3 January 2000
Situation in Belarus
Political Affairs Committee
Rapporteur: Mr Wolfgang Behrendt, Germany, Socialist Group
The Political Affairs Committee expresses its profound concern that Belarus continues to fall seriously short of Council of Europe standards as regards pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The committee considers that the institutions’ democratic legitimacy in this country can only be restored through political dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, culminating in democratic elections.
The Assembly is invited to urge the Belarusian authorities to declare an immediate moratorium on executions, to put an end to political persecutions, to release those arrested for politically motivated reasons, to clarify what happened to the people who have disappeared, to ensure full respect for freedom of expression and freedom of association and to co-operate in good faith with the opposition with a view to establishing conditions for democratic elections.
Likewise, the Assembly is invited to recommend that the Committee of Ministers should become more involved in efforts to resolve the crisis in Belarus, in particular by setting up specific programmes and by ensuring the presence of a Council of Europe representative in Minsk.
I. Draft recommendation
1. The Assembly recalls that following the referendum of 26 November 1996 and the ensuing constitutional changes, the Bureau of the Assembly suspended the Belarus parliament’s special guest status. On 17 December 1998, the Bureau decided to maintain the suspension and to formally suspend the procedure concerning Belarus’s application, submitted in March 1993, for membership of the Council of Europe.
2. The Assembly expresses its profound concern that Belarus continues to fall seriously short of Council of Europe standards as regards pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
3. It condemns in the strongest possible terms the executions in Belarus and deplores the fact that Belarus is currently the only country in Europe where the death penalty is enforced and, moreover, is regularly and widely enforced.
4. The Assembly also condemns the persecution of opponents of the current regime, such as members of the 13th Soviet, which is the last legitimate parliamentary representation of Belarus, opposition parties and independent trade unions, journalists and participants in demonstrations and strikes. It expresses its profound concern at the disappearance of political opponents in Belarus.
5. In this connection, the Assembly took note with satisfaction of the release from custody of Mr Chigir, former Prime Minister of Belarus, and urges the authorities to respect strictly his right to a fair trial.
6. The Assembly considers that the exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of association is severely restricted in Belarus by various legal and administrative measures and by various methods employed by the authorities.
7. In these circumstances, the Assembly considers that there can be no change in the present situation regarding the suspension of special guest status and of the accession procedure.
8. The Assembly considers that the Belarusian institutions’ democratic legitimacy can only be restored through political dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, culminating in democratic elections. In this connection, it welcomes the agreement between the government and opposition representatives to begin negotiations on resolving the current political crisis.
9. The Assembly calls upon all political forces in Belarus, and in particular the Belarusian authorities, to ensure that these negotiations start as soon as possible and lead to the establishment of conditions that are conducive to the holding of free and fair elections.
10. The Assembly considers that the Council of Europe should become more involved in efforts to resolve the crisis in Belarus and should lend its support to the democratic forces in Belarus and help ensure that the negotiations break the current political deadlock in the country.
11. The Assembly urges the Belarusian authorities:
i. to declare an immediate moratorium on executions and set in motion the legislative procedure for the abolition of capital punishment;
ii. to release those arrested or convicted for politically motivated reasons, clarify what has happened to the people who have disappeared and put an end to political persecution;
iii. to ensure full respect for freedom of expression and freedom of association, in particular by guaranteeing the opposition fair access to state-controlled radio and television and allowing free enjoyment of the right to hold demonstrations and strikes;
iv. to co-operate in good faith with the opposition and international organisations with a view to establishing a democratic and pluralistic society ;
v. to draft an electoral law which enables the holding of free and fair elections and, at the same time, to do their utmost to strengthen the powers of parliament.
12. The Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers:
i. consider, as a matter of urgency and in conjunction with the OSCE and its Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk (AMG), how the Council of Europe can make a contribution to the success of negotiations between the government and the opposition;
ii. actively support the elaboration of an electoral law with a view to guaranteeing the holding of free and fair elections in Belarus, at local, regional and national levels, in conformity with international standards;
iii. set up programmes aimed at strengthening human rights and fundamental freedoms, civil society and the independent media in Belarus, particularly during the run-up to the elections;
iv. make arrangements for a Council of Europe representative to be present in Minsk to facilitate the preparation and implementation of these programmes and the forging of direct, permanent links with the country’s political forces as the elections draw nearer.
