Remarks to the European People’s Party and European Democrats
Stephen B. Nix
Director of Eurasia Programs
International Republican Institute
My name is Stephen Nix, and I direct democracy-building activities in the Eurasia Division of the International Republican Institute (IRI). IRI operates democracy programs in nine countries in Eurasia. These former Soviet Republics represent unique challenges programmatically as they all are at different stages of political and governance development.
IRI has been active in furthering democratic processes in Belarus since 2001. As many of you know, we work with political parties, nongovernmental organizations and activists in Belarus as well as with our European partners in creating democratic space in a country that has been ruled by a dictator for more than a decade.
The history of democratization efforts in Belarus has focused primarily on the process of consolidating and unifying all of the pro-democratic elements in the country into a single coalition. Building a unified opposition coalition as an alternative to President Lukashenko’s totalitarian rule is critical to achieving true democratic change in the country.
Beginning in 2001 with a late decision by pro-democratic activists to rally behind a single opposition candidate in the presidential election, IRI and other implementers have brought together political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGO), regardless of ideological orientation, which share the common objective of creating a free and democratic Belarus.
Due to these efforts, in January 2004, six of the seven leading political parties in Belarus along with more than 200 NGOs and associations formed the People’s Coalition “Five Plus.” Their promotion of “The Five Steps to a Better Life” as their common platform in the run-up to the 2004 parliamentary elections significantly solidified the pro-democratic coalition.
Though massive electoral fraud kept this coalition from winning any seats in 2004, during the post-election period that followed, an additional number of political parties, youth groups and NGOs joined this effort and the coalition became known as the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF). This coalition, the UDF, built upon their success in 2004 and implemented a process to select a single unified candidate to challenge Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election.
On January 14, 2007, the UDF participated in elections for the local soviet seats. This election failed to meet even the pre-conditions necessary to be considered free and fair, and the Belarusian government engaged in a strategy of intimidation and fear to suppress all but the most dedicated of democratic activists. Multitudes of pro-democratic candidates attempted to register in Belarus, but only some 300 were registered, and ultimately only 15 pro-democratic candidates were elected to fill 22,661 seats.
Since its creation, the UDF has been forced to focus its attention on the rapid succession of elections that occurred from 2004-2007. They now find themselves in a post-election period with nearly two years until the next parliamentary elections will be called. The UDF must now reorganize its internal structure from a campaign-team model and evolve into an organization which features an executive body which can make decisions and implement functional activities to carry out its strategy of bringing true democratic change to Belarus.
The UDF also needs to finalize its post-election strategy for the next two years. However, it is imperative that the UDF not lose any of the momentum they have achieved in the past one and a half years and that neither they, nor we, simply view these next two years as a pre-election lull.
The stage for democratic transition is being set. The 2006 presidential election was a watershed event in the unification of the Belarusian pro-democratic forces. At no other time in Belarus’ political history have democratically-oriented political parties and NGOs been closer to overcoming institutionalized fear and creating a social space for the dissenting voices in the political and civil society spheres.
On the evening of the March 19 election, thousands of Belarusian citizens stood in October Square in a sign of peaceful solidarity with the pro-democratic candidates and demanded their right for a free and fair election. In addition to this increasing base of pro-democratic activists within Belarus, there are other factors at play. The intense economic pressure that Russia has placed upon the Lukashenko regime through vastly increased energy prices, as well as continued increased political and diplomatic pressure from the European Union and its individual member countries, indicates that the time frame for a possible democratic transition in Belarus has been accelerated.
Given these key external factors, it is imperative that the United States and the European Union (EU) increase their support of the UDF in Belarus at this critical juncture.
The question then arises: what more can be done by us, as members of the international donor, implementer and policy community to best help our Belarusian partners in this critical period?
First, encouragement. Our first step is to continue to vocally encourage the pro-democratic activists in Belarus in their struggle. Numerous potential candidates for local soviets were so demoralized by the regime’s repression prior to the elections that they chose not to participate in the local elections. It is critical to let our partners know— and most importantly, the regime— that their sacrifices and struggles are not forgotten and that we continue to document abuses by the regime against the people.
I urge the leaders of the United States and the European Union to continue to offer statements decrying human rights violations in Belarus and calling for the release of the political prisoners.
Recently, President Bush mentioned Belarus during his State of the Union Address stating “we will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like… Belarus.” And, on January 29, the European Union issued a statement in connection with the eviction order that had been issued to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee calling on Belarusian authorities to “immediately cease their campaign of harassment against an independent civil society, in breach of their Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other international commitments.”
Statements such as these have great effect: on January 31, the Presidential Administration’s property management department extended the rent contract of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee for one more year. These statements bolster the resolve of the pro-democratic activists in Belarus and must be continued. My sincere hope is that the European People’s Party and European Democrats (EPP-ED), our kind host, would consider issuing such a statement at the conclusion of our gathering today, and that this might be the first of many subsequent statements of this type.
