RFE/RL: I'd like to start by asking you about Belarus and what you think the Council of Europe, the European Union or anyone else can do to promote the democratization of Belarus, given that so far all the efforts to do so appear to be having the opposite effect?
Rene Van der Linden: I wouldn't say it has the opposite effect because also in the middle and the long term it will have effects because you can never have a society, which is disconnected with all other societies. Belarus is at this moment the only country in Europe which is not a member of the Council of Europe and it is in the interests finally of the citizens of Belarus to become part of the international European community. And I am sure that Russia also will try to find ways [to help] Belarus move towards the Council of Europe and it's also the intention. I discussed it in Russia. I am against a policy of isolation. Isolation is a death path. The question is how to find ways to assist the people in Belarus in their way to democracy and the rule of law and human rights' respecting. And we had a debate, an urgent debate during the last session in Strasbourg. I invited the speaker of parliament also in Belarus. I know many of my colleagues didn't like this but it was my initiative and I want to underline in this way that we don't set aside the parliamentarians of Belarus and I know how they are elected so no doubt about it. But we have to discuss it in an open way, transparent, and I gave the floor officially to the opposition leader in the plenary session, so as to give a clear signal that the opposition leader was in a position that he could defend his position in the plenary session.
RFE/RL: You mention Russia. What is it, do you think, that Russia can do to help you to persuade Belarus and, in particular, the president of Belarus, Mr. Lukashenka, to change the direction in which he is moving at the moment?
"There will come a moment when there will be a change in Belarus. That's for sure. The question is when."
Van der Linden: Russia becomes the chairman of the Council of Europe on 1 May. This is a historical moment. For the first time in Russian history Russia becomes the chairman of an international, democratic, European organization. It's in the interests of Europe as a whole that we make a success of it and I will do the utmost to support Russia in a successful chairmanship. So, we also have to convince Russia that in Belarus there must be a change. There must be a change towards the commitments and obligations, which are accepted by all members states of the Council of Europe and also by Belarus. I don't know how long it will take but I am sure Belarus will become a member of the Council of Europe, as all the others are.
Russia And Europe Linked Together
RFE/RL: The problem, I suppose, in turning to Russia is that there are many in Russia and in the Russian government as well who are somewhat sympathetic to Lukashenka.
Van der Linden: Yes, I am sure that is the case. You cannot compare Russia to other member states of the Council of Europe. Russia is a superpower still. Russia has a very complicated situation; Russia is not a state which you can change in a few years. For me the most important thing is that Russia is part of Europe, that Russia also has to implement the obligations and recommendations of the Council of Europe. That takes much more time. It's a long time but we must not be impatient. We must take time, the direction has to be on the right way and we have to assist them. If you only criticize a member state, in this case Russia, you never get results. I can be critical of Russia, even tougher than others because they know I want to be helpful and I can assist them. I am very much in favor of a strong position for Russia in the Council of Europe. It is my deepest conviction that in the future Russia and the rest of Europe will be linked together. We have a common interest, not only if you look to the values of the Council of Europe but also if you look to the material interests. Russia is very rich in raw materials, especially energy, and we in Europe are very dependent on the import of the same raw materials.
RFE/RL: I am interested that you should say "Russia and Europe linked together." In other words, still two separate entities not one.
Russia has seen the monitoring reports as a kind of punishment, as criticism.
Van der Linden: We belong to the same family, we are under the same roof, the European roof and we live in the same house, the house of the Council of Europe, but of course if you look to the history of the member states of the Council of Europe, it's completely different and we cannot expect Russia should change all its structures in such a short time. Because if you look to history, it is 10 years that they are members of the Council of Europe. Ten years is really a very short time in history. I sincerely hope that we are able to go step by step to a fully democratic, human-rights respecting, member of the Council of Europe. For that reason we have the so-called monitoring report. This is a very important instrument. It's not an instrument to blame or shame a member state. On the contrary, it's an instrument to assist them, to promote, to be helpful, to encourage. In the beginning, Russia has seen the monitoring reports as a kind of punishment, as criticism. Last time, the Russian delegation voted in favor of this report and it was a very critical report. That's a big change in mentality and approach. The leader of the delegation said to me that the Council of Europe is a school of democracy. It's very important. We underestimate the value of the Council of Europe in this sense. I believe, especially for the future, that having a common structure, a common organization in which all the member states of Europe are represented is of utmost importance.
