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Belarus: EU Officials Meet Opposition Leaders

Brussels, 26 May 2004 (RFE/RL)-- Seven Belarusian opposition leaders, representing five different organizations, were in Brussels today at the invitation of the European Union.

They met the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who is also in charge of the EU's European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).

Verheugen's spokesman, Jean-Christophe Filori, said after the meetings that the EU has frozen ties with Belarus and can do little as long as the country's president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, maintains his authoritarian regime. "Mr. Verheugen did not promise anything. He explained how our 'new neighborhood' program works, as he did a few weeks ago [when he presented it to reporters in Brussels]. I would like to repeat once more that relations [between the EU and] Belarus are limited to contacts with civil society, which we encourage to respond in the spirit of democracy, and in a spirit conducive to respect of human rights," Filori said.

Belarus is part of the new neighborhood program, the ENP, but cannot benefit from it until it subscribes to democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Other countries in the region, such as Ukraine and Moldova, will this summer receive detailed action plans for greater integration with the EU. They can expect to profit from large aid flows. Provided they undertake extensive political and economic reforms, all new neighbors are eventually offered full participation in the EU's single market.
One EU official said the invitation was designed to provide the Belarusian opposition leaders with greater "visibility" both at home and abroad.

Belarusian opposition leaders told reporters today that they fear the EU has consigned their country to "second-class status." However, one EU diplomat present at the talks today told RFE/RL that the seven leaders had adopted an "ambivalent position" when asked whether they support the current exclusion of Belarus from the ENP. The official said the opposition leaders had acknowledged the move puts pressure on Lukashenka.

However, the official said, most of the Belarusian officials had also appeared motivated by "a patriotic feeling" of not wanting to see the status of Belarus diminished even further. This attitude was shared by Valery Frolau of the Respublika movement, who was said by EU sources to have been seen as the unofficial leader of the delegation.

An EU diplomat said the bloc particularly wanted to stress the fact that the leaders were in Brussels at the formal invitation of the EU. The official said the invitation was designed to provide the Belarusian opposition leaders with greater "visibility" both at home and abroad. He said the emphasis is a show of support to them as pro-democracy leaders, not as heads of individual parties

The opposition leaders reportedly said they had asked Solana and Verheugen for greater EU pressure on Lukashenka's regime ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in the autumn. They also said they want the EU to try and enlist Moscow's support in forcing Lukashenka to accept democratic changes. An EU source said Solana had promised both diplomatic pressure on Minsk, as well as to bring up the issue in discussions with Russia.

The chief European Commission spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen, today said the EU will tell Minsk that the elections must be fair and free. "Our position and message ahead of the elections is that we definitely hope and expect that they are fair and free," Kemppinen said, though he did not specify how that could be achieved.

An EU source said Solana had noted the lack of unity which continues to plague the Belarusian opposition.

The opposition leaders promised, on their part, to unite on a common platform. Speaking to reporters, they said the platform would go beyond simple opposition to Lukashenka. One opposition leader said that while Lukashenka is supported by 25 percent of the population, the opposition enjoys the backing of 30 percent, with another 40 percent undecided.