II. Draft order
The Assembly, referring to its Recommendation ... (2000) on the situation in Belarus, instructs its Political Affairs Committee to monitor closely developments in Belarus and to draw up a report if need be, particularly with a view to making proposals for the Assembly’s participation in the observation of the forthcoming elections, scheduled for the year 2000.
III. Explanatory memorandum by the rapporteur
1. The Parliament of Belarus was granted special guest status on 16 September 1992. The Belarus authorities submitted an application for membership of the Council of Europe on 12 March 1993. In April 1993 the Committee of Ministers forwarded this application to the Parliamentary Assembly for opinion.
2. On 7 November 1996, in response to President Lukashenko’s proposals for constitutional change, the Standing Committee adopted Resolution 1102 (1996) on the Belarus situation. In this resolution, the Assembly called for “the organisation of a round table of all interested parties and institutions to provide an opportunity for productive political dialogue and a more consensual approach to constitutional reform”.
3. After the referendum of 24 November 1996, the Bureau of the Assembly suspended the Belarus Parliament’s special guest status on 13 January 1997. The President of the Assembly stated that the new Constitution was illegal and that the way in which the new Parliament had been set up deprived it of democratic legitimacy.
4. On 23 June 1997 the Political Affairs Committee held a hearing attended both by representatives of the political groups opposed to the constitutional changes and those in favour of them. On 27 January 1998 the Political Affairs Committee further discussed the Belarus situation and concluded that the requirements for restoring special guest status were still unmet.
5. On 25 May 1998, the Bureau of the Assembly held an exchange of views on the Belarus situation and asked Mr Antretter, Vice-President of the Assembly, to go to Minsk to find out about the latest developments in the country and to report back to it. The visit, postponed because of the withdrawal from Minsk of the ambassadors of the European Union and some other countries as a result of the Drozdy residences affair, finally took place from 4 to 6 November 1998.
6. On 17 December 1998, the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly discussed the situation in Belarus on the base of Mr Antretter’s report on his fact-finding visit (Doc. 8292, Addendum II to the Bureau’s progress report). The rapporteur would like to congratulate Mr Antretter on his excellent report which substantially contributed to the preparation of this document.
7. Following that discussion the Bureau noted that Belarus still fell seriously short of Council of Europe standards regarding pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and it therefore decided:
- to maintain the suspension of the Belarus Parliament’s special guest status;
- to suspend the procedure in the matter of the Statute-required Assembly opinion on Belarus’ membership application;
- to re-establish contacts with all the political forces in Belarus with the aim of supporting any positive developments in that country;
- to ask the Political Affairs Committee to discuss ways of initiating a dialogue with the country’s political forces (holding a hearing for example) and in due course to report to the Assembly on the situation in Belarus.
8. On the basis of this mandate, on 27 April 1999 the Political Affairs Committee organised a hearing on the situation in Belarus with representatives of the country’s various political forces.
9. To gather the information needed to prepare this report, the rapporteur made a fact-finding visit to Minsk from 4 to 6 October 1999 with Mr Petr Sich, Co-Secretary to the Political Affairs Committee (cf. the programme of the visit in Appendix 1). The press release published at the end of this visit is to be found in Appendix 2.
10. The rapporteur wishes to thank the Belarus authorities and the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Minsk for organising the two above-mentioned visits and for their kind hospitality.
II. Political developments in Belarus since 1994
11. The 1994 Constitution had instituted a Parliament composed of a single chamber (260 members) and the office of President of the Republic. Mr Lukashenko was elected President in July 1994 and a general election, which produced the first democratically elected parliament (the “13th Soviet”), took place in 1995.
12. In August 1996, the President began putting forward amendments to the constitution giving him increased powers and he decided to hold a referendum in a manner which contravened the constitutional and legislative provisions on the matter. The referendum was held on 26 November 1996 and the President's proposals for constitutional reform won a majority of the votes.
13. In November 1996 the Venice Commission gave its views on the constitutional amendments proposed by the President and adopted by referendum. In its opinion the commission concluded that the amendments “fall short of the democratic minimum standards of the European constitutional heritage”. It said that "the establishment of a false semi-presidential regime, with a strong influence of the President (implying sometimes a total control) on all other bodies of the State (Parliament included)" could not be considered an acceptable alternative to the 1994 constitution.
