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Belarus: OSCE Reaches Agreement With Minsk On Return Of Mission

  • Jeremy Bransten

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has reached an agreement with Belarus that will allow OSCE monitors back into the country. The deal apparently puts an end to months of official enmity between the two sides. The OSCE closed its previous mission in Minsk last October, after Belarus refused to renew visas for the organization's diplomats.

Prague, 2 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After a three-month forced absence, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is due to reopen its offices in Minsk following an agreement struck on 30 December with the Belarusian authorities.

OSCE spokesman Richard Murphy, speaking at the Vienna headquarters of the 55-member group, explained the goal of the new mission. "The new office will assist the Belarusian government in further promoting institution building, in further consolidating the rule of law, and in developing relations with civil society in accordance with OSCE principles and commitments. That's the first part. Secondly, it will assist the Belarusian government in its efforts in developing economic and environmental activities. And thirdly, it will monitor and report accurately on the above-mentioned objectives," Murphy said.

The agreement can be seen as a diplomatic victory for Portugal, which chaired the OSCE until the end of last year and which had worked hard to keep lines of communication open with the administration of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Already strained relations between the OSCE and Lukashenka were exacerbated by the organization's declining to certify September 2001 presidential elections, calling the poll undemocratic. The atmosphere steadily worsened through 2002. Belarusian authorities refused to renew the visas of OSCE diplomats at the Minsk mission, leading to the expulsion of the last OSCE staffer in October 2002. Lukashenka accused the OSCE of actively plotting with opposition groups to destabilize his government.

It was at this point that the European Union and the United States imposed a travel ban on Lukashenka and senior cabinet members.

But even after this nadir in relations, Portugal refused to join the ban, and the country's diplomats continued to work behind the scenes to encourage the Belarusian authorities to soften their stance.

Now that work appears to have paid off. While some Belarusian opposition and civil-society representatives have in the past accused the West of doing too little to press Lukashenka on democratization, those contacted by RFE/RL in Minsk welcomed the OSCE's impending return.

Mechyslau Hryb, an opposition politician and former head of the country's Supreme Soviet before its dissolution by Lukashenka, had this to say to RFE/RL when contacted by telephone in Minsk: "I think it's a good thing. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the agreement itself. It hasn't been published in our media. But the return of the OSCE to Minsk is a good thing. Subjectively, I can tell you that any separation from the West for Belarus is bad. It's also bad for the opposition. It's bad for everyone. Every iron curtain, no matter what form it takes -- even a wooden or fabric curtain -- is simply not good."

Tatsyana Protska, head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, which focuses on the promotion of human rights, agreed. "We have always thought that the mission's work in Belarus, that is, the work of the consultative observer group in Belarus, was an asset for the development of democracy, because the group's mandate gives it an opportunity not only to check on what is happening here but also to offer consultations. They have the opportunity not just to see the bad and the good but to offer us the world's experience in the area of developing legislation, democracy, and human rights," Protska said.

Protska said that this time around, she would like the OSCE office to work closely with state employees, not just the NGO sector, so that they can also gain insights into how democratic institutions ought to work. "Of course, we would like the group to be more active. We would like it to have more projects, which would be undertaken both with civil-society organizations and with state bodies. We would like to see more work with government employees, to help overcome the barrier that exists today between the state and civil society. We would like to see joint seminars where various issues of how to encourage democracy would be discussed. We would like to see joint fact-finding trips to visit institutions [abroad], because Belarus has been isolated for quite a long time now and many new government employees know very little about the experience that has been accumulated abroad," Protska said.

Protska does not share the view that having been kicked out once, the OSCE should stay out of Belarus, lest it somehow "legitimize" the Lukashenka administration. Lukashenka is a reality, she said, and however unhappy democracy activists may be with him, it is better for the OSCE to try to work with his administration than to shut him out. "This talk of 'legitimization' surprises me greatly. The regime exists, and it will continue to exist for at least another five years. And if it is isolated, it will only get stronger -- do you understand? What does 'legitimizing' mean? It's a very one-sided definition. It's another matter that this regime does not yet meet the standards of developed democracies. Naturally, it cannot be equal to these democracies, and in this aspect it is not legitimate, in the sense that it is not the equal of other countries where governments are picked in accordance with global standards," Protska said.

Protska believes the dire state of Belarus's economy means the government will be forced to open itself more to the West. And she said the OSCE's pro-democracy work goes hand in hand with economic liberalization. "These things don't exist independently of each other. The work of the OSCE group is going to influence economic restructuring, most of all on the introduction of the institution of private property. And without this base there can be no democracy. Private property creates democracy. It is a necessary precondition for democracy. Today's command economy, as it currently exists in Belarus, does not need democracy," Protska said.

Whatever happens, the OSCE's representatives in Minsk will need all their diplomatic skills as they undertake their new mission. As Hryb put it: "Their situation is difficult in that they have to maneuver between two poles. It's always a hard place to be. But I think the OSCE's return is a good step, and I think it will be useful for Belarus and the establishment of democracy."

In a country that has grown used to pessimistic forecasts, it's a refreshing start to the new year.