Carrots, As Well As Sticks For Belarus?
RFE/RL: I'd like to ask about Belarus if I could. Just this week, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has called on the security services to toughen up measures in the run-up to the election and he has accused the West again, including I presume the Council of Europe's members, of interfering in Belarusian internal affairs. The problem is, whatever you say, whatever the EU says, or whatever the United States says, Lukashenka simply isn't listening.
Van der Linden: I fear that you are right but that doesn't mean that there will be no change. There will come a moment when there will be a change in Belarus. That's for sure. The question is when. We want to support and encourage and speed up the process. And for that we need instruments, we need assistance to NGOs, to democratic forces in the country itself, to people in other member states of the Council of Europe like students and so on. So Lukashenka can strengthen his position by force but that is an indication that he fears that democratic forces will increase their support in the population and I hope sincerely that the outcome of this election will be a clear indication that there is some movement in Belarusian society.
RFE/RL: The EU recently started to broadcast to Belarus. The question is why didn't it do so earlier and is this enough? And what can the EU or the Council of Europe do to encourage, protect, and make the independent media in Belarus thrive?
Van der Linden: The Council of Europe has no financial means to do this. It's a pity. We have a very thin budget. The Parliamentary Assembly has 15 million euros ($17.9 million) for the whole assembly of the Council of Europe. So we are doing a tremendous job with the very small means that we have. And we do this by contacts, by organizing assistance programs, by supporting human rights fighters. The European Union has now decided to broadcast from outside Belarus. It's a good initiative and I believe sincerely that it is a way to make people aware that things are going in a different way outside Belarus than is indicated inside Belarus.
RFE/RL: It strikes me that most of the way we deal with Belarus is through waving a stick. Is there any way the Council of Europe and others can offer carrots to the government of Belarus as well as a stick?
Van der Linden: Yes, when I was in New York at the speakers' conference, I invited the speaker of the Belarusian parliament for a meeting and we had an open meeting. I criticized also the way they have cut the media. And the second example is I invited, as I mentioned, the speaker of the Belarusian parliament to address the Council of Europe. I had the impression that he was surprised he got this invitation but it is my conviction that we must be impartial and we must be open. Everyone has to defend his own position and he has done this in the [Parliamentary] Assembly of the Council of Europe. There was a lot of criticism, a lot of tough reactions, but it was, to my mind, very important that he came.... I was very happy that both parts, the speaker of the parliament and the opposition leader were at the same moment at the parliamentary assembly and took the floor, each for 10 minutes. Afterwards, I offered lunch. I invited the speaker of parliament. He sat next to me and we had an open discussion. I said to him that he had to be aware that if there are no real free media, no freedom of expression, and if political opponents are punished then, yourself, you risk to be in prison in three years and I don't like to visit you in three years, as a kind of joke. So, this kind of discussion makes is easier to discuss also other things.
Frozen Conflict And Russia's Responsibilities
RFE/RL: You were talking a moment ago about the positive role that Russia can play in relations with Belarus, but you must also be disturbed by the role Russia is playing in its relations at the moment with Georgia. Is it acceptable, do you think, for one member of the Council of Europe to behave in this way towards another member of the Council of Europe?
Van der Linden: No. I regret very much that these kinds of tensions increase. It's also necessary that the conflicts, the so-called frozen conflicts in Europe, in the Council of Europe territory have to be solved by peaceful means, that we have to play a role in this by parliamentary diplomacy. For members of parliament it is much easier to try to find solutions because we are much more flexible. We are not bound by government positions. We have shown in the past that we can play an important role in creating conditions for peaceful solutions -- not for the solution itself, we have no force and no financial means. But in creating the climate, in creating the conditions to solve problems we can play a positive role. And I sincerely hope that Russia is able during its presidency to play a positive role in showing the international community that it is able to de-freeze frozen conflicts.
