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Belarus: European Parliament Calls For Increased Support Of Opposition

European political bodies are upset with the situation in Belarus and are increasing their criticism of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Yesterday, the European Parliament adopted a unanimous resolution calling on the European Union to increase its support for Belarusian opposition groups. However, analysts say there are no quick solutions for Belarus and that its civil society is so weak that it may take decades to build.

Prague, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday, the European Parliament adopted a unanimous resolution criticizing Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for what it calls "indiscriminate attacks" on opposition politicians, human rights activists, and journalists.

In the resolution, the European Parliament urges the European Union to "step up contacts with reform-minded forces" in Belarus, including churches, trade unions, universities, and the democratic opposition. The resolution calls on opposition groups to "seize the opportunity" during local elections in March and to join forces for change.

However, the EU's external-relations commissioner, Chris Patten, said he does not believe Lukashenka will loosen his grip on power and introduce political and economic reforms anytime soon. "It is difficult to say when the European Union can be able to have normal relations with Belarus," Patten said yesterday. He said the "driving force for change" will have to come from Belarus itself.

While Patten may have doubts that resolutions such as the one passed by the European Parliament will have tangible results, analysts say such moral support is important for the country's fledgling civil society and nongovernmental organizations.

Marius Vahl, an analyst with the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, wholeheartedly agrees that the resolution will not soften Lukashenka's rule. However, he said the resolution will remind Belarusian authorities that their policies are unacceptable in Europe. "Well, I mean, you send a signal. I mean, it's just a statement of policy.... It's not going to change much in terms of Belarusian politics," Vahl said.

RFE/RL was unable to reach Belarusian officials for comment on the resolution or the upcoming elections.

Lukashenka is becoming increasingly isolated by the West. Last November, all but Portugal of the 15 European Union countries imposed a travel ban on Lukashenka and seven of his ministers in protest against human rights violations by the Belarusian government. The United States and Norway followed suit. Lukashenka was also barred by the Czech Republic from attending the November NATO summit in Prague.

Vahl said the political isolation of the regime is not enough and that he is especially heartened by the EU's promise to give more support to the democratic opposition and nongovernmental organizations in Belarus. "[There are] opportunities to assist the opposition in Belarus and provide aid for civil society and democratic initiatives and exchanges and these things. I mean, they haven't been exhausted by far from the European Union side. Of course, they could do more," Vahl said.

Alyaksandr Sosnov is a deputy director of the independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies based in Minsk. He agrees with Vahl and told RFE/RL the European Parliament resolution is important for the moral support it provides to the Belarusian opposition.

But he said that considering Belarus's almost nonexistent civil society and very weak political opposition, it's doubtful such moral support will evolve into something more tangible. He said the resolution passed by the European Parliament will go unnoticed by the majority of Belarusians, because they will never hear such news on Belarusian television or read it in newspapers.

On the other hand, he said the European Parliament's resolution, which promises help for the opposition, would not, in the end, be accepted positively by the majority of Belarusians. He said that Belarusians dislike the term "opposition," which they associate with destructive activities.

Sosnov said that EU support will not change the results of local elections next month, which he said Lukashenka's supporters are likely to win. "I think the opposition will achieve nothing in the elections because of the very simple fact that the authorities are completely in control of these elections, completely in control. The opposition did not mange to put their representatives in the majority of election commissions. It means that the votes will be counted the way the authorities want. On the other hand, the opposition has completely failed to put its candidates forward for future elections. The majority of [opposition] candidates were rejected by the state apparatus [and will not take part in the elections]," Sosnov said.

He said that there were no serious protests or strong public objections to these official moves. Passivity, he said, is prevalent in Belarus. Sosnov cited surveys in which only 5 percent of Belarusians profess an interest in public or political life.

Sosnov said the main problem is that the majority of the population simply knows nothing about the role of nongovernmental organizations. "[The majority of people] know nothing about their existence. If you ask their opinion about nongovernmental organizations on the whole, they will only shrug their shoulders," Sosnov said.

The European Parliament is not the only pan-European body urging Lukashenka to change his policies and allow greater freedoms. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says Belarus is making no progress in implementing democratic reforms. The head of an OSCE working group on Belarus says respect for human rights in the country is deteriorating, that its parliament is weak, and that electoral reforms are nonexistent.