A meeting of the European Union Council of foreign ministers in Brussels on November 16-17 opted to continue restrictions on travel by Belarusian government officials to its member states. However, to encourage the Belarusian side to improve its domestic situation, the ban was suspended for a further eleven months, expiring in October 2010.
The travel ban, which encompasses 36 Belarusian officials, was introduced after the flawed presidential elections and their violent aftermath in March 2006, and suspended in October 2008 following the freeing of some political prisoners by the Lukashenka regime. Since that time Belarus has joined the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Project and EU leaders have made a series of visits to Belarus, while Lukashenka and others have visited Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and other states.
The Council’s decision reflects the disappointment of the EU concerning the lack of real change in Belarus. Its official statement declared that it “deeply regrets” that its concerns regarding human rights and basic freedoms have not been addressed. It cited brutal dispersal of peaceful political demonstrations (most recently on October 16), failure to register political parties and NGO’s, and the creation of an independent media. Also, it addressed Belarus’ refusal to date to abolish the death penalty. The EU declared that Belarus’ electoral laws needed to be brought in line with international standards (www.naviny.by, November 16; Office for a Democratic Belarus, November 17).
Two other recent events illustrate the conflicting attitudes and responses to EU initiatives. The first was the convocation of the Belarusian European Forum, held in the Palace of Culture in the Minsk Auto Factory on November 14, organized by Alyaksandr Milinkevich of the Movement for Freedom and the Belarusian Independent Blocs and attended by 809 people, including deputies of the European Parliament and several ambassadors from EU countries. At the meeting, Milinkevich noted that the past policy of political isolation of the Lukashenka regime had proven unsuccessful and that he and his associates favored spreading contacts with Europe at all levels. They also support a political and economic dialogue with the Belarusian authorities, but only with firm conditions about democratization in Belarus and the provision of political, economic, and other “freedoms.” Milinkevich also discussed the 2011 presidential election. While not directly declaring his candidacy, he commented that the uniting of “ideologically close political forces” might be a more successful strategy than the 2006 policy of uniting all political groups behind a single candidate (Belorusy i Rynok, November 16-22).
The second event was a conference and discussion held by the largest daily newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya (Belarus’ Segodnya), which consisted of an open question and answer session with the chairperson of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Lidziya Yarmoshyna, one of the leaders still banned from traveling to Europe. In general she was noncommittal on the most sensitive questions about reforms to the electoral process. She answered questions exclusively in Russian, even though about half were posed in the Belarusian language, and the questioners appeared to include quite a large contingent of students (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, November 18).
Among other issues, Yarmoshyna revealed her Russian and Ukrainian parentage, her support for then Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich in the 1994 election (won by Lukashenka), and the integrity of her commission, despite the president’s claim that the results of the 2006 election were fabricated to reduce his margin of victory. Asked whether there would be changes to the electoral law on Europe’s initiative or internally, she answered that the authorities would use those recommendations by European experts that they considered necessary. Moreover, she noted that changes to the electoral law would be in place before the current session of parliament ends, on December 18.
She also defended the anomaly of early voting, but agreed with one question concerning the procedural problems of collecting signatures for presidential candidates, stating that it will no longer be possible to add signatures from electors from various regions and districts on a single list. Foreign organizations will not be permitted to support candidates financially –the question referred to opposition figures– but the number of election observers may be extended (she did not specify whom this might include).
Astonishingly, in reply to a question about her opinion of the 12 conditions for improving democracy in Belarus advanced originally by the EU, she professed not to know about them, claiming that the document had not been circulated in the CEC.
On the one hand, the public forum with such a senior figure and the openness of the questions are positive signs. This is not the first such discussion on the pages of the presidential newspaper. On the other hand, there is little to indicate either that Yarmoshyna has mellowed or that any serious amendments to the electoral system are under consideration.
For the Europeans, there will be an opportunity to assess whether improvements will come during the local elections in spring 2010, a prequel to the anticipated presidential elections in 2011. Belarus intends to abolish tourist visas for EU citizens in the near future (www.news.tut.by, November 18) and some reciprocation may be anticipated. However, the decision to continue sanctions, albeit in suspended form, appears to be justified. The Belarusian side needs to do much more before it can be considered a viable partner.