14. It should be pointed out that the commission's opinion was also critical of the opposition's competing proposal to do away with the office of President and introduce an "assembly regime".
15. In this same opinion the Venice Commission also called on the Belarus authorities to abide by the Constitutional Court’s finding that the results of a referendum to approve the proposed amendments would not have any mandatory force but only consultative value.
16. Contrary to this opinion and despite an agreement between the President of the Republic and the President of the Parliament, President Lukashenko decided to implement the constitutional reforms.
17. Under these reforms the new “Parliament” is made up of two chambers. The House of Representatives (Lower Chamber) has 110 members, elected by direct suffrage. However, the present chamber is composed of members chosen by the President from among the members of the 13th Soviet. A presidential decree was issued on 27 November 1997 “validating the list of members making up the House of Representatives of the Belarus National Assembly”.
18. The Council of the Republic (Upper Chamber) is composed of members elected by regional councils (eight members per region and eight for the city of Minsk) and eight members appointed by the President of the Republic.
19. As a result of these changes the country is entirely under the control of the President. Because of various constitutional and legislative measures and administrative practices the legislature and the judiciary are dependent on the President. The mere fact that the Lower Chamber was established under a presidential decree and that judges at all levels are appointed by the President is proof of that. Similarly the 1996 “constitution” empowers the President to issue decrees having legal force.
20. Local elections were held in April 1999, on the basis of an electoral law of December 1998, adopted without taking account of the opinions given by the Council of Europe and the OSCE which strongly criticised them for a number of antidemocratic provisions. Serious reservations were formulated, in particular as regards the access of the opposition to the media, the participation of national observers at the elections, the nomination of the candidates, the financing of the campaign, etc. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE) and the AMG declared in their evaluations that these elections had virtually completely lost their democratic nature, serving only to give the regime a semblance of democratic legitimacy.
21. In May 1999 the opposition organised an alternative presidential election, taking the view that President Lukashenko’s term of office expired on 20 July 1999, in accordance with the 1994 constitution. Beyond this date, his legitimacy was based on the “constitution” of 1996, which the opposition consider to be illegal. As it could not be regarded as a true election this event turned into a political demonstration against the present regime and its President.
III. Recent political developments
22. At the time of the rapporteur’s visit, the most important recent political development was doubtless the agreement between the government and the opposition to begin negotiations on a way out of the current political crisis. However, the dialogue has not yet begun and part of the opposition still rejects it altogether.
23. On 3 July 1999 President Lukashenko publicly acknowledged the need to improve relations with the West. Then, last August the government admitted for the first time that dialogue between the political parties, citizens’ movements and government representatives was necessary to establish conditions conducive to the holding of free and fair elections in the year 2000 and other positive changes in Belarusian society. For the purpose of conducting such a dialogue, the government established a co-ordination group chaired by Mr M. Sazonov, a presidential adviser.
24. In September 1999 the various opposition forces themselves agreed on a common negotiating platform with a view to the talks and on the membership of their delegation, which includes representatives of eight political parties (the Belarusian Popular Front, the Communist Party of Belarus, the two Social Democratic parties, the United Civic Party of Belarus, the Party of Women, the Party of Labour, and the Liberal Democratic Party). The members will chair the delegation in turn.
25. The two sides have agreed that the talks will focus on the following issues: preparation of an electoral law allowing the holding of free, fair, internationally recognised elections, opposition access to the media, and the powers of the newly elected parliament.
26. A draft electoral law, in the form of a government bill, is currently at the first reading stage in the House of Representatives. Over two hundred amendments have already been tabled. The opposition has prepared its own draft electoral law.
27. At the request of the Belarusian authorities, two Venice Commission experts prepared an appraisal of the government’s text which has already been communicated to them. In their comments the two experts formulated a series of proposals for amendments to this draft law which were to be discussed with the authorities. Mr Birchler, an expert who made a general evaluation of the draft law, considers that it could serve as a basis for reasonably fair elections.
28. In this connection, the rapporteur considers that even if there are no objections of principle to the draft law from the strictly legal standpoint, it is necessary to take into in consideration the general context in which such a law is applied. In view of the present situation in Belarus, and in particular of the many restrictions on fundamental freedoms, great efforts need to be made to democratise the society in general in order to create a favourable context for holding free and democratic elections.
