25 March: Freedom Day in the state of Europe’s last dictator

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Today the Belarusian opposition is celebrating Freedom Day and this should be an occasion for the EU to remember its duty to promote democracy in these times of political turmoil: not just in North Africa, but also on its own doorstep, write Jacek Protasiewicz, Christofer Fjellner and Alexandr Milinkevich in this commentary.

Jacek Protasiewicz (Poland) and Christofer Fjellner (Sweden) are MEPs and members of the European People’s Party.

Alexandr Milinkevich is a Belarusian politician and was nominated by the leading opposition parties to run against incumbent Aleksander Lukashenko in the presidential elections of 2006.

He was subsequently arrested for encouraging civil disobedience and sentenced to 15 days of jail.

This analysis was sent exclusively to EURACTIV.

"After a brutal police crackdown on thousands of participants in peaceful demonstration organised by the opposition in the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential elections of 19 December 2010, and while the European Union is re-examining its policy towards Belarus, one question remains unanswered: What is the future of Belarus and its people?

25 March marks 96 days since the questionable re-election of Lukashenko. And 93 years since Belarus declared its independence. It is an important date for all Belarusians who believe in freedom and democracy and are fighting for it.

On 25 March 1918 the Belarusian People's Republic was proclaimed and the new independent democratic country appeared on the map of post-war Europe. Even if its independence did not last long, its traditions and symbols, including the white and red flag, have been cultivated by the government in exile and all those in the country who understand that they have a right to live in an independent and democratic Belarus.

They do not hesitate to risk their lives and health in the uneven fight for their basic rights with the rotten regime. Freedom Day for the democratic Belarusian opposition is a reminder to all Europeans and also to the dictator that he can jail people but he cannot jail their ideas and values. So they keep marching…

Do we Europeans meet them halfway then?

The ongoing spring of nations in our Southern Neighbourhood reflects the basic truth – repressive and self-destructive regimes ignoring the people and their well-being end with blood. Unfortunately Europe is not blameless. We failed to hear the appeals of the societies in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and we have failed to assist them in shaking off the burden of the authoritarian regimes.

Most importantly, we failed to come to this conclusion in time. Our policies proved to be at least partially ineffective. The current review of the EU Neighbourhood Policy is a good opportunity for Europe to reflect on the approach towards the neighbouring countries. Europe learned the lesson the hard way and is drawing conclusions.

Policy of more for more?

In order to make European tools and resources effective, the institutions must engage with third countries on the basis of commitment in their own governments to the progress in the area of human rights, the democracy-building process, and respect for the rule of law.

While negotiating with politicians we need to see the citizens and their needs. The dialogue produced between third countries and Europe must engage directly and be focused on civil society. We must not underestimate the importance of our technical and financial assistance to civil society organisations.

Democracy is for the people but more importantly democracy is possible because of the people, and in order to enable them to achieve this goal, the European Union's assistance is necessary.

European Gaddafi

While the world watches Libya, the European Union must not forget the veteran dictator in its own backyard. While re-examining its policy towards Belarus by reinstating the visa ban on the authorities and freezing the financial assets of the decision-makers, the EU must double its efforts to improve its engagement with the people of Belarus.

Providing the necessary financial assistance to all those repressed and harassed, as the European Commission and donors gathered a month ago in Warsaw declared to do, is only the first step. The EU is expected to double, to triple or even quadruple its efforts to reach all those in need. Efficient programmes and systems of grants need to be introduced in order to successfully support civil society organisations, independent media and democratic political parties.

The EU approach towards the regime itself has to be carefully reconsidered and well targeted implementation must take place. Along with other measures, economic sanctions should be considered and introduced in order to freeze the trade of the European industry with the state-owned companies financing Lukashenko. While denying the Belarusian politicians the right to travel to the EU, we must also intensify people-to-people contacts by, inter alia, lowering the Schengen visa costs.

This year is going to be an interesting test of the currently reviewed European Neighbourhood Policy. Coping with the situation in Northern Africa and achieving the goals of the Eastern Partnership initiative will demonstrate whether the European Union is capable of striking the right balance between its focus on the Eastern and Southern Neighbourhood while implementing the proper, effective, direct and holistic tools.

We believe that we need to help Belarusians carry on the red and white flag not only on 25 March, but on a daily basis. Europeans living in democracies must take the responsibility to help all those who are not."

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