Second, relations with the government of Belarus. In the past few months, Russia has placed Belarus under intense economic pressure and the relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko has significantly deteriorated. Lukashenko now finds himself under intense pressure by both the East and the West and seems to be deciding whether to play his hand against Russia by courting Europe.
On January 29, during an interview with the BELTA news agency, President Alexander Lukashenko said he would never yield to Russia’s takeover of Belarus and emphasized that his country was ready for the EU membership and the Euro’s introduction.” In a separate interview, he said, “It is very important for us to improve relations with the West…. Europe simply has seen that it also depends on Belarus in energy supplies. Europe took a different look at Belarus. A new situation has emerged.”
We all know that Mr. Lukashenko’s sudden interest in developing better ties with the West is rhetoric. Lukashenko routinely bars foreign diplomats from entering Belarus, and the European Commission has still not been allowed to open a delegation office in Minsk.
I urge the European Union to remain cautious to Lukashenko’s overtures. Before Mr. Lukashenko can become an ally with the West, he must be held accountable; he must relinquish control of the media, release the political prisoners, and abort his practice of repressing the pro-democratic political parties and shutting down the civil society in the country.
Third, media. It is imperative that the United States and the EU continue to fight the information blockade in order to expose the citizens of Belarus to western ideas and values and unbiased information about the situation in their country. While both the United States and the EU have supported independent media, several different media projects exist and a coordinated solution to this problem has not been reached. Last year, the European Commission offered a two-year, two million euro tender to a German-led consortium to broadcast independent news to Belarus; however, specific member countries like Poland are also appropriating their own funds to offer satellite and radio transmissions into the country.
It is imperative that there is a consolidation of efforts with regard to electronic media and that funding is used for the most beneficial methods of media transmission. Information regarding the media which is being funded by the United States and the EU must be readily available to both funders and implementers.
Furthermore, it is imperative that we engage Belarusian pro-democratic activists on this issue. They need to be consulted regularly so that we can routinely evaluate the media systems which have been funded to ascertain how many people are actually able to access the information and whether the content fits their needs. Without this crucial feedback, and subsequent reaction to it, our best intentions will be futile.
Lastly, if our aim of funding independent media is to offer Belarusian citizens freedom of expression and the right to un-biased information, then Belarusian citizens need access to this media. They ought to be interviewed routinely and also be allowed to submit information to be broadcast.
Fourth, visas. It is also critically important that our European colleagues work to keep the cost of travel to the EU, specifically visa costs, as low as possible. In a closed society like Belarus, hope for the development of democracy depends on enlightening the general population to the world around them. Travel to neighboring democratic countries like Lithuania or Poland afford the opportunity for Belarusian citizens to be exposed to various democratic political and social processes from which they can draw their own conclusions about the successes or failings of the Lukashenko regime.
In December, the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council announced its decision to raise the price of Schengen visa fees from 35 to 60 euros per person. In 2007, the 10 newest member countries of the EU are expected to implement the provisions of the Schengen treaty. These countries include Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, the neighboring countries of Belarus.
Once the treaty is implemented, the cost of a visa for Belarusian citizens to travel to these countries will increase from 5 to 60 euros. In Belarus, where the average wage is 217 euros per month, this increased visa fee will be crippling and will impede Belarusian citizens from traveling to Europe. As Aleksander Milinkevich so appropriately stated, “For many Belarusian people, who would welcome any kind of contact with the west, this will be like a Berlin wall. It would help only the dictatorship which would like to isolate the country.”
The Lithuanian parliament recently adopted a resolution “On EU Visa Policy” that urged Brussels to reduce Schengen visa charges on non-EU citizens. I urge the European Union to promptly act on this resolution, simplify visa formalities for citizens of Belarus traveling to EU countries and limit the visa fee for Belarusian citizens entering EU countries to five euros.
Fifth, assistance. Finally, I urge the European Commission to create a democracy assistance foundation similar to the National Endowment for Democracy to better coordinate assistance to developing democratic countries such as Belarus. In fact, a plan was recently submitted to the European Parliament by several Members of the European Parliament to create a European Democracy Foundation.
Such a foundation will allow EU leaders to promote human rights and support democracy through a controlled mechanism instead of directly by the Commission which may be affected in their assistance decisions by issues related to their bilateral relations with the other nations involved and their need to simultaneously juggle energy and security agendas. A controlled assistance mechanism, while funded by and reporting to the EU, would not be predicated by diplomatic relations and would be able to make decisions with less prejudice based on external factors.
I also stress the need for a joint U.S.-EU assistance foundation. The creation of such a foundation would have monumental benefits. It would allow our two governments to coordinate policy objectives and streamline assistance. This coordination would maximize the benefits of our financial assistance by ensuring that efforts are not duplicated and that certain areas of need are not overlooked due to miscommunication.
In closing, the time for democratic transition in Belarus is upon us and we must not let our guard down lest the door of opportunity close upon us. We owe it to our partners in Belarus to continue to support them in their courageous struggle. As I stated earlier, with the regime in Belarus now under pressure from both East and West, now is the time to act boldly, and expand our joint efforts on democratization in Belarus.