians can even be sent to labour camps for daring to criticise the president. One journalist, Veronika Cherkasova, was mysteriously murdered last year.

In terms of media freedom, Belarus is now on a par with some of the world’s pariah regimes, such as Cuba, Burma, North Korea and Iran. The EU and the USA stand together in condemning this brutal regime and imposing smart sanctions on officials of the regime.

I strongly support independent radio broadcasting into Belarus from the EU and also financial assistance for Belarus journalists and for civil society. I hope that that ghastly regime’s days are numbered and that it will soon be off the map of Europe.


  Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Member of the Commission. Mr President, I think in fact we have no difference. It is a regime where freedom is being trodden on, so we have to do something, which I have explained three times already. It was the Commission that agreed to go to Lithuania with a few Member States to work together and find the right strategies.

The right strategies are there, the problem is our financial regulations. These financial regulations were introduced because Parliament asked for them in the past. Why? Because there have been irregularities, but we are now very constrained. It is very difficult for me to go against the financial rules, which is why it takes a lot of time. I cannot just go and give money to any NGOs. This has to be done according to the rules, and the rules are very difficult and strict. If we want to change the rules – and I would not mind starting to simplify them – then frankly I need Parliament’s support, otherwise I cannot do anything. I do not wish to be accused of irregularities, as colleagues have been in the past. I am always flexible and open. I will look into the matter, but it takes a long time. It can take months to get things in place, but we will go in the right direction.

I do not think it is correct to say that the Council has different ideas. The Council came after us. We started to work with a few Member States and with many NGOs, but the Council is not responsible for implementation. Implementation has to be done by us, according to the Financial Perspective and rules and according to our constraints. This is the real crux of the problem. You should know this; therefore I clearly and openly say so.

It is also untrue to say that we are not communicating with Russia on this issue. Of course we are. The reality, however, is that Russia has not changed anything up to the present time and it seems to be difficult for it to do so. But I completely agree – and we agreed at the seminar – that we should make moves towards the media and make direct contact with the society there; we should train journalists.

We should also work via Ukraine. We have been working with our Polish and Lithuanian friends, and we will also work a lot with Ukrainians, as they have better access than us. It is true that Lukashenko is now imposing stricter measures because he is fearful that movements could start similar to those in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

This is the reality of the situation but I cannot give you any more information at this stage. We are working on the implementation but unfortunately it takes more time than I would wish. In my former role as Austrian Foreign Minister, I gave an instruction and the instruction was followed and perhaps within the next few months it was implemented. In the Commission, it is more complex. We have to be very careful to ensure against any irregularities. But I am ready, if you are, to look into this situation.


  President . I have received six motions for resolutions(1) tabled pursuant to Rule 103(2) of the Rules of Procedure.

The debate is closed.

The vote will take place on Thursday at 12 noon.


(1) See Minutes.

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