29. In the first place, an essential prerequisite for democratic elections is a very significant improvement in opposition access to the State-controlled media. An agreement between the government and the opposition concerning access to the media before the negotiations has been concluded and should enter into force soon.
30. The opposition considers it essential that the parliament resulting from the next elections should have increased powers vis-à-vis the executive and in particular the President. At present the authorities prefer to discuss concrete measures, such as a possible limitation on interference with statute law by presidential decrees, rather than broach the question of constitutional reform.
31. The outcome of the negotiations should be endorsed by both parties, ie respectively the 13th Soviet and the current parliament, under their own procedure.
32. Following the disappearance of Mr Viktor Gonchar, First Vice-Chairman of the 13th Soviet, that body announced that it was impossible to begin negotiations until the authorities provided proof that an investigation was actually being conducted into this disappearance and those of Mrs Vinnikova and Mr Zakharenko.
33. No date has therefore yet been set for the opening of the talks. This situation suits certain forces – within both the government and the opposition – which are against holding talks.
34. At the time of drafting this report, the political and social situation in Belarus is tense. Worsening economic conditions have also caused protests by both independent and government-controlled trade unions.
IV. The human rights situation
35. Despite certain positive signs as to the prospects for a way out of the current political crisis, the rapporteur found no tangible improvements in respect for human rights. Some non-governmental organisations even maintain that the situation has worsened..
36. The authorities claim to give priority to human rights. They cite the many human rights programmes established in schools, universities and the police force. Similarly, a bill on the office of ombudsman should shortly be debated in parliament.
37. The rapporteur nevertheless wishes to draw attention to the most serious human rights problems in Belarus, which include:
i. The death penalty
38. In a referendum held in 1996, the majority of the population voted in favour of the retention of the death penalty and the authorities claim that they have to respect this wish of the people.
39. Although the authorities assert that their long-term objective is to abolish the death penalty, such an assertion lacks credibility against the background that the President of the Supreme Court of Belarus, Mr Valyantin Sukala, announced during a press conference on 5 August 1999 that 29 people were executed in Belarus between January and August 1999 alone. Belarus is therefore the only country in Europe where the death penalty is regularly enforced on a large scale..
ii. Disappearance of political opponents
40. The above-mentioned disappearance of Mr Viktor Gonchar is only the last in a series of such incidents concerning Belarusian political figures. Mr Yuri Zakharenko, the former Minister of the Interior, disappeared in May 1999, and Mrs Tamara Vinnikova, the former Head of the Belarusian National Bank, in April.
41. The government categorically denies any involvement in these disappearances and maintains that it is doing everything in its power to ensure that the investigations in progress bring results as soon as possible. However, it is difficult to understand why the government, which clearly had these people under surveillance, does not have more precise information about what happened to them.
iii. Persecution of opponents of the regime
42. The opposition has adduced a considerable amount of evidence of the persecution suffered by people regarded as opponents of the regime currently in power in Belarus, such as members of the 13th Soviet, of opposition parties or of independent trade unions, journalists working for the independent media or participants in demonstrations and strikes. Forms of persecution include searches of people’s homes or places of work, telephone tapping, unfair dismissals, failure to pay pensions, arbitrary detention and unfair trials. Much of the evidence has been confirmed by independent sources.
43. It should be pointed out that Mr Semyon Sharetski, the Chairman of the 13th Soviet, who feared for his own safety, left Belarus in July 1999 and is currently living in Vilnius.
44. The rapporteur met members of the families of those who have been persecuted. The best known case is probably that of Mr Mikhail Chigir, the former Prime Minister, accused of abuse of authority and public office and of negligence. The rapporteur was pleased to note that Mr Chigir was recently released from police custody and hopes that this release will very soon be followed by others.
