Brussels, 10 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission has sought to put to rest accusations that the EU is unwilling to take tough action against the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus.
Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said on 10 January that the ground-breaking 2 million-euro ($2.4 million) project to start independent media broadcasts to Belarus is on track. She said television and radio broadcasts will begin before the presidential elections, which were recently brought forward to 19 March.
"There will be specific TV and radio programs dedicated to the elections broadcast ahead of the election date," she said.
Polish media last week suggested the delay in the tender would prevent broadcasts from beginning in time for the elections. But Udwin said the contracts will be awarded according to who is able to guarantee preelection broadcasts. She added, however, that the broadcasts would not likely reach full strength until some time after the elections.
Udwin said the commission has whittled down the number of candidates to a shortlist of four, and that a final decision will be made within weeks.
"I can confirm it is definitely the case that there will be a decision on the successful candidate for the new contracting for broadcasting into Belarus in January," she said. "That will happen within the month of January -- so we're just a week or two away from that now."
The EU last year advertised for companies interested and able to conduct both television and radio broadcasts into Belarus. It said it was also looking for companies open to future expansion into other media like the Internet.
Udwin said the EU shortlist includes four consortiums, each made up of two companies. The teams include one with two Polish partners, a Russian and German partnership, one made up of two Latvian companies, and a Lithuanian and Belarusian combination.
The EU had set a turnover threshold, forcing smaller interested companies in neighboring Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia to seek other partners.
Under the terms of the tender, the broadcasts will take place in Russian and Belarusian. The commission has argued that Russian-language coverage has a greater chance of being understood in Belarus, and could also attract interest in neighboring regions in Ukraine and Russia.
Last year, the EU awarded a smaller, pilot contract to broadcast to Belarus to the German international news organization Deutsche Welle. The broadcasts started on 1 November and will initially run for 12 months.
On December 8, 2005, RFE/RL and the Policy Association for an Open Society (PASOS) jointly conducted a roundtable discussion on issues relating to Belarus's post-Soviet transition. To view video of the roundtable, click here.