Brussels, 11 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The European Union has agreed to postpone the public release of a report highly critical of Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the personal request of Lukashenka.
The report was handed over to Lukashenka in Minsk eight days ago by Henry Kosto, a former Dutch minister who earlier had headed a six-member fact-finding mission to Belarus. Led by the EU, the mission also included representatives of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and the Council of Europe.
The mission took place in late January, and an oral report of its findings was made by Kosto to EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels two weeks ago. The Netherlands currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
In telephone interviews today, spokesmen for the Dutch EU Presidency told our correspondent that when the two presidents met on March 3, Lukashenka asked Kosto not to make the report's contents public until he was able to "prepare his domestic constituency" for its strong criticisms. Kosto, with the approval of the Dutch Government, agreed to postpone release of the report for "a period of some days," said spokesman Johan Van der Werff of the Dutch EU Presidency's office in Brussels.
Van der Werff said that Kosto had delivered what he called "quite a strong message" to Lukashenka during their meeting. He said the two men had what he termed a "very frank discussion." Van der Werff also said they had discussed the possibility of releasing within days what he called a "version" of the report that would be acceptable to "Belarus authorities."
Earlier, informed sources at the EU and the Council of Europe told RFE/RL that the report was strongly critical of Lukashenka's November referendum and his subsequent dismissal of the country's democratically elected parliament.
Today, in a telephone interview from the Hague, a high Dutch Foreign Ministry official dealing with Belarus told our correspondent that the report handed over to Lukashenka found the referendum "lacked democratic credibility." The official, Peter Mollema, said that the report specifically noted that Lukashenka's abrupt scheduling of the referendum had not given voters "sufficient time to make a considered decision."
Mollema also said that the report spoke of numerous "irregularities in the counting of (referendum) votes." He added that in general neither the referendum nor Lukashenka's dismissal of the parliament came anywhere meeting Western standards for democratic processes.
But Mollema defended Kosto's recommendation to withhold publication of the report. He said that Kosto had explained to both the Dutch Government and EU foreign ministers that "a further dialogue between the EU and Belarus was necessary, and that it would not be wise to isolate Belarus."
Mollema said that "it is now up to Lukashenka to decide what to do." He noted that the Belarus leader had "not communicated with the EU" since his Minsk meeting with Kosto.
The EU also has to decide on what course it should follow, Mollema said. He suggested the 15-nation group might recommend to Belarus the holding of a new referendum that met democratic criteria as well as a series of additional democratic reforms.
Mollema said that the EU could decide what to do as early as this weekend, when its foreign ministers meet for their semi-annual "informal" meeting in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn. If no decision is taken then, Mollema added, the issue would be placed on the agenda of the next formal EU Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels, scheduled in two weeks' time.
But Mollema also noted that both the Dutch Government and the EU realize that under Lukashenka "Belarus today is looking eastward to Russia" rather to the West for help. Mollema said that had been made quite clear early this month when high EU officials, including Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok and Executive Commission President Jacques Santer, met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow.
Belarus has a trade agreement with the EU, which Mollema described as "important" to the nation's economy. But it has not applied for membership in the Brussels-based organization. Nor, Mollema added, is it expected to do so in the foreseeable future.
Belarus is a member of the 53-state OSCE and, until two months ago, was formally associated with the Council of Europe. Both organizations have strongly criticized Lukashenka's November actions and subsequent behavior, and in January the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly suspended indefinitely Belarus' association with the organization.
Our correspondent notes that high officials in both the OSCE and the 40-nation Council of Europe have in recent days strongly urged their EU counterparts to make the report on Belarus public. He says that it is quite possible that, in the coming days, either the report or its most important passages will be leaked to the press.
Dutch official Mollema told RFE/RL today that if the report is leaked to the press, he would be "happy to confirm" its contents. That remark clearly indicates that Mollema -- and perhaps other high Dutch officials as well -- feel uncomfortable about keeping private, even if only temporarily, what was originally meant to be a public report.