45. The opposition takes the view that many detainees are political prisoners. The authorities assert that there are no political prisoners in Belarus and that all the persons regarded as such by the opposition were arrested or convicted on the strength of criminal charges, such as corruption and embezzlement. They gave the rapporteur to understand that, as a sign of goodwill, some cases might be reviewed, but only gradually and “case by case”.
iv. Detention conditions
46. Conditions both in prisons and places of provisional detention have been severely criticised. In both there is overcrowding, food and care are far from acceptable, prisoners’ contact with their families and lawyers is restricted or non-existent, and numerous cases of violence towards prisoners have been reported. The authorities state that a decree has recently been adopted to improve detention conditions, but there will have to be particular vigilance in this area. I impressed on the President the importance of keeping penalties proportionate to offences.
v. Police infringements of human rights
47. Many instances of arbitrary detention and police violence have been reported. There does not seem to be independent, effective supervision of the police by prosecutors and judges. Opposition representatives said that the police are omnipresent and are often used against political opposition.
vi. Freedom of expression
48. The opposition forcefully denounces the restrictions on freedom of expression.
49. With regard to the press, the authorities argue that only a small number of the over one thousand newspapers and magazines are under State control. They contend that opposition newspapers can be distributed freely, including through the State-run network, although independent distribution networks also exist. People are free to subscribe to any newspaper, and only the courts can impose penalties on newspapers.
50. In actual fact there are more or less indirect means of exerting pressure on independent newspapers. First of all their price, if they are not State-subsidised, is generally higher, which is often a deciding factor for readers. The independent press also encounters distribution problems outside the capital and is made subject to discriminatory tax inspections or heavy fines, which sometimes lead to closures (as was recently the case with the newspaper “Noviny”).
51. For the majority of the population the main news source is the electronic media, in particular television. At present the only national television channel is State-controlled. For this reason opposition access to this channel has become a major issue for freedom of expression and despite its recent proposals on the subject the government retains firm control over this channel. The authorities claim that the opposition have adequate exposure on Russian television channels which are received in Belarus.
52. The freedom of expression of the media is also limited by legislative provisions. For example, defamation of the President is a crime punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
vii. Freedom of association
53. This year the government re-registered non-governmental organisations, ostensibly to remove from the register those which were no longer functioning because they had been set up as cover operations for commercial activities. Although such cases doubtless existed, the re-registration process was a means of harassing NGOs regarded as hostile to the present regime.
54. However, thanks to the opposition’s strong mobilisation and to international support, most of the NGOs active in the field of human rights succeeded in obtaining their re-registration, despite the complex procedure which this entailed.
55. Freedom to hold demonstrations and strikes is another serious problem. Even where the authorities give permission for a protest, they require that it take place in a location far from a town or city centre, which poses problems of access. As a general rule demonstrating in central locations is prohibited. The opposition has also reported a ban on snap strikes (“pickets”). The lack of freedom of expression and right of assembly became very apparent on 17 October 1999, when the militia violently broke up a demonstration organised by the opposition. To compound matters, members of the opposition were arrested for taking part in it. This action violates Council of Europe standards and casts doubts on the genuineness of democratic developments in the country.
56. Freedom of assembly is similarly contravened. There are numerous administrative restrictions on holding demonstrations. If demonstrations take place, it is reported that the police frequently take action and adopt strong-arm tactics.
57. Regarding freedom of association, I was told that people who belonged to an opposition party or organisation were likely to lose their jobs or be harassed by the police.
58. There also seems to have been a clampdown on some journalists’ freedom to travel abroad.
viii Right to work
59. The rapporteur also learned that, under a “presidential decree”, the employment contracts of public-sector employees had been transformed into renewable fixed-term contracts. This unprecedented measure results in increased job insecurity for hundreds of thousands of people, placing them in a far more vulnerable position vis-à-vis the government, which can punish opponents of the regime by not renewing their contracts.
V. Relations with the Russian Federation
60. A treaty of union between Belarus and the Russian Federation was signed on 8 December 1998 and its ratification by the Parliaments of both countries is planned before the end of this year. Among other things, the treaty provides for the establishment of a new parliament consisting of two chambers; the lower chamber would be elected by direct suffrage in both countries, and eventually for a common currency and common tax, customs and border procedures.
61. The authorities maintain that this treaty will not have any repercussions on Belarusian sovereignty and that it merely expands on the relations already established under the existing treaty, without making any essential changes in their substance. However, a number of opposition political parties and certain NGOs fear that the ultimate outcome will be a limitation, or even the loss, of sovereignty in favour of the Russian Federation.
62. The Russian Federation, on the other hand, also fears for a loss of parts of its sovereignty. With the support of the Russian “reformers” it rejected the original concept which President Lukashenko proposed for this union. For the first time ever, these reformers appeared in public, together with leading representatives of the democratic opposition of Belarus.