RFE/RL: I don't want to press you to say anything undiplomatic but let me ask you again: Do you think it is acceptable for one member state of the Council of Europe to behave towards another member state of the Council of Europe in the way that Russia is at the moment?
Van der Linden: I said that I regret it very much and with this expression it is clear that I don't like to see these kinds of measures between two members of the same organization.
Russia And Chechnya
RFE/RL: At the last session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January in Strasbourg, the council was very critical of Russia's human rights' record in Chechnya. At the moment, [High Commissioner for Human Rights] Louise Arbour from the United Nations is also in the North Caucasus and expressing great concern about the conditions of refugees there. Has Russia in the intervening period since the last session of the parliamentary assembly done anything to suggest to you that it wants to correct its record on human rights on Chechnya?
Van der Linden: Chechnya has become fairly complicated. It's much more complicated today than it was at the beginning. Of course, violations committed by the Russians or by the Chechen rebels are not acceptable, are condemned and, as you know, we, the assembly of the Council of Europe, were the only ones who were on the spot -- reports, debates, resolutions, a human rights commissioner, a special envoy in Chechnya, and we are doing what we can. But I must confess that the situation in Chechnya when it started, Russia was much more to blame than today and I believe that. I hope that we can find a common way to come out of this very unlikely situation. If you look at the situation today, I am not optimistic for the short-term. I wouldn't blame Russia in the same way as I did at that time, because we are confronted with terrorism, we are confronted with fundamentalism.
"Chechnya...is much more complicated today than it was at the beginning."
RFE/RL: One could very easily argue of course that if you treat people badly, if you abuse people's human rights, they turn to terrorism.
Van der Linden: This is right. I said once, publicly, years ago, in one of the suburbs of one of the South American states where I was at the time -- without any perspective, no water, no food, less food, that I would become perhaps a freedom fighter. So you are right that conditions create people and one of the most important things of human rights is to live in dignity. And if you cannot live in dignity then the most important human right is violated. So, if you look to the causes of violence, then we have to do still a tremendous job as the prosperous part of the world. We are blamed, I am sure we are blamed...that we are not doing enough to give other people perspective. And if they have no perspective, it is sure that they will come to the prosperous part of the world. When I was born in a country without any perspective, in the poorest circumstances, I would do probably the same. In my view, it's an obligation and a responsibility of all of us to be aware that the causes of violence, that the causes of migrations have to be put away. Nobody leaves his own roots for his own fun. Everyone wants to live in his own region, where his or her roots are. For that reason, it's much better to invest in people's future in their own country, in their own surroundings than to give them social security assistance in our countries.
'A CENTRAL-ASIAN LEVEL OF PRESS FREEDOM':
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls the current conditions for journalists in Belarus "frightening."
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator ALEX LUPIS, who had just returned from a trip to Belarus, told an RFE/RL briefing on 15 February that he found conditions that make it almost impossible for journalists to report independently on the campaign leading to the country's 19 March presidential election.
Lupis said the Belarusian government is "criminalizing" independent journalism, and forcing journalists to leave the country, change professions or join the state-controlled media. There is a "Cold War atmosphere" in Belarus, Lupis said, adding that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka makes up the rules of the game. The Internet, he said, is the "last free outlet" where independent journalists can publish, but Russia and Belarus are updating their media laws in order to restrict Internet usage. Numerous journalists with whom Lupis spoke said that they miss the support they used to receive from nongovernmental organizations such as IREX and Internews, which were once active in Belarus.
Lupis believes that the government in Belarus bans independent journalism because it fundamentally "mistrusts its own people."
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media
See these RFE/RL stories on the media in Belarus:
Independent Newspaper Struggles Against State Interference
EU-Funded Media Broadcasts To Start Before March Elections
Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote
Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.
Click on the image to view RFE/RL's coverage of the election campaign in Belarusian and to listen to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.