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Belarus: Opposition Wants More Focused Support From The EU

Opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich (epa) Although resigned to losing the presidential elections on 19 March, the Belarusian opposition is seeking more focused EU help. Two Belarusian opposition representatives told a meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels today that the EU should make aid funds directly available to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's challengers. They also warned that after Lukashenka's highly likely win, the EU must beware conferring any legitimacy on him.

BRUSSELS, 24 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU is a welcome source of support for the Belarusian opposition, but one that is too often sluggish, unwieldy, and ill-informed.

This was the gist of the addresses of two Belarusian opposition figures during a small meeting at the European Parliament today.

"We do our best but definitely we lack resources and support right now in order to print materials, to distribute materials."

Jaroslav Romanchuk, a vice-chairman of the United Civic Party and a member of the opposition Coalition Five-Plus (5+), said the opposition expects from the EU clear messages of support and a quick injection of funds.

The messages will be delivered to a high-level Belarusian opposition delegation that will visit Brussels on 30 January.

A Shortage Of Time And Money

Romanchuk said the money is needed to allow the opposition to make the best of the less than two months of campaigning left: "We distribute leaflets, information materials, papers, special issues. We do our best but definitely we lack resources and support right now in order to print materials, to distribute materials -- and this is, essentially, the fundamental issue of the European support at this particular moment."

Romanchuk said the opposition wants to tell "millions" of Belarusians about alternatives to Lukashenka's regime. Its joint candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, however, is prevented from campaigning until his candidacy is formally approved.

Romanchuk said that after Lukashenka last week asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send observers, the EU must be careful not to legitimize Lukashenka. He indicated the Belarusian opposition believes the elections will be fixed and Lukashenka will subsequently win a landslide victory.

Hence, Romanchuk said, the EU must look beyond the routine monitoring of the polls. "I would recommend and I would ask you [that is, the EU countries] to send as many people -- even without observer status because that's not about the observation per se but the support of the people who would act after the day of the elections," Romanchuk said. "Primarily, people should come one, two days before the elections and then will stay for another two days because I think the main event would be on 20 March. Then will be like the clash of forces, and that will be kind of the reality of this political campaign."

Calls For Quick EU Response

He said that to know the world remains informed would "boost the morale" of the people preparing to protest against the results.

Romanchuk and Leonid Zaiko, an independent economist who attended the meeting, warned that the EU must be prepared to respond to developments quickly after the elections.

Both said Lukashenka appears to be preparing ground for a possible falling out with Russia. Zaiko said Lukashenka's unwillingness to hand over Belarusian gas infrastructure to Russia may provoke reprisals.

Romanchuk said Lukashenka could then try to portray himself as the champion of Belarusian independence and appeal for Western support. He said the EU would then face tough choices.

Zaiko said the Belarusian economy is increasingly turning away from Russia toward the EU. "It's an unusual situation. Because you could imagine that for the real political [choice] of Lukashenka, Russia is the strategic partner for the policy of the Belarusian leader," Zaiko said. "[He] is oriented to strengthening the contacts with Russia, but in [reality] the economic objectives show that [this] is the time of the increasing of economic contacts with the European Union, and decreasing [of those] with Russia."

But Zaiko said that Belarus remains extremely dependent on Russian oil, gas, and other raw materials.

Both Romanchuk and Zaiko warned that Belarusian civil society will face a crisis after Lukashenka's expected victory, with increasing numbers of young and entrepreneurial people leaving the country.

Romanchuk said that in such a situation, the EU must give up its current policy of seeking contact with individuals in the civil society and avoiding direct contact with the opposition. This, he said, is a "bad trade-off," allowing Minsk to selectively ban organizations it considers dangerous.

He said the EU must also find ways of directly funding opposition groups and Western organizations working with them. So far, all EU aid money needs to be approved by the government in Minsk.

Romanchuk said the EU's recent support for outside media broadcasts is "important," but has very little impact. He said Deutsche Welle, which began EU-funded broadcasts last autumn in Russian, reaches a very limited audience.

"As for Deutsche Welle, the controversy is not in the language, of course, of broadcasting, when we design programs for Belarus, we should really know what's going on there, what people know, how they get information," Romanchuk said. "I think that even in the expert community, [the proportion of] people who know [how] Deutsche Welle can be heard is like 1 percent. So, [for] the general public if you want to send a message to Belarusians about the situation in the European Union, the situation in their own country, Deutsche Welle probably is the least feasible and the least useful means."

Romanchuk said that to promote Deutsche Welle would take a lot of time and money. Instead, he said, the EU should seek to coordinate its media programs with Radio Liberty, which he said remains by far the most popular independent radio station in Belarus.

Video Roundtable On Belarus/Ukraine

Video Roundtable On Belarus/Ukraine

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.

See also:

Belarus: Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote

Can Belarus's Opposition Unite To Challenge Lukashenka?

Belarus: The Slow-Boiling Dictatorship