Strasbourg, 28 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The debate about Belarus in the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg yesterday covered ground that appeared familiar for most deputies present.
Atzo Nicolai, the Dutch minister for European affairs, and Guenter Verheugen, the bloc's commissioner in charge of policy toward new neighbors, reiterated earlier condemnations of recent parliamentary elections in Belarus.
They also condemned the simultaneous referendum that cleared President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to run for a third term. They sharply criticized the subsequent crackdown on the opposition by Belarusian authorities.
However, both Nicolai and Verheugen admitted there is very little the EU can do to influence events in Belarus.
Nicolai appeared to reject calls for sanctions. He said the EU has already tried visa bans on top officials, although to limited effect.
"The only area that is still left is the economy and trade," Nicolai said. "Such policy would clearly also hit the population as such and would further isolate Belarus. Lukashenka would argue that the population is worse off as a result of EU action, not his own policy. And furthermore, the ordinary citizen will be hit worst. So, it is, I'm afraid, a double-edged sword. We have to be very careful when considering such steps."
The key element in the EU's Belarus policy remains the offer of a stake in the European Neighborhood Policy.
Attempting to tackle head-on the question of how the EU could influence developments in Belarus, Verheugen was forced to note that the two main avenues -- assistance and increased contacts with civil society -- have not gone far.
He said the delivery of assistance is "far from easy." The Belarusian government taxes aid and forces aid organizations to register. This latter measure allows it to selectively reject offers of assistance.
Verheugen raised the prospect of a possible EU revocation of existing trade preferences if Belarus continues suppressing trade-union activities.
He said contacts with civil society are also important, but noted they increasingly have to take place outside of the country itself.
During the debate, many deputies -- the majority of them Polish and Lithuanian -- criticized Russia's permissive attitude toward Lukashenka.
Nicolai said he agrees Russia could do a lot more.
"We also have to work together with Russia, it seems to be the only country to have some influence over Belarus," Nicolai said. "We therefore also raised the situation in Belarus at the ministerial [meeting] with [Russian Foreign] Minister [Sergei] Lavrov last week [in Luxembourg]. Whilst the Russian government shares our concern about the situation, we unfortunately disagree about the way forward. The Russians do not want to maintain the strict policy that the EU is implementing. And that I truly regret."
Nicolai said Russia believes international engagement with Belarus is the best way forward.
Under current circumstances, the key element in the EU's Belarus policy remains the offer of a stake in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The EU will shortly release action plans for Ukraine and Moldova, among others.
Belarus, however, is caught in a vicious circle. Verheugen yesterday offered a restatement of what amounts to long-term EU strategy for Belarus: in order to benefit from vastly increased EU aid, Belarus must embrace democratization. He did not elaborate how that could be brought about.
"The European Union is ready to reinforce its lasting commitment to support democratic development in Belarus," Verheugen said. "If and when fundamental political and economic reforms take place, it will be possible for Belarus to be fully involved in the European Neighborhood Policy with all the benefits that would bring. Under the current conditions, however, there can be no full-fledged ENP action plan for Belarus."
Meanwhile, deputies at the European Parliament suggested the EU could increase its funding to nongovernmental organizations in Belarus, drop its visa requirement on Belarusian citizens, fund scholarships for Belarusian students, and set up and finance radio and television stations broadcasting to the country.
None of the suggestions was directly addressed by either Nicolai or Verheugen.