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Belarus: Breakthrough Agreement Reached On Opening Of OSCE Office

Munich, 23 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus has given preliminary permission for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to open an office in Minsk to help Belarus make progress towards democracy. An OSCE spokesman in Vienna today told RFE/RL the agreement was achieved at a meeting Friday between Belarus' Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich and OSCE envoy, Ambassador Ole Bierring.

The spokesman said more discussions would be required to work out the practical details of the OSCE operation, and no date had been fixed for opening the office.

The OSCE spokesman described the preliminary agreement as "something of a breakthrough." He recalled that Belarus used its veto at the OSCE summit in Lisbon last December to prevent the summit document criticising political and human rights abuses in Belarus.

Other officials said OSCE was determined that the Minsk office should have a practical mandate to try to improve the human rights situation and would not be simply a symbolic mission.

OSCE said Antonovich and Bierring "agreed in principle" at their meeting Friday that the OSCE presence in Minsk would take the form of an Advisory-and-Monitoring Office. "The tasks of such an office would be to assist the Belarusian authorities in making progress towards a democratic system of Government and in complying with other OSCE commitments," the OSCE said. The spokesman said the OSCE office would also be tasked with monitoring and reporting on this process.

He said the office would work closely with the Belarus authorities and would cooperate with other international organisations and institutions to achieve its objectives. Officials said that, in practise, the Minsk office would work together with the Council of Europe, which is also concerned about the situation in Belarus, and with OSCE's own specialised departments, particularly the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Copenhagen.

The opening of an office in Minsk was the main recommendation of an OSCE mission, which visited Belarus in April, and later issued a highly critical report on the human rights and political situation there. The report concluded that the Belarus authorities were constructing a system of totalitarian government, and said "there is no effective political structure in Belarus to oppose the descent into totalitarianism."

The report by a Danish expert, Rudolph Thorning-Pertesen, criticised the judicial system, police operations and said freedom of the media and freedom of assembly were very restricted. Thorning-Pertesen said government power was abused to suppress expressions of dissent, discontent and opposition.

In recommending the creation of an OSCE mission in Minsk, the report said the Mission should be given a mandate to "assist the Belarusian authorities in making progress towards democratisation."

In addition, the report recommended the Mission undertake programs that would encourage this progress towards democratisation. As an example, it said the mission could set-up programs, which would foster the long-term development of the press in Belarus, or provide education in human rights.

The report added: "such programs should plainly require that the Belarusian government authorities demonstrate in clear deeds -- not merely in words -- a commitment to democratic processes. This might take the form of establishing a broad political dialogue, visible changes in the pattern followed so far with the press and other media, interpretation of the rules concerning police authority and safeguards for fair judicial procedures."

The report that followied the April OSCE mission also discussed the benefits to Belarus of allowing the presence of an OSCE mission with such a mandate.

"Such a mission would be in the interests of Belarus," the report said. "It would, for the present, adequately counter the danger of Belarus' isolation from international society, and would reduce the concern of the international community, while working more discreetly than frequent fact-finding missions."