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Belarus: OSCE Mission Leader Plans To Promote Democracy And Political Pluralism

Minsk, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of the new OSCE mission in Belarus, Hans-Georg Wieck, says he will bring in foreign specialists to address government officials and non-government groups about democracy and political pluralism.

Wieck told RFE/RL in Minsk that he will arrange separate seminars and conferences for government and state institutions and for organizations, institutions and individuals outside the government framework. He said this program of "parallel but separate" talks was a condition of the agreement signed with the Belarus government in December allowing the opening of the mission.

The first public seminar will take place in May and will focus on the structures of a pluralistic democracy, including the rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

"We intend to bring specialists from outside to introduce the experience of European institutions and individual national institutions to the political, academic and judicial institutions of Belarus," he said. He wants to focus on the rule of law, election law, penal code legislation, trade union rights and such basic issues as freedom of expression -- including freedom to express political opinions -- and the right to peaceful assembly.

Wieck also wants to arrange smaller-scale meetings between top officials and foreign specialists on specific political issues and the development of democratic institutions. He said this is a particularly urgent task. International institutions are pressing for elections next year, but new legislation would have to be prepared to ensure they are free and fair.

Wieck says that, at the moment, the weather looks clear for the five-person mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which opened its doors on Friday in Minsk in a German-run educational center. But he freely admits that the atmosphere could change depending on the reaction of the Belarussian government to the mission's work.

Some other OSCE officials suggested it was a bad omen that Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made no contact with OSCE chairman Bronislaw Geremek, who came to Minsk for the opening ceremony. The OSCE said Geremek had not asked for a meeting with Lukashenska, but it was hoped he would make an informal appearance at the opening as he has at other functions.

OSCE officials acknowledge that Lukashenka does not favor the mission and was pressed into accepting it by Russian Foreign Minister Yevegeni Primakov.

OSCE officials took particular note of the statement by Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich that the Belarus government is open to all suggestions from the OSCE but that putting them into effect requires Lukashenka's approval. Wieck himself met Lukashenka when he first arrived in January and expects to do so again in March after the mission begins operations.

He said the mission intends to work behind the scenes. "We don't want a high profile in the press," he said. "It would be counter-productive. We intend to keep a low public profile." He said this does not mean the mission will not go public on particular problems but that decisions will depend on individual situations. Wieck's permanent staff in Minsk includes a Swiss expert on political systems, a Danish specialist on the rule of law, an American who specializes in the democratic institutions needed for a civic society, and a Romanian assistant on political issues.

Wieck told RFE/RL that the mission agenda has three major areas -- assistance in drawing up new legislation and help in implementing it; human rights education; and establishing democratic institutions.

"When legislation is being drawn up, we want to provide expertise on the rights of citizens in regard to freedom of speech, freedom to assemble in public and the right to form associations," he said. "We want to assist in ensuring that new legislation provides protection against discrimination on the basis of gender, creed, race and political convictions."

The mission hopes to be in a position to offer advice on the preparation of laws for upcoming national elections, including access to the media, financial support and freedom of assembly on a non-discriminatory basis. It hopes the Belarus authorities will also offer information about pending legislation and decrees so the mission's experts can examine them in good time.

The OSCE says it is one thing to put laws and decrees on paper and another to ensure they are implemented. The mission hopes to be able to help in regard to existing legislation by offering advice on the rights of citizens, for instance on their rights after arrest and in court.

The OSCE mission also plans to organize seminars on human rights education on the basis of the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and follow-up conventions on social and political rights.

"We want to organize seminars in parallel, but separately, with governmental institutions and with non-governmental institutions in order to identify areas where legal action might be required to eliminate discriminations," says Wieck. He said seminars could be organized for the media, university professors, teachers and political groups, as well as for government institutions.

The mission places a great deal of importance on the role of non-government organizations in developing a civil society in Belarus, and Wieck said his mission will encourage their development and help train them. "The involvement of active non-profit organizations working in various social fields constitutes a fundamental asset of modern society," he said. Wieck said that state institutions should encourage national and international non-governmental organizations to work in the country and not be hostile to them.

One of the OSCE's goals is to train members of local non-governmental organizations to act as observers in local and national elections in Belarus. They would supplement the international observers which the OSCE now sends to most elections in central and eastern Europe.

Wieck said the OSCE is optimistic that it can promote democracy and political pluralism in Belarus with the co-operation of the government and state institutions and the active participation of political groups, academics, the media and non-governmental organizations.