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Belarus: Parliamentary Delegation Fails To Attend OSCE Parliamentary Session

The bid by the Belarus National Assembly to join the parliament of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) remains unclear after last week's OSCE meeting in Vienna. The Belarus parliament failed to send a delegation to the meeting despite its stated goal of re-joining the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich that the surprise no-show has left observers uncertain of Belarus's intentions.

Munich, 25 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One of the biggest surprises at last week's Vienna conference of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly was the failure of a delegation from Belarus to appear.

The OSCE assembly has refused to recognize the Belarus parliament since 1996, when Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appointed an assembly, replacing an elected body. But this year, the Belarus National Assembly -- which had applied to re-join the OSCE parliament -- appeared to stand a better chance of admission despite remaining doubts about the fairness of the country's parliamentary elections in October 2000.

Just this month, the head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Adrian Severin of Romania, received a joint letter from the chairmen of both houses of the Belarus parliament, Alexander Voitovich and Vadim Popov. The two lawmakers requested full participation in the Parliamentary Assembly and said, "We believe the restoration of the membership of the Republic of Belarus would allow our country to foster the process of democratization and reinforce its status as a full-fledged member of the family of European nations."

Severin then sent the Belarus parliament registration papers for last week's conference. But the papers were never returned, and no Belarus delegation appeared in Vienna.

A French delegate, Nicole Durand, told journalists that Belarus had recently criticized the OSCE and has been reluctant to accept a new chief of the OSCE office in Minsk. But she said it had been assumed the Belarus parliament would continue to press its case for membership despite these problems.

"The Belarus government has differences with the OSCE about the office in Minsk and other matters. But the Parliamentary Assembly is a separate body [from the general OSCE] and we thought the Belarus parliament would continue to seek membership."

The assembly has yet to receive a message from the Belarus parliament explaining its absence. In the end, only the Belarus opposition was represented in Vienna. Four members of the advisory council of the country's opposition political parties attended the conference as observers. They did not have the right to address the meeting.

The failure of an official delegation to attend the Vienna meeting means that the Belarus application cannot be considered until the next meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, to be held in Berlin in July. Severin said an invitation would be sent to Belarus for the Berlin meeting.

Belarus's problems with OSCE Parliamentary Assembly began in 1996, when Lukashenka dismissed a democratically elected parliament and replaced it with one he chose himself.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly refused to accept the so-called "Lukashenka assembly," and continued to recognize its predecessor -- the 13th Supreme Soviet -- although it no longer sat as a parliament. The decision applied only to the Belarus parliament and did not alter the recognition of the Belarus government as a member of the OSCE. Belarus has been a member of the OSCE since 1992.

It was not until after a new legislature was elected in October 2000 that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly agreed to consider a re-application for membership. But the likelihood of the bid remained in question because of unresolved criticism from foreign observers over the country's October 2000 elections, which many said failed to meet democratic standards. Severin and other assembly officials, however, indicated that Belarus did have a chance of being seated.

The rules of the Parliamentary Assembly say a delegation will be automatically seated if there is no challenge. Severin said he had received no indication that the Belarus application would have been challenged.

Some Parliamentary Assembly officials told journalists they believed Belarus avoided the conference because it feared there would be a challenge with the possibility of another veto. They said the Belarus parliament had asked for guarantees that if it appeared in Vienna it would be admitted to the Parliamentary Assembly without problems -- something that is not possible under assembly rules.

An American delegate dismissed the idea that such a guarantee could ever be offered, saying: "Every parliament applying for membership is treated in exactly the same way. We cannot give guarantees that there will be no challenges."

OSCE officials said they are now unsure of Belarus's intentions and whether it will apply to be admitted to the Parliamentary Assembly in July. One delegate summed it up, saying such a move "probably depends on a decision by President Lukashenka. And that is unpredictable."