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Belarus: EU Bolsters Support For Opposition Ahead Of Vote

Benita Ferrero-Waldner (file photo) (epa) The European Union has bolstered its support for the Belarusian opposition before the upcoming presidential elections in March. The European Commission today announced the award of a new media contract allowing for independent pre-election broadcasts into the country. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner also confirmed that opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich will meet with EU foreign ministers in Brussels next week.

BRUSSELS, 26 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The last pieces of the EU's strategy for the run-up to the 19 March Belarusian presidential elections fell into place today.

Speaking before the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels today, External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the European Commission has decided to award 2 million euros ($2.45 million) to a German-led consortium to begin independent media broadcasts into Belarus ahead of the elections.

"I'm delighted to announce that the final decision has been taken on the 2 million euro media project for broadcasting into Belarus, and the successful consortium -- led by a German company and including Polish, Lithuanian, European Union, Belarusian, and Russian partners -- will use existing infrastructure and thus guarantees to begin broadcasting next month," Ferrero-Waldner said. "That means, prior to the March elections."

Ferrero-Waldner said that giving "very clear and precise information to the population about what is going on" is a foremost EU concern at this point.

Reaching The People

Last autumn, the German international news organization Deutsche Welle began broadcasting to Belarus in Russian on a much smaller EU budget. The new operation will be larger, involve both radio and TV broadcasts, and feature both the Russian and Belarusian languages.

However, Jaroslav Romanchuk, a Belarusian opposition representative who visited Brussels earlier this week, warned EU parliamentarians that the Deutsche Welle broadcasts reach a minuscule share of the population of the country. He said any new outlet would need extensive and expensive marketing to reach a wide audience.

Ferrero-Waldner today also announced that Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the joint candidate picked by the Belarusian opposition to run against incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, will visit Brussels on 30 January. She said Milinkevich will meet with EU foreign ministers who will also be in Brussels for their monthly gathering. Milinkevich will also have talks with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and Ferrero-Waldner herself.

Ferrero-Waldner said the EU and the United States plan to issue a joint statement on the situation early next month.

The commissioner welcomed the invitation Lukashenka recently extended to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send observers to the March elections.

"Indeed, the elections that will be held now early will not be easy, that is clear. But I must say, at least Lukashenka has now accepted to invite the OSCE ODIHR," Ferrero-Waldner said. "This is at least some positive development knowing, of course, that the overall situation is far from being satisfactory."

Come One, Come All

The Belarusian opposition has indicated it wants as many Western observers as possible to be present for the demonstrations that are expected to follow Lukashenka's near-certain victory.

Ferrero-Waldner today said the European Commission has been thwarted in its long-standing efforts to open a representative office in Minsk. She said Lukashenka has made a positive decision conditional on an overall "normalization" of EU-Belarus relations. That, Ferrero-Waldner said, remains very difficult.

The commissioner also reiterated that Belarus remains eligible for participation in the EU's New Neighborhood Policy, adding, however, that this remains impossible under current conditions.

To become part of the New Neighborhood Policy, Belarus must commit itself to carrying out large-scale political and economic reforms.

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