63. Part of the driving force behind President Lukashenko’s ambition to have this treaty signed is the prospect of economic advantages which would result from a union as he would like it to be designed. However, against the background of Russian reluctance to enter into a union on completely equal terms with Belarus, there seems to be an increased interest on the part of Belarus to tighten relations with the European Union, inter alia through the ratification of the EU-Belarus Partnership and Co-operation Agreement which Brussels cancelled after President Lukashenko dissolved the elected parliament in Belarus in 1996. The development of the relations between the Russian Federation and Belarus is a multifaceted project which should be followed closely.
VI. Relations between Belarus and the intergovernmental sector of the Council of Europe
64. Since 1993 Belarus has had assistance from the Council of Europe. After the suspension of the Belarusian Parliament’s special guest status by the Assembly, the Committee of Ministers decided to reorient the intergovernmental assistance programme to support the independent media and civil society in that country.
65. Belarus still has full membership, and continues to attend meetings, of expert committees — the Council for Cultural Co-operation (CDCC), the Committee for the Development of Sport (CDDS) and the European Steering Committee for Intergovernmental Co-operation in the Youth Field (CDEJ).
66. In early 1997 a tripartite working party was set up to prepare proposals for improving the Belarus constitution. It was composed of representatives of President Lukashenko, members of the democratically elected parliament and four EU-appointed experts, including a member of the Venice Commission and a representative of the Council of Europe Secretariat. Unfortunately it failed to produce any results owing to lack of co-operation from the Belarus authorities.
67. Belarus was accordingly not invited to the Second Summit of the Council of Europe in October 1997.
68. In March, June and September 1999, the Chairman-in-Office of the Committee of Ministers, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly and the Secretary General published joint declarations on Belarus, stressing among other things that free elections would represent a first step towards re-establishing relations between Belarus and the Council of Europe.
69. On 14 October 1999, the Rapporteur Group for Democratic Stability (GR-EDS) of the Committee of Ministers held an exchange of views with the First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, Mr Martynov. This was the first political dialogue since the exchange of views of the Minister’s’ Deputies with Mr Syanko, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, on 23 May 1995.
VII. Relations between Belarus and the OSCE and the European Union
70. At the OSCE summit in December 1997 Belarus agreed to the establishment of an OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Minsk. The AMG office opened in February 1998 with a remit to guide Belarus towards democracy and political pluralism. The Council of Europe was involved in preparing this initiative and its Directorate General of Political Affairs is in close touch with AMG to explore possibilities of co-operation.
71. AMG’s agenda has three major areas: assistance in drawing up and implementing new legislation, human rights education and establishing democratic institutions.
72. Attention should be drawn to the essential role which the AMG has played, and continues to play, in persuading both sides to accept the idea of and the principles governing these talks and in actually bringing them to the negotiating table.
73. At its 1997 session the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly reaffirmed the status of the last democratically elected parliament (the 13th Soviet) as the legitimate parliament of Belarus and its delegation as the official representatives to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
74. At its July 1998 session in Copenhagen, seeing “no reason” to alter its recognition of the 13th Soviet, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly maintained its 1997 decision.
75. In October 1998 the OSCE Assembly set up an ad hoc committee on Belarus chaired by Mr Severin (a Romanian member of parliament) to assist development of democracy in Belarus, help establish dialogue and facilitate national reconciliation. On 10 July 1999 the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE adopted a Resolution on Belarus stressing the importance of political dialogue leading to free elections for the re-establishment of democracy in Belarus.
76. In the Final Declaration of the OSCE Summit held in Istanbul in November 1999 the participants expressed support for the work of the AMG and recalled, in their turn, that only true political dialogue can lead to free and democratic elections through which the bases for democracy can be developed.
b. European Union
77. In September 1997 the European Union Council stated that relations with Belarus would not improve until Minsk made democratic reforms and saw to it that human rights were observed. At the same time it stated that European Union members would not support the Belarus application for Council of Europe membership. Since then technical assistance projects have been suspended, except for humanitarian action and support for democratisation at regional level. Council of Europe member states have been asked to persuade Belarus to restore democracy and human rights.
78. The European Union has not ratified the partnership and co-operation agreement with Belarus, taking the view that Belarus does not meet the requirements.
79. In June and July 1998 the European Union condemned measures by the Belarus Government affecting the residences of ambassadors of twenty-two countries.
