May 9, 2009
To All Ambassadors from EU Nations in Washington, DC:
This letter is written on behalf of the Belarusan community in the United States. We wish to take this opportunity to express our disappointment and concerns, as well as our hopes for the future. We are disappointed by the apparent willingness of the EU to embrace Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenka, and are concerned that this will only serve to prop up Lukashenka and his anti-democratic policies.
Our hope is that the EU countries will reconsider such an approach, and will instead join with the United States in a principled stance against human and civil rights abuses by the Lukashenka regime.
The people of Belarus, particularly the young people who are willing to risk everything to protest openly, still look to Europe and the United States to maintain a high moral standard. They need to feel the full support of the West. If we lose these people, the fight against Lukashenka’s brutal regime will simply die. Recent history shows that, after decades of oppression, the people of Eastern Europe were finally able to change the course for their countries. The reputation that Western Europe and the United States earned in helping the freedom fighters should not be exchanged for some short-term economic benefits.
In April, the EU extended an invitation to Lukashenka to attend the May 7 summit in Prague for the launching of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. While we do not oppose the EU’s Eastern Partnership concept, nor the inclusion of Belarus within the Partnership, the invitation to Lukashenka personally was ill-advised. Such action on the part of the EU creates a serious setback for the promotion of political liberalization and human rights in Belarus.
Last year, the Belarusan government's human rights record "remained very poor" with "frequent serious abuses" against NGOs, political parties, and opposition activists, as documented by the U.S. Department of State. The Belarusan government has yet to account for politically motivated disappearances. The regime continues to stifle any and all societal elements that are perceived as a threat to its power, whether they be independent churches, Belarusan-language schools, civic organizations or labor-oriented movements.
Recent European diplomatic overtures towards Belarus appear to be based on the questionable assumption that creating opportunities in Europe for Lukashenka’s regime will lead to the gradual democratization of Belarus and the strengthening of its independence. Some EU leaders mistakenly believe that they can lure Belarus away from Russia. But Lukashenka has never regarded Europe as a strategic partner. His policies are normally based on deals with Russian authorities and oligarchs, and cooperation with outcast regimes. Lukashenka has been
quite artful at playing Russia and the West off of each other, while delivering little to neither.
Furthermore, in the current economic crisis, in order to obtain Western funds, Lukashenka merely pretends to be willing to make minor changes in the political system which will not change the major structures of his authoritarian state power.
Past Western pressure on Lukashenka has produced positive results over time. For example, beginning in 2006, the imposition of sanctions by the United States and the EU, presenting a solid front, led to the eventual release of all political prisoners. In an about-face, however, in September 2008, just two weeks after Belarus’ disastrous parliamentary election -- which international monitors deemed neither free nor fair – the EU suspended its asset freeze and visa ban, initially for six months. In mid-March, the EU extended this suspension until the end of this year. But this easing of pressure on Lukashenka has not produced the desired results.
Instead, the Belarusan government has rejected independent media requests for distribution and refused registration to several other NGOs and trade unions. New criminal cases have been brought against a number of opposition activists, including previously released political prisoners, and some have been rearrested.
Abductions and beatings of activists continue, and several youth activists have been forcibly drafted into the military. The Lukashenka regime thus continues to engage in human rights abuses.
Against such a backdrop, the personal invitation extended to Lukashenka is inexplicable.
Many Belarusan opposition leaders believe that the EU is giving up its leverage to push for improvement in human rights in Belarus and handing the dictator a major diplomatic victory.
The EU’s 2006 plan of action outlined 12 steps in the area of human rights which the Belarusan government needed to take for normalization of relations, yet most of these remain unfulfilled; indeed, the EU appears to have abandoned the plan, with at best, a handful of steps still in play – those last steps must not be abandoned.
A policy of cooperation with Lukashenka’s regime just one and a half years before the next presidential election in Belarus substantially weakens the chances of an effective opposition in the election and supports Lukashenka’s plans to remain in power for a fourth presidential term, i.e., for 22 years.
The main strategy of the West in this time of economic crisis in Belarus must be the substantial strengthening of support for Belarusan democratic forces and civil society as guarantors of independence and a European orientation for the country, while at the same time continuing contacts with certain officials, excluding Lukashenka. The following are necessary:
-- a demand for real improvements in freedom of speech, instead of the mere creation of limited opportunities for two low circulation newspapers
-- support to alternative media, internet projects, human rights organizations, youth movements and initiatives
-- support to democratic forces and civil society before the next presidential election in Belarus
-- support for the development of independent trade unions and a labor movement in Belarus
-- support for mass distribution of printed materials with information about the actual social-economic situation in Belarus and about EU initiatives on establishing dialogue with Belarus
-- a demand for direct negotiations between the authorities and the opposition, aimed at finding a way out of the economic and political crisis, the result of which should be an agreement to change the Election Code and hold free and fair elections.
We thank you for your attention and consideration.
Belarusan-American Association, Inc. (BAZA)
P. O. Box 1347
Highland Park, NJ 08904