The European Union should make careful use of "carrots" with the authoritarian regime in Belarus in its attempts to boost democracy, the country's opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
One week after members of opposition organisations were arrested in Minsk, former opposition presidential candidate Milinkevich came to Brussels with Angelika Borys, chairwoman of the Union of Poles in Belarus. Borys' movement is an independent organisation representing a 400,000-strong Polish minority living in the country, but it is not recognised by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. She was one of the activists arrested for a few hours (EURACTIV 17/02/10).
During a four-day visit to Brussels, Milinkevich and Borys met European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, MEPs, European People's Party (EPP) chair Wilfried Martens and the new EU commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, Štefan Füle.
"Resolutions from the European Parliament are necessary but they are not sufficient," said Milinkevich. The European Parliament condemned on 24 February the harassment by Belarusian authorities of activists from the Union of Poles in Belarus.
MEPs urged Minsk to stop violating the principles of democracy and warned against further repression.
The Parliament debate was not followed by a vote on the resolution due to the position of the Socialists, who insisted that the EU assembly should first send a fact-finding mission to Belarus to assess the situation. The resolution is expected to be voted upon in March.
"We also need a concrete policy from the European Commission," said Milinkevich. According to the opposition leader, Belarus requires a 'step by step' policy. "Each time the Commission makes a step by providing financial help, the Belarusian authorities should make a step in terms of democracy and human rights," he claimed.
In this spirit, the Commission took on board Belarus in its European Neighbourhood Policy, and later the Eastern Partnership, on condition that the country embarks on fundamental democratic and economic reforms to bring it closer to common European values.
The Eastern Partnership is a Polish-Swedish initiative launched in May 2009, aimed at bringing six eastern post-Communist countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – closer to the European Union.
However, the former European Parliament Sakharov Prize winner deplored the lack of progress made by Belarus. "While political prisoners were freed, three other activists have been arrested for political reasons," he said.
"If Lukashenko's power wants to be accepted by European leaders, he should first make progress in the field of democracy and human rights," Milinkevich said, referring to the country's president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, known as 'Europe's last dictator'.
As for Euronest, the parliamentary assembly of the Eastern Partnership, Milinkevich said: "We cannot enter this programme by the back door."
In a December 2009 resolution, MEPs insisted that "Belarus will be invited to participate fully and on an equal basis in the Euronest Assembly […] as soon as free and fair elections to the Belarusian Parliament take place".
After some European Parliament voices claimed that Milinkevich's visit was mainly of interest to Polish MEPs, the opposition leader said that "Poland is an idea factory for Belarus as it is our closest neighbour, but many other politicians and numerous countries are supporting us".
"I'm happy by the meetings with […] all who feel concerned by the issue," he added.