Long Road to Belarus
Van der Linden's three-day trip was reportedly a year in the planning.
The Dutch legislator told RFE/RL that he consulted with many people before he decided to go, including Belarusian NGO groups, opposition leaders, Russian officials, and EU representatives.
He said Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the leader of Belarus's united opposition forces, told him it was "undoubtedly important" that Van der Linden make the trip.
Van der Linden said the lack of contact between the 46 member-states of the Council of Europe and Belarusian civil society, opposition, and government leaders has increased the country's isolation, and pushed it away from Europe. With his visit, he said, he hopes to begin to change that
"The Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly is able to build bridges, even if the bridges are quite small in the beginning," van der Linden said. "And that's our role. And I see the role of the Council of Europe in this way, and that's the reason I [am going] to Belarus."
In Belarus, he will meet with students, NGOs, members of the opposition, leaders of government, and civil society, and the heads of the country's Orthodox and Catholic churches.
Van der Linden's visit carries significant symbolic weight because Belarus is currently at a crossroads over its future.
Earlier this month, President Lukashenka faced off with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, over a steep price increase in the cost of Russian natural-gas and crude-oil supplies. The energy dispute quickly spiraled into a crisis that briefly disrupted Russian oil deliveries traveling to Europe via Belarus.
While Russia defended the cost increase as simply a transition to market prices, Lukashenka saw the move very differently and imposed his own punitive oil-pipeline transit fees on Moscow. The two leaders signed an agreement resolving their differences last week.
But the crisis pointed to a critical shift in the two countries' relations.
Opportunity For Engagement?
With the traditionally close ties between the former Soviet republic and Russia unraveling, there may now be an opportunity for Europe to wield more influence on Belarus.
On that possibility, van der Linden said, "I am happy to see that there are more institutions and countries and political parties in Europe who are trying to find a way to reopen discussions and to find a way for positive steps in Belarus. So my visit to Belarus is [at] the right moment, hopefully."
PACE isn't the only European institution seeking to engage with Belarus.
On January 16, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development announced that it has changed its policy toward Belarus and from now on will increase its involvement in the private sector, with an eye toward speeding up progress.
In talks with the EU's external-relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, van der Linden said he sensed a change in the EU's attitude toward Belarus. The European Parliament, he added, is also looking for "positive" ways to influence the country's course.
Belarus has a long way to go. It was recently ranked at the bottom of the 2007 Index of Economic Freedom, an annual rating put out by "The Wall Street Journal" newspaper and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group in Washington, D.C.
And in terms of Belarus's status with the Council of Europe, van der Linden's trip won't mean very much.
He said the potential renewal of Belarus's "special guest" status in the Council of Europe is not on his trip's agenda, because it is "too early." But he added that he hopes the issue can be revisited.
"I hope sincerely that the developments in Belarus in the future, in the near future, will give reason to reopen this discussion but at this moment we don't have real arguments to discuss this special guest status of Belarus," van der Linden said.
The Council of Europe began granting certain countries in Eastern and Central Europe "special guest" status on the council in 1989 as a way to facilitate their accession into the group.
The Issue Of Energy Security
On the subject of energy security, van der Linden said the council has a role to play, but a limited one. He said the recent standoff between Belarus and Russia over the price of natural gas and oil damaged Russia's reputation as a reliable partner on energy issues.
He also said that Russia's relationship with the European Union is one of the most crucial factors in the future of a peaceful, prosperous Europe.
"Here, the Council of Europe plays an utmost important role and we can play this role because Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, they are part of the discussion and if there was a discussion between the European Union and Russia, it's different -- because Russia is not a member, and will not become a member, of the European Union," van der Linden said. "So the European Union can make use of our experience and of the fact that Russia is a part of the European family in the Council of Europe."
As a member of PACE, he said Russia can help Belarus.
"To my mind, Russia must and has to play an important role when it comes to the relationship with Belarus," van der Linden said. "It's hardly possible to solve frozen conflicts without the cooperation of Russia. It's hardly possible to push forward, also, Belarus, without the support of Russia."
That's something van der Linden knows only too well. His trip was facilitated by Russian officials, who helped him obtain the necessary visa.
RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report
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