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Belarus: OSCE Restores Its Mission, But Will It Be Effective?

The head of the new Belarus mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe today spoke in Minsk about the new objectives of the group, which was recently allowed to return to Belarus following the mission's expulsion last year. But, as RFE/RL reports, analysts say the mission's new mandate may actually make its work less effective.

Prague, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has restored its mission in Belarus. The return comes several months after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, angered by the mission's criticism of his record on human rights and democracy building, choked the mission into closure by refusing to renew visas for the mission's officials. The last mission employee left Belarus last October.

Now, the OSCE is back with a new mandate, one that observers say may limit the mission's ability to properly monitor the human rights situation.

German diplomat Eberhard Heyken heads the new Belarus mission. At a press conference today in Minsk, he gave an upbeat assessment of what he called the mission's "new start." He expressed hope the new mandate would help establish an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. "Decisive notions in the new mandate are the institution building, the rule of law, civil society, economy, environment. And these notions reflect the essence of the OSCE," Heyken said.

But some say the agreement behind the new mandate favors Minsk and is so broad and unfocused that it is virtually unworkable. Valery Karbalevich is an analyst with the Strategic Center, a nongovernmental think tank in Minsk. He told RFE/RL the new OSCE mandate is a clear-cut victory for Lukashenka. "The OSCE accepted almost all the conditions that were put forward by Minsk. Minsk asked for the mandate to be changed at the very beginning of 2002, but the OSCE refused to change the mandate. Minsk then used pressure and [finally] expelled the mission from Belarus. Only after the mission was expelled did the OSCE agree to discuss the question of the mandate. The negotiations resulted in [the OSCE's] acceptance of all of Minsk's demands," Karbalevich said.

Those demands, Karbalevich said, have resulted in a vague mandate that has expanded to include not only human rights and democracy monitoring but also economic and ecological problems. The analyst added that this broader mandate, rather than granting the OSCE greater influence, will drain it of much of its past power.

Karbalevich said the new mandate has several other drawbacks that may make the mission's work in Belarus irrelevant. "The difference is that the new mission has time constraints: Its mandate is agreed only for one year. After a year, Minsk will decide whether to prolong the work of the group. If they agree [to prolong it], then they may decide who the staff will be as well. If Minsk decides it's unhappy with people working in the mission, the Belarusian authorities may demand that they stop their activities [in Belarus]," Karbalevich said.

Karbalevich said these constraints will force mission officers to be cautious to the point of ineffectiveness. It is a predicament, he said, for which the OSCE itself is to blame. The body did nothing to defend its former mission when it was pushed out of the country. "[The officials in the new mission will remember] that the former mission was not defended by the OSCE when they were sent out of the country. In fact, they should see clearly that if Belarusian authorities disapprove of some of their actions, the OSCE [as an organization] will not defend them. The OSCE has shown it is powerless. And if an organization is not able to defend its own officials, how can it defend human rights, the civil rights of the people in the country where it functions?" Karbalevich said.

The effectiveness of the OSCE is largely dependent on the cooperation of the government in the countries where it maintains its missions. The Russian government recently refused to extend the mandate of OSCE's mission in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Alyaksandr Klaskouski, who edits "Novosti," a Belarusian Internet publication, agrees that the new mission will have to work under more difficult conditions. He said the new mandate gives the Belarusian authorities more ways to isolate the mission or to say it has transgressed its mandate.

But Klaskouski added that the fate of democracy in Belarus does not depend on the work of the OSCE. "In principle, there is no need to lend too much importance to the activities of the OSCE in the political developments that are taking place and will continue to take place in Belarus. I think the Belarusian opposition has a tendency to lend increased importance to this mission, just as they, on the whole, rely too much on Western assistance and help from abroad. These tendencies come from a complex of weakness that the Belarusian opposition suffers from," Klaskouski said.

Klaskouski said it is up to Belarusians themselves to decide the future of the country. He said most people in his country understand that there is little the OSCE and other pan-European groups can do to bring about change in Belarus. "People who are critical thinkers, as well as people who do not support the [Lukashenka] regime, have the impression that those European organizations stamp resolutions and that it's merely a bureaucratic system that's at work, that someone needs to say [in a report] that some work was done. [In Belarus's case, it was to say] there was a reaction to the worsening situation in Belarus," Klaskouski said.

In the end, Klaskouski said, Europe has problems of its own -- and Belarus is only at the periphery of its interests.