80. On 16 July 1998 the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation in Belarus calling in particular on the Belarus Government to comply fully with the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, hold free and fair presidential elections in 1999 and comply with international human rights standards in the field the respect of human rights.
81. The 20 May 1999, the Political Committee of the European Union adopted a “step by step” policy to ease the sanctions imposed by the Council of the Union in 1997, the implementation of which is conditional upon concrete progress in the fields of democracy and human rights.
82. At present, the rapporteur can but confirm the conclusion drawn by Mr Antretter a year ago, ie that “Belarus continues to fall seriously short of Council of Europe standards as regards pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights and fundamental freedoms”. In his opinion, under these circumstances there could be no change regarding the suspension of the special guest status and the freezing of the accession procedure.
83. However, suspension of the special guest status and the freezing of the membership application must not prevent the Assembly from maintaining contact with Belarus and supporting all positive developments there.
84. In the rapporteur’s view this requires that while it is necessary to maintain a firm and clear stance on non-compliance with Council of Europe standards, the Council of Europe should also play its part in helping Belarus out of the present situation. Isolation would probably harm the very democratic reforms we are anxious to encourage.
85. The democratic legitimacy of the Belarus authorities can be restored only through dialogue and democratic elections. This is the position clearly expressed by the Council of Europe as well as by the European Union and the OSCE.
86. The agreement between the government and the opposition to engage in negotiations is a very important development. The Council of Europe should give its active support to the democratic forces of Belarus and help to ensure that this opportunity for breaking the deadlock is not lost. Such a proactive policy would also make it possible to assess the genuineness of the Belarus authorities expressed desire to introduce democratic reforms. For their part, the Belarus authorities have stated that co-operation with the Council of Europe is vital to the development of democracy.
87. The Council of Europe must continue to bring pressure to bear on the authorities to have them release people arrested or convicted for political reasons and clarify what has become of those who have disappeared. Measures of this kind would help to establish the climate of confidence necessary to the success of the negotiations.
88. It is also important to help establish conditions conducive to the holding of democratic elections in the year 2000. In this connection, the Venice Commission and its experts who produced the report on the electoral law should work actively with both the authorities and the opposition to ensure that its findings are acted upon as far as possible.
89. It would likewise be appropriate to prepare proposals for ad hoc activities aimed at strengthening the respect of human rights, the institutions of civil society and the independent media in Belarus, particularly during the run-up to the elections.
90. Co-ordination with the OSCE will therefore be essential to ensure that the Council of Europe’s activities tie in with the efforts already being made by the international community. It would also be opportune to look at how the Council of Europe could contribute to the success of the talks between the government and the opposition.
91. Thought should also be given to seconding a member of the Council of Europe secretariat to the AMG in Minsk, if necessary.
92. In conclusion, the rapporteur calls on all those active in Belarusian political circles, in particular the country’s authorities, to do their utmost to make sure that the recent hopeful developments are translated into action and lead to the emergence of a democratic society in Belarus. He hopes that the approach proposed above, combining firmness with a desire for dialogue, will lead, in time, to Belarus being accepted in the family of European democratic states.
Programme of the visit to Minsk of Mr Wolfgang Behrendt,
rapporteur, on 4-6 October 1999
Monday 4 October 1999
13.20 Arrival in Minsk
15.00-15.45 Meeting with Mr Pavel Shipuk, Chairman of the Council of Republic of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus.
16.00 Meeting with the political opposition (leaders of political parties, the Negotiating Delegation and members of the Presidium of the 13th Supreme Soviet).
19.00 Reception by the German Ambassador, Mr Horst Winkelmann, on the occasion of the German National Day.
20.45 Dinner hosted by the Head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG).
Guests: Ambassadors of member states of the European Union (France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Italy), the USA and the neighbouring states of Belarus (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russian Federation, Ukraine).
Tuesday 5 October 1999
9.15-10.00 Meeting with Mr Mikhail Podgainy, Chairman of the State Committee on Press of the Republic of Belarus.
10.15-11.00 Meeting with Mr Leonid Glukhovsky, Deputy Minister of Interior of the Republic of Belarus.
11.15-12.00 Meeting with Mr Grigory Vassilevich, Chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus.
14.45-15.45 Meeting with Mr Anatoly Malofeev, Chairman of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus.
16.00-18.00 Meeting with Ambassadors of member states of the Council of Europe accredited in the Republic of Belarus.
