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10 Jan

Silja Schultheis (Germany)
Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Dec 1, 2013


Ahead of the EU summit in Vilnius: Belarusian civil society hopes for a more consistent EU policy

Before the EU summit in Vilnius, all eyes were on the Ukraine and the Tymoshenko case. The political tug of war between the EU and Russia dominated the coverage of the summit.

Belarus has been described as the "most difficult chapter" of the Eastern Partnership. The authoritarian ruling dictator Lukashenko decided long ago on a customs union with Russia and against the Eastern Partnership with the EU. Belarusian civil society, however, would like to be closer to Europe.

Tamara Mackiewicz still remembers how she debated with her ​​friend and fellow Ales Bialiatski of the human rights organization Viasna two years ago if he should leave Belarus, as suggested the Lukasenko regime - or stay in the country and allow themselves to be arrested?
Tamara Mackiewicz:
“We both agreed that we would help the opposition more if Bialiatski remained in the country. An internationally known leader of a human rights organization in prison - that would certainly bring global protests, which would then lead to the release of the remaining political prisoners.”
The protests were, however, much weaker than Bialiatski and Mackiewicz had hoped - Bialiatski and ten other political prisoners in detention are still in prison today. Conditions worsened, said Bialiatski’s wife Natalia Pinchuk in early October in Prague where she received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award of the Council of Europe for her husband:
Natalia Pinchuk:
“Unfortunately, the situation in Belarus as a whole has not improved. The death penalty has further increased pressure on political opponents and civil society. The regime also places the families of political opponents under pressure. Therefore, we definitely need support. Life for human rights defenders in Belarus is dangerous.”

That Ales Bialiatski was awarded the Human Rights Award of the Council of Europe, is an important moral recognition. But in addition, the EU needs to take hard-hitting action against the Lukashenko regime, says human rights activist Tamara Mackiewicz:
Tamara Mackiewicz:
“The first step: finances. Lukashenko’s economy is inefficient, due to economic steps you can apply pressure. A great many people with us are willing to pay for freedom with economic losses. Or you can take Lukashenko’s  favorite child away: the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014. For Lukashenko, this hobby is more important than his country.”
The EU’s recent sanctions against the Lukashenko regime were too half-hearted, the EU does not fight properly for its values ​​and allows itself to be guided too much by economic interests, criticized  exiled Belarusian opposition politician Andrei Sannikov in the summer. Also, Vincuk Viachorka, one of the most prominent opposition figures who remained at home, warns of compromises in dealing with the dictator:
Vincuk Viachorka:
“Any inconsistency is regarded by Lukashenko as a weakness. Once you get him with concessions, he sees this as an invitation to continue as before. That is for the EU: if you created a list of Lukashenko’s officials who may not enter the EU, then there can be no exceptions. First Lukashenko must release the prisoners, then there can be conversations with him. And only after any concessions.”

Instead, Viachorka believes the EU should deal with civil society in Belarus by giving clear concessions, such as a reduction of visa fees or a visa-free regime. Although the European Union has increased dialogue with civil society in Belarus since 2010, citizens are not very aware of this. Most Belarusians primarily notice the (inconsistent) policy signals of Europeans, says Tamara Mackiewicz:
Tamara Mackiewicz:
“We have the impression that the European structures are too bureaucratic and prefer to work with undemocratic governments more than with civil society. I believe that if the Europeans showed more solidarity with civil society in Belarus, the situation could change a lot. Our society is fully prepared for these changes, it is just waiting for the West and the East to stop keeping the Lukashenko regime alive.”

Originally published: http://www.wdr5.de/sendungen/osteuropamagazin/belarus100.html