PRAGUE, 23 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- EU politicians have once again expressed their support for Belarus's struggling democratic opposition, at a conference in Prague organized by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
The conference comes at a time when relations between the Czech Republic and Belarus are showing very visible signs of strain.
The host of conference, Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, said Belarusian officials had not replied to an invitation.
However, Svoboda said he believed that Minsk's anger at Czech support for the pro-democracy movement -- including its decision to host the conference -- was clearly apparent in current attacks by the Belarusian media.
"There is a very strong campaign against the Czech Republic taking place in Minsk," Svoboda said. "On regular Sunday [TV] programs and in press releases, these attacks are taking place against the Czech Republic. Our diplomats are being blamed for interfering in the internal affairs of the country."
The Belarusian regime has accused the Czech embassy in Minsk of subversive activities and spreading antigovernment material in the country.
Svoboda said the alleged propaganda material was in fact a UN resolution on human rights in Belarus.
An End To Isolation
The president of the Parliamentary Assembly, Rene Van der Linden, called on Europe to become more involved in helping the Belarusian opposition parties and NGOs.
"For me, it is clear that a policy of isolation doesn't work," he said, calling it a "dead path."
Instead, he argued, "we have to work together with all international organizations, like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE ), on a new strategy of how to support civil society, citizens, and democratic forces" in Belarus.
Der Linden's comments came on a day when the European Commission announced that a new EU-financed TV and radio broadcasting program for Belarus would go live on 26 February. The radio broadcasts are due to start from Lithuania and Poland, two countries that border Belarus.
This is part of a wider program to support development of the Internet, as well as to help train Belarusian journalists.
The signs of solidarity and the recognition of Belarus as a European nation that belongs to "the European cultural space" were welcomed by Vincuk Viacorka, the chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front Party. "What is happening now in my country is absolutely incompatible with European values," he said. "We need strong solidarity messages from our European neighbors and brothers."
The Belarusian Popular Front Party has thrown its support behind the opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich in upcoming presidential elections to be held on 19 March.
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is expected to win a third term in office.
The election campaign has been heavily criticized by EU officials, who have already dismissed the possibility of a fair election.
Linden expressed the hope that the elections would at least provide some encouragement for Belarusians who want change.
Belarus Election Preview
A protester in Vitsebsk calls for a boycott of the 19 March vote (RFE/RL)
ALL EYES ON BELARUS: No matter the outcome, the presidential election to be held on 19 March is an important event for the future of Belarus, according to three experts on the country who spoke at an RFE/RL briefing in Washington, D.C., on 14 February.
ROBIN SHEPHERD, adjunct fellow with the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that civil society has been seriously weakened in Belarus as a result of the current regime's self-isolating and corrupt policies. Shepherd believes incumbent Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has decided he needs a democratic election to legitimize his regime. Shepherd cautioned that opinion polls be read accurately when evaluating the election results when they become available. For example, he predicted that the true level of support for Lukashenka will probably be from 10 to 12 percentage points less than the actual reported vote count, because of a "fear factor" within the Belarusian electorate -- that some voters will fear that Lukashenka can determine how a person voted. Shepherd said he cannot predict the outcome of the election, but does believe the opposition could win a fair vote in Minsk.
JAN MAKSYMIUK, RFE/RL's Belarus and Ukraine regional analyst, noted several differences between Belarus on the eve of its presidential election and Ukraine just prior to its "Orange Revolution" in December 2004. He said that, in Ukraine, no incumbent was running for president, putting both candidates on a more equal footing. Unlike Ukraine, the opposition is not represented in the Belarus parliament or in local governments, Maksymiuk said. The primary opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, will not receive any positive media coverage due to state control of the Belarusian media, Maksymiuk said, and the relative economic prosperity of Belarus is another contributing factor to Lukashenka's likely re-election.
ALEXANDER LUKASHUK, RFE/RL Belarusian Service director, emphasized the government's control of the media in Belarus, saying that the Belarusian people are being deprived of both information and public discussion about election issues.