18.00 Meeting with family members of persons prosecuted for political reasons.
19.30 Dinner hosted by the Deputy Head of the AMG, with participation of representatives of human rights organisations and other NGO’s.
Wednesday 6 October 1999
8.30-9.15 Meeting with Mr Ural Latypov, Deputy Prime Minister – Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus.
9.30-10.15 Meeting with Mr Mikhail Sazonov, Assistant to the President of the Republic of Belarus, Head of the Working Group on consultations with political parties and other public associations.
10.30-11.15 Press conference
11.40-12.15 Meeting with Mr Mikhail Myasnikovich, Head of the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Belarus.
Political prisoners in Belarus: appeal for amnesty
STRASBOURG, 07.10.99 – At the end of his fact-finding mission to Minsk (4-6 October) Wolfgang BEHRENDT (SOC, Germany) the COUNCIL OF EUROPE Parliamentary Assembly rapporteur on the situation in Belarus, launched a pressing appeal to the authorities of Belarus to grant an amnesty to all political prisoners.
"The release of the former Prime Minister Mikhail CHIGIR and all the other political prisoners could contribute to installing a climate of confidence, which is necessary for successful negotiations between government and opposition in order to hold free and fair elections in Belarus next year. The dialogue between all political forces is the only way to overcome the current political crisis in the country as well as its isolation", Mr Behrendt said.
"The minimum conditions Belarus has to meet in order to prepare the elections in 2000 include the existence of a democratic electoral legislation, the respect of freedom of expression, including fair access of the opposition to media, especially the electronic media, and respect of freedom of association", he added.
He also called on the Belarus authorities to take the necessary steps to clarify urgently the disappearances of Viktor GONCHAR, Deputy Speaker of the 13th Supreme Council, Yuri ZAKHARENKO, former Interior Minister and Tamara VINNIKOVA, former Head of the Belarusian National Bank.
During his three-day-mission, the rapporteur met official representatives, the political opposition forces and non-governmental organisations. His visit came under the Political Affairs Committee's mandate to renew contacts with all political forces in Belarus in order to support any positive developments in the country. The outcome of the visit will be taken into account in his report on the situation in Belarus to be discussed at the Parliamentary Assembly's January 2000 session.
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In January 1997, the Parliamentary Assembly Bureau suspended the Belarus Parliament's special guest status with the Parliamentary Assembly. In December 1998, the procedure on the statute-required Assembly opinion on Belarus' application for Council of Europe membership was also suspended.
Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee
Reference to committee: decision of the Bureau of 17/12/98
Budgetary implications for the Assembly: none
Draft recommendation unanimously adopted by the committee on 16 December 1999.
Members of the committee: Mr Ruffy (Chairman), Mrs Ojuland (Vice-Chairperson), Mr Toshev (Vice-Chairman), MM Arzilli, Atkinson (alternate: Mr Taylor), Bársony, Behrendt, Bergqvist, Björck, Blaauw (alternate: Mr van der Linden), Bloetzer, Bühler, Clerfayt, Daly, Davis, Demetriou, Derycke, Dokle, Domljan, Dreyfus-Schmidt, Mrs Durrieu (alternate: Mr Baumel, Vice-Chairman), Fico, Gjellerod, Gligoroski, Glotov (alternate: Mr Fyodorov), Gül, Mr Iwinski, Mrs Kautto, MM Kirilov, König, Krzaklewski (alternate: Mr Adamczyk), Kuzmickas, Lopez Henares, Lupu (alternate: Mr Kelemen), Maginas, Medeiros Ferreira, Meier, Micheloyiannis, Mota Amaral, Mutman, Nedelciuc, Mrs Nemcova, MM Neuwirth, Oliynyk, Pahor, Palmitjavila Ribo, Prusak, de Puig, Mrs Ragnarsdottir, MM Schieder, Schloten, Selva (alternate: Mr Turini), Sinka, Mrs Smith, Mrs Stanoiu, Mrs Stepová, MM Surjan, Thoresen, Timmermans (alternate: Mrs Zwerver), Vella, Volcic, Zhebrovsky, N... (Italy) (alternate: Mr Diana).
N.B. The names of the members who took part in the meeting are printed in italics
Secretaries of the committee: Mrs Ruotanen, Mr Sich, Mrs Hügel