PRAGUE, 26 January 2006 -- The call came in a resolution adopted today by PACE after parliamentarians discussed the human rights situation in Belarus ahead of the elections.
PACE stressed the need to more actively support the "consolidation of the democratic opposition."
Representing that group was Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition candidate in the March presidential vote.
Paralysis By Fear
Milinkevich told the assembly that "there is no democracy" in Belarus, and that Belarusian society is "paralyzed by fear."
"Can the election be free in a situation where criticism of the authorities is considered to be an attack against the state? And, since January this year, it is considered a criminal act," Milinkevich noted. "Can [the election] be free in a country where independent radio and television do not exist?"
Milinkevich has already cleared the first hurdle toward registering as a presidential candidate by collecting more than 100,000 signatures of support.
He is unlikely to beat the incumbent, Lukashenka, who last year organized a controversial referendum giving him the right to run for an unprecedented third term.
But Milinkevich told AP that Belarusians were ready to take to the streets if the March vote appears to be rigged.
Not so, according to Uladimir Kanaplyou, the speaker of the Chamber of Representatives, the lower house of the Belarusian parliament. He told the assembly the people "simply will not support" a revolution of any kind in Belarus.
Kanaplyou also lashed out at the gathered officials for their critical stance toward Belarus and Lukashenka.
"We cannot understand -- or probably, we can understand -- why you are attacking the Belarusian Republic," Kanaplyou said. "The situation in our country is no worse than in other regions -- it may even be better. Maybe it's because we're not getting down on our knees before the [United] States? And what if we do get on our knees, what would Europe gain in such a case?"
PACE remained unmoved by the argument. It called on other international organizations -- including the European Union and the OSCE -- to come up with joint strategies to assist the democratization processes in Belarus.
One such strategy took a step forward today, with the European Commission announcing its decision to award 2 million euros ($2.45 million) to a German-led consortium to begin independent media broadcasts into Belarus ahead of the elections.
Belarus is the only European country that is not a member of the Council of Europe, the body that acts as the primary guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The country has been barred from membership because of its failure to observe rule of law and its poor record on human rights.
Authorities this year enacted a law criminalizing behavior deemed critical of the state. And observers claim the Lukashenka regime continues the practice of "disappearing" journalists, activists, and other critics it finds politically inconvenient.
Christos Pourgourides, a rapporteur of the Council of Europe's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, today called on Belarusians to provide information about such "disappearance" cases.
"I take this opportunity to strongly urge all the Belarusians who have evidence or information concerning the disappearances [of people] to make it available to me or to the secretariat of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee," Pourgourides said. "We need to safely store this evidence and keep it for the appropriate time. Lukashenka is bound to follow the path of the dictators in many other countries."
Lukashenka was not without his supporters in the audience. Outspoken Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky told the assembly he would support Belarus and its president "regardless."