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Belarus: OSCE Opens Mission In Minsk

Minsk, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus has been told by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) that its return to the European community of nations depends on its readiness to implement democracy.

OSCE officials said these views were expressed bluntly by the OSCE chairman, Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek, in private talks with his Belarus colleague Ivan Antonovich and other officials in Minsk Friday (Feb. 27).

Geremek, who was jailed for struggling for democracy in his own country under communist rule, stressed that Belarus must improve its record if it wanted to regain its guest status at the Council of Europe or improve relations with the European Union.

He said all OSCE member-states had to recognize the rule of law as the basis of democracy.

According to senior OSCE officials traveling with him, he told Antonovich the reforms needed in Belarus include a genuine recognition of the right to freedom of speech and freedom to assemble in public, an independent legal system and an active role for non-government organizations.

Geremek was in Minsk to open an OSCE mission intended to help guide Belarus on the road to democracy and political plurality. It took almost six months to persuade Belarus to accept the mission, and OSCE officials said it finally did so only under pressure from Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov.

The office is in a German-run educational center away from the center of the city and is led by a former German diplomat, Hans-Georg Wieck, who was previously ambassador to Moscow. His four-person staff includes a Swiss expert on political systems, a Danish expert on the rule of law, an American woman specialist on what is called the "civic society," and a Romanian political advisor. Unlike most OSCE missions, the mandate for the Minsk operation does not have to be renewed every six months but is open-ended.

For some observers, OSCE's view of what is missing in Belarus was illustrated at the cocktail party which followed the opening ceremony. The 106 invited guests included members of the parliament dissolved by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1996, senior officials of the Belorussian people's front and other opposition political groups and opposition journalists, writers and painters. Among them were the speaker of the former Belarus parliament Stanislav Shushkevich and the writer Vasil Bykov. The government was represented by foreign minister Antonovich and some other senior government officials.

OSCE's commitment to a more pluralistic political society in Belarus was also expressed during the Geremek visit with a show of support for a meeting of about 300 members of opposition groups at a Minsk hotel.

The opposition groups were conducting a seminar on political repression under Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union studded with criticism of Lukashenka's authoritarian regime. The wife of the U.S. ambassador was among the speakers. Western journalists who visited the seminar were told that some of the participants had been warned against attending. None of Geremek's official party attended, but some other OSCE officials visited the seminar.

Geremek's formal program allowed several private discussions with Antonovich which continued until just a few minutes before the OSCE chairman joined his aircraft to return to Warsaw. At the full meeting, Antonovich was supported by the deputy procurator general, the head of the treaty-law department, the director of the center for legislation, two deputy foreign ministers and senior officials of the human rights division of the foreign ministry.

According to those who attended, Geremek raised a number of specific problems, including the hard-labor sentences imposed on two teenagers who splashed paint over a statue of Lenin and painted political slogans on a wall. Geremek said bluntly that people should not be treated as criminals simply for having political opinions which differed from those of the Government. He said a variety of political opinion was a basic principle of democracy.

The OSCE chairman emphasized the importance of freedom of expression and said it was wrong to give orders on what the media should publish. Many of the newspapers which express opposition views in Belarus are printed across the border in Lithuania.

The head of the OSCE division dealing with human rights and elections, the Swiss diplomat Gerard Stoudmann pressed the meeting to allow non-government organizations more freedom to operate. Stoudmann described NGO's as one of the guarantors of democracy in many countries.

In particular, Stoudmann said his division wanted to begin training Belarus NGO's to act as observers at the parliamentary and presidential elections expected in the next few years. He also stressed that OSCE believes elections should be held next year and not in 2001, as suggested by some on the government side, and said the electoral laws needed considerable improvement.

Stoudmann also called for the appointment of an ombudsman to protect citizens against wrongdoing by officials including the police.

OSCE officials said that in response, Antonovich said that as far as the government was concerned, every issue was open for review. He said improvements to the electoral laws could be considered and Stoudmann's proposal for an ombudsman "could be looked at".

He made no comment on the trial of the two teenagers convicted of throwing paint on the statue of Lenin but vigorously denied that there were any political prisoners in Belarus.

Antonovich also argued that his country was not as bad as it is painted. He said no one was shot down for trying to cross the border, opposition groups and opposition trade unions operate openly and those who wished to speak to them did not have to do so in dark corners.

Geremek responded that he was interested to hear that there were no political prisoners in Belarus. However he recalled that the Polish communist government used to say the same thing at a time when Geremek himself was in jail for political offenses.

Unexpectedly, the Belarus foreign minister made himself readily available to the foreign journalists accompanying the OSCE chairman.

He said he realized that Belarus could not isolate itself from the growing European co-operation and the political developments. But he said it would take time. "We are a peasant people and peasants are cautious and slow to change," he said. "That is why we are taking it slowly in introducing reforms and why we are taking it slowly in introducing democracy."

Pressed to say how long it might take to meet the standards demanded by the OSCE, Antonovich said he hoped it would be received back into the European community of nations within about two years. He said specifically that one year was too short but two was an acceptable time frame.

Cautious OSCE officials told journalists on the flight away from Belarus that they had heard many promising things from Antonovich and other Belarus officials but the proof would come in their implementation.

In the meantime, the OSCE office in Minsk is ready to begin work. Its first project is to organize a seminar on pluralistic democracy in May. The mission chief, Wieck, said the seminar would be open to the media and the public and OSCE would invite foreign experts to attend as lecturers.