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Belarus: In Minsk, PACE President Calls For Democratic Change

Van der Linden discusses his trip during a press conference in Minsk ( MINSK, January 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The highest-ranking European diplomat to visit Belarus in years called today for democratic change and the release of political prisoners during a speech at Belarusian State University.

Rene van der Linden, the president of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), also met with government officials, opposition leaders, and the wife of a political prisoner in the course of a two-day trip that concluded today.

The top government official to meet with van der Linden was parliament speaker Vladimir Konoplyov.

Open To Discussion

But the PACE president did not rule out a potential future visit with the country's authoritarian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"This first visit is a visit between the speaker of parliament and the president of the Parliamentary Assembly, on the parliamentary level," van der Linden said. "I don't exclude, if we see real positive steps, that next time there will also be a meeting with the president."

Van der Linden was speaking today at a press conference in the Belarusian capital. He also called for an international fact-finding mission into what opposition leaders say is the country’s growing ranks of political prisoners.
"I don't exclude, if we see real positive steps, that next time there will also be a meeting with the president." -- van der Linden

"Even if there is a dispute whether there are political prisoners or not, let's ask international experts and accept the outcome of this fact-finding mission by experts," van der Linden said.

During his visit, van der Linden met with government officials, NGO representatives, students, and opposition leaders.

After meeting with the PACE president, the country’s main opposition leader, Alyaksandr Millinkevich, said he hoped the Dutch official’s visit would spur reforms.

Milinkevich said his decision to come to Belarus represented “a last chance” for Lukashenka’s iron-fisted regime to forge ties with Europe.

“Once again, a hand has been extended to the Belarusian authorities," he said. "They weren't even required to take the first step of improving the situation with democratic institutions. [The European officials] just came. The authorities will not get a better gift than this. Now they must make reforms, political and economic."

But the opposition leader added that he was skeptical, because previous European offers have amounted to nothing. Yet, “hope springs eternal,” he said.

Long-Isolated Belarus

Belarus has long been suspended from the Council of Europe, and Lukashenka has been isolated by the West for crushing human rights, suppressing independent media, and rigging elections.

Anatol Krasutski, a parliament deputy, told RFE/RL that the Council of Europe should reconsider its decision to expel Belarus.

"This is not only a question of Belarus's need to take steps [toward Europe]," Krasutski said. "Logical steps should also be taken by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which -- as early as 2003 and for no special reason -- unilaterally shut the door, in practice, to the Belarusian parliament."

On his arrival at the Minsk airport on January 18, local news agencies quoted van der Linden as saying that he hoped Belarusian officials “understand isolation is not a way to the future” and that a dialogue could begin during his visit.

Local officials signaled their own position. Parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konoplyov said during his meeting with van der Linden that politicians would “consider various questions” but also “defend our point of view."
"The authorities will not get a better gift than this. Now they must make reforms, political and economic." -- opposition leader Milinkevich

Anatol Lyabedzka, the chairman of the opposition United Civic Party, told RFE/RL after his meeting with the PACE official that his visit has already produced modest opportunities for dialogue between the European community and Belarusian authorities, as well as between the authorities and the opposition.

"This visit may already be meaningful, in that the Europeans may realize once again that their expectations regarding the Belarusian regime are excessive," Lyabedzka said. "We [in the opposition] cannot say no to efforts to promote new dialogue. We're interested to see whether the government will change the strategy they've been following for the past 12 years. I'm not convinced that Lukashenka is even psychologically ready for this, but every little bit helps."

Just last week, Belarus and Russia ended a bitter row over energy prices and taxes that saw Russia halting oil supplies for several days in a key export pipeline. Relations between the two traditional allies have significantly cooled, and observers are asking whether this is a window of opportunity for Europe to try and bring Belarus closer to the West.

While in the country, van der Linden also met with the wife of jailed opposition political figure Alyaksandr Kazulin, currently serving a 5 1/2-year sentence for organizing protest rallies following Lukashenka’s victory last March in what the West called a rigged election.

(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

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