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Belarus: Young People Send Their Love To Europe

A policeman detains a man dressed as a Valentine's heart (RFE/RL) February 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For years, young activists in Belarus have been sending Valentine's cards to Europe. And for years, they've been getting no replies.

Since 1997, opposition-minded young people have gathered in Minsk to show their support for joining the European Union.

In recent weeks, Belarus's president has made a number of comments to the press about increasing ties with Europe. But European officials say such overtures are not enough: they want President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to match his words with political reform.

Street Theater

Their numbers this evening in Minsk were small -- probably several dozen -- but the atmosphere was heavy with symbolism.

An RFE/RL reporter in Minsk says that police detained five activists earlier today and have cordoned off the central Liberty Square, although some activists have broken through.

Barys Haretski, an activist from the group Youth Front that is organizing this year's parade, says the event in Minsk's central Liberty Square will look like a theatrical show.

"Activists will personify the countries of the EU, dressed in the costumes of these countries. They will form a burning circle. They will light these Bengal lights [a signal flare] and at a certain point the person representing Belarus will enter the circle," Haretski says. "At that moment, the circle will turn into a burning heart. After that we plan to parade through the center of town stopping at European embassies."

There, participants of the parade will drop off Valentine's cards.

"We're demanding love, freedom, and change."

Given President Lukashenka's recent comments in the Western press calling for greater dialogue with the EU, Haretski is hopeful.

"The Youth Front does not consider this to be a day of romantic love where people gather to exchange kisses, but a true day of love for our country and love for Europe. We approach this holiday through the prism of love for Belarus and love for Europe and demand love, freedom, change and the inclusion of Belarus in the European community," Haretski said.

Looking West

Last week, the Belarusian government appealed for foreign investors, hoping to attract up to $1 billion to make up for diminishing Russian subsidies.

And on February 13 in Minsk, Lukashenka, receiving the credentials from a group of new foreign ambassadors, spoke of mutually beneficial cooperation with Europe.

Lukashenka has hinted he would like to open up ties with the West (RFE/RL)

But European officials seem unconvinced that such comments reflect a genuine change of heart from a leadership that has long been staunchly anti-Western.

Bogdan Klich, chairman of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus, says he doesn't believe that "behind those political messages there is a real willingness of the authoritarian system to begin the road to democracy."

Recent events in Belarus tend to support Klich's view. On February 4, Belarusian security services broke up a meeting of the Youth Front opposition youth group, detaining many of the activists.

And a week later, police and KGB officers rounded up 26 activists of the Association of Belarusian Students who were meeting at a private house near Minsk.

EU Demands

These types of events will do little to ingratiate Belarus with the European Union.

The EU has made it plain to Minsk -- start to democratize and we will help you. In November 2006, the union outlined what Belarus needed to do to receive Brussels' help.

Despite Lukashenka's recent overtures, the European Commission's external-relations spokeswoman, Emma Udwin, says those requirements still stand.

"The kind of things that we [the European Commission] are looking for are rather concrete. We would like to see the release of Mr. [Alyaksandr] Kazulin and other political figures, for example. That would be a very strong signal," Udwin said.

"Cooperation with the Council of Europe, granting visas to OSCE representatives on freedom of the media, for example, or even actually approving our request to open a [European] Commission delegation in Minsk."

If Belarus did show some progress, Brussels says it would make travel to EU countries easier for Belarusians, increase trade cooperation, and offer Belarusian students scholarships at European universities.

And with further democratic development, Belarus could move closer to the EU through gradual economic integration.

For now, though, the direction of Lukashanka's regime remains unclear. A president who has forged his career on Soviet nostalgia, he has suddenly started sending mixed signals.

While attempting to woo Europe, Lukashenka has said he wishes to continue to be Russia's outpost in the West. And he is also fomenting closer ties with Iran at a time when that country is increasingly at odds with Europe and the United States.

In recent years, activists have been beaten and arrested by police at the Valentine's Day parades.

This year, activists are still meeting, despite the Minsk city authorities